United by yearning—A different kind of World Communion Sunday is taking shape
Rev. Michael Woolf
October 1, 2020
As we approach World Communion Sunday, it seems obvious that this year’s celebration will be different due to COVID-19. Whether congregations have opted to celebrate communion online, or whether a tradition’s understanding of Eucharistic theology makes such a celebration impossible, many of us miss the weekly or monthly rhythm of communion. It was a time when we gathered around an ancient liturgy and tangible food and drink, committing ourselves to learning from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Our understandings of what took place in that sacred ritual differed, with some seeing the celebration as symbolic, others as a real presence, and still others as the body and blood of Jesus. Yet, on World Communion Sunday, we take time out of our church calendars to acknowledge that although we have different theologies, we are united by something deeper and more fundamental than our differences. What are we to do then, when we cannot participate in the very rite that unified Christians throughout the world?
Even for those Christians currently celebrating communion over platforms like Zoom or YouTube Live, the experience is different and more fragmented than they may prefer. I suggest that this year, what unifies Christians is the yearning for communion and the connection that it represents. Strangely, there is perhaps nothing more ecumenical than that unfulfilled desire in the midst of a pandemic, one of many missed points of connection. Indeed, it may be true that the desire and yearning we feel for communion may be an even firmer basis for our unity than communion itself. For, while there are certainly different shades of yearning, we have not yet been able to develop the sort of theological differences of interpretation that only centuries can bring. Yearning and desire can impact us on the plane of shared human experience, piercing through the ossified layers of difference that traditions have erected between themselves.
This year on World Communion Sunday, I suggest that what unifies Christians is the yearning for communion and the connection that it represents. Strangely, there is perhaps nothing more ecumenical than that unfulfilled desire in the midst of a pandemic, one of many missed points of connection.
Moreover, churches ought to embrace this World Communion Sunday as an opportunity to explore our longing for connection in more general ways. For the loss of this sacred meal also carries with it the symbolic loss of shared dinners and other gatherings that we have had to give up over the last 7 months. In the longing for communion, we are also invited to mourn the passage of birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations that went unmarked by in-person gatherings, instead celebrated with yard signs, Zoom calls, and waves from cars. Perhaps this can be a place in our calendar to name those losses and explore that experience together.
In marking such an occasion with the absence of the ritual that brings unity, we might be reminded of its value. Perhaps next year, we might see a flourishing of partnerships between churches with different theological understandings of communion coming together to proclaim their oneness in Jesus’ message and in an ancient rite that continues to center our shared lives. My suspicion is that the old adage is true: “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” If so, then may we experience a holy absence and a blessed lack in this time that makes us consider the value of communal life centered on bread and cup.
The Rev. Michael Woolf is senior minister, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Illinois and a ThD candidate at Harvard University.