In these past few months, which have unpropitiously—or, perhaps, fortuitously and providentially—included the holiest days of the Christian year—the Triduum—American Catholics have found themselves in the unusual predicament of having regular access to Mass unavailable to them. Even in typing out that overlong sentence, it becomes clear how narrowly—geographically and historically speaking—widespread access to the Eucharistic feast has been an assured constant in the lives of Catholic Christians. Throughout Christian history and still today in the Amazon, rural North America, the Middle East, and Asia, Christians have found themselves prevented from participating in the sacrament that is the source and summit of the Christian faith. In solidarity with the Christians we too often forget, most Catholic Christians across six of Earth’s seven continents find themselves now in the third month of Sundays without Mass, days uninterrupted by a thirty-minute liturgy of thanks.
Our states seem to be on the cusp of re-opening, Churches about to host again the celebrations of the Eucharist. It seems that in-person Mass attendance is imminent for the physically fit. We are eager to “return to normal,” find a “new normal,” and relegate our experience of eucharistic deprivation to an uncomfortable episode that we can quickly leave behind. But perhaps we would do well not to let the uncomfortable solidarity of sacramental deprivation in which we have been dwelling pass without reflection.
The hearts of the Church’s members yearn to participate in the Eucharistic feast, but the promise of Christ to remain with his Church, always, to the end of the world (Mt 28:20), while sacramentally fulfilled by the Eucharist, is a promise that holds true even in spaces where the Eucharist is not. Christ’s presence in his mystical body—the Church—opens up endlessly new spaces in which we can participate as an ecclesial body in this strange new time.
Empowered by the reality of the mystical body of Christ, present in the Eucharist and in the fundamental sacrament of the Church, Catholic Christians can use the new tools and spaces of their particular epoch to create new forms of communion and offer new modes of witnessing. While I remain deeply skeptical of the internet, screens, and digital communication, it is clear that whatever space that opens up, Christ can be made present there. If Christ can harrow even hell, it seems quite possible he can redeem Twitter.
In response to the isolations and distancings of COVID-19, the Church has responded in creative ways to the absence of our physical celebration in the Eucharist. These stop-gap measures merit theological reflection, since, as actions of the Church, they are inherently theological actions. There are two forms of these liturgies I will examine, which have raised theological questions for me concerning their nature and action. The first liturgical form is digitally participating in live-stream Masses. While debates go back and forth regarding the benefits of live-stream Masses, the live-stream Mass has been the mode by which many Church members who are homebound, elderly, or ill have attended Mass before the current pandemic.
But, before examining this more popular form, I will examine a liturgical form that held surprising profundity in my experience of it: the lay-led Liturgies of the Word. Empowered by the Eucharist, by Christ’s presence in his mystical body, Christ is truly present wherever Christians gather in his name (Mt 18:20). Christ is present in the prayer happening via video call, in private homes, or among families participates memorially, albeit not sacramentally, in the liturgical actions of the Eucharist. These lay-led prayers recreate liturgical participation in a particularly poignant and theologically compelling manner. This essay is an attempt to both share my own experience of prayer in a time of pandemic and to offer a theological explanation for how the grace of the Eucharist operates in the liturgies of these lay actions and digital spaces.
The two primary tensions in the phenomena of digital witnessing to Eucharistic celebrations that must be addressed are the physical and spiritual participation and the local and universal dimensions of the Eucharistic celebration.
The Eucharistic celebration is always the action of the whole Church, not simply of the priest. It is a sacrifice offered in the name of and with the Church universal. Wherever the Mass is celebrated, the whole Christ is there, meaning that Christ’s mystical Body, the Church, is present there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Church as, inseparably, the liturgical assembly, the local community, and the whole universal community of believers (§752). “The Church” is constituted of the persons throughout the whole world whom God gathers together through the sacrament of Baptism.
This universal Church is physically incarnated in local communities and is made present as a liturgical celebration in that local community. The Church, the sacrament of Christ in the world, expresses herself most fully in the Eucharist, the paradigmatic sacrament of the Church, who is the sacrament of Christ. As part of Christ’s mystical body, the local church can never be separated from the Church Universal. Thus, each local celebration includes members of the local community who may not be gathered physically at the Eucharistic table and all those members of the Body of Christ, on either side of death, who are alive in Christ. The Eucharistic banquet is a local gathering of a universal communion.
When we witness a Mass via live-stream, we are bearing witness to a local action whose locality we may or may not share. We enter, as witnesses, into the action of a local Church community. But without our physical presence in that shared locality, what does it mean to participate with that local congregation in the Eucharist?
Furthermore, digital liturgies question the limits of “locality” and “presence.” As we witness digital, remote Masses, we no longer are simply spiritually present to that Mass as part of the mystical universal body of Christ. What, then, is the nature of our digital-physical presence at the banquet of the Lord?
The path forward through these tensions that I will propose is memory. Lay liturgical celebrations and remote participation in local Eucharistic celebrations are driven by the fundamental action of the Eucharistic liturgy, anamnesis.
A Digital Triduum
As news of COVID-19 swamped the headlines, as Masses in Italy began to be canceled, and as Lent all too quickly approached Easter, I began to dread its impact on the approaching Triduum. Inevitably, Masses were canceled—and would stay canceled through Easter. In an already devastating news cycle, that realization was greeted with the numb sorrow that permeated March 2020.
But the disruption of liturgical routine is in step with the kairos of the moment. The world has been thrown into a crisis, in the socio-political sense, in a Barthian one. The Church has the capacity, the theological tradition, and the scope of sacramental imagination to respond to watershed moments like the current crisis with creative hope and faith. The Spirit of God assures us that God acts and that God is not bound by the past, but that God is “doing a new thing” (Is 43:19). We can be sure that, just like our brothers and sisters who go without the Eucharist throughout the world on a regular basis, that God is with us in this unexpected and disturbing moment. In a crisis, the liturgies we celebrate, as expressions of our public witness, respond to the reality of God’s continued presence in the Church, even in an environment that poses barriers to the Church’s physical gathering.
Instead of live-streaming services, for the Easter Triduum this year, I participated in lay-led liturgies. Although scattered across the country, a community gathered in an Upper Room of Zoom, digitally bearing witness to the threads of friendship and networks of connection that bind members of Christ’s Church together across state lines and time zones.
First, my experience of participation in the Triduum was due in large part to the traditional practices of physical extra-liturgical experiences. The importance of the Great Fast on Good Friday became doubly significant, as it marked, in a manner the missing liturgy usually did, the liturgical significance of the day. Although unable to gather and participate in the liturgy of Christ’s Passion, our bodies were able to observe Christ’s suffering and death through their hunger. This reemphasized the singular importance of extra-Eucharistic practices in the Church’s liturgical life.
Second, the physical symbols of the liturgy took on a deep significance. On the Easter Vigil, our senses are immersed in physical symbols. Playing with the dualisms of Christianity (light and darkness, the earthy and transcendent, death and life in the waters of Baptism), the Easter Vigil offers a rich cornucopia of sensory memories. In our Zoom liturgy, we began the Easter Vigil liturgy in a dark kitchen. My roommate and I passed the light of Christ between our household candles, recalling the Vigil’s opening liturgy of light. Together, my roommate and I lit a homemade Paschal Candle, in front of a small Pyrex bowl baptismal font.
These symbols clarified the sacramental focus of the Easter Vigil—Baptism. While we missed the full Easter Vigil celebration in the Eucharistic feast, we celebrated the Easter Vigil’s chief liturgical significance as the celebration of Christian initiation. As the traditional celebration for the baptism of new members into the Church, the Easter Vigil remains the night each year in which each member of the Church recommits herself to her own Baptism. Through the recitation of the baptismal promises, each member of the Church commemorates their initiation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. At each Easter Vigil, Christ’s ecclesial body crosses with Christ through death to new life in God (Rom 6:3). The catechumenate does this through their baptism and confirmation, and the Body of the Church does this through the profession of our baptismal vows. Although there was no Mass, our Zoom congregation repeated the solemn promises of our baptism, commemorating our baptism into life in God.
By our interactions with one another, we witnessed physically and digital to the liturgical memories of the Easter Vigil. Participating in the essential actions of the liturgy, our digital liturgy created a secondary order of commemoration. Through our unified remembrance of the symbols of the Easter Vigil, we created a space of memory, a community of witness.
The Zoom community participated spiritually with the churches throughout the world celebrating the Vigil at that moment. But through our physical actions and gathering in the present, through the physical forms of the liturgy, we made our memories of the Triduum present in the here and now. The digitally witnessing community made our past physical experiences of the liturgy present again through our collective remembering. These liturgical actions via Zoom found their source in the memorial action of the Eucharist. Our digital observance and witnessing to the mass is an action derived from the Mass’ own anamnesis.
Most Catholics, myself included, have found our physical participation in Mass each Sunday relegated to watching the Mass via live-stream, through praying together, or spiritual recollection. Our absence from the Eucharistic table can create the false impression that the laity’s presence at the Eucharistic table is inessential. But lay participation in the liturgy is not ancillary to the celebration of the Eucharist. Canon Law insists, “Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful” (Can. 906). Our participation is not optional. Augustine insists that the Church, its laity and its clergy, are all members of the whole Christ. “To [Christ’s] flesh the Church is joined, and so there is made the whole Christ, Head and body.”[i] The Mass is not the private action of the priest, but always, everywhere, the action of the mystical body of Christ constituted by the baptized community of the faithful.
Thus, the laity are called to active participation in the Eucharist, to offer the actions of their bodies and souls in the participation in the ritual of anamnesis. Our participation in the Eucharist is fundamentally a spiritual reality. The Mass is a cosmic action of the whole Christ, drawing all creation together at the Eucharistic table as an offering to the Father. All members of the Body of Christ are included and offered up in the action of the Eucharist. Our spiritual participation in the Eucharistic banquet, then, continues, despite our physical absence from the Mass.
But far from precluding physical participation, spiritual participation in the Eucharist necessarily leads to physical participation. Our physical participation in the sacrament is not a parallel participation to our spiritual partaking, rather it is the action that necessarily follows from the spiritual communion. Our physical participation in Christ’s gift of self is the necessary expression of the spiritual partaking. This physical expression of spiritual communion is enacted most properly and fully in the sacramental participation in the Eucharist.
If we watch or listen to a liturgy via live-stream, our participation is no longer simply spiritual. Our ears, eyes, and bodies witness the celebration of the Mass. Our eyes are physically witnessing something, our ears hear words. Our tongues move in harmony with the prayers of the Mass, or if we choose to pray silently, the synapses in our brains move without the tongues. Our bodies may move to genuflect or stand, or they may sit on the couch, but nevertheless, they are physically participating.
These secondary physical participations witness to the primary physical participation of the local church community in the Eucharist. With our bodies, we become an appendage to the local gathering body. As we watch or listen to the Mass remotely, we participate physically in its memory.
What is meant here by memory? By memory, I mean the action of communal commemoration. Memory is the act of making that which is not currently present present in our own particular here and now. When a communal remembering is “snatched out of its ‘pastness’ to become a living genesis of today.”[ii] In our own particular lives, we know that a picture can make present to our hearts the same joy we felt in the moment of the memory, a particular room or school building can summon up memories of old faces, meeting an old friend can recall to the present a version of ourselves that has past. The Eucharistic prayer’s anamnesis, a sacramental making-present the memory of what has past, is a communal sacramentalization of this function of human memory.
From its inception, the all-consuming monolith of the internet has daunted cautious minds with its labyrinthine limitlessness. A Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, tantalizing with the fruit of endless search engine answers, the internet is also a space that offers the simulacrum of unlimited connection, unfettered by borders, time or space. The internet plays directly into our curiositas and concupiscence—it offers us seemingly unlimited fodder for our acquisitive desires.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the power technology has to connect us and the great joy that meeting via digital platforms can bring. But it has also emphasized for us how poor a substitute for personal, physical contact digital connection is. Video conferencing may seem like a simple simulacrum of conversation, but academics inform us that our bodies innately respond differently to communication over a screen. In the absence of physical contact, our minds have to process information through verbal cues that would otherwise be communicated between bodies. Living our lives in what some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs might deem the most efficient manner, operating out of a single space, only emphasizes our dependence on our surrounding environment and contextual community to act (and live) appropriately.
Despite plentiful critiques of its effect on our brains, hearts, and bodies, the internet, at its best, is meant to be—and can be—a space of witnessing memory. At its (rarely seen) best, the internet offers users the opportunity to bear witness, dimly, as in a mirror, to others’ lives. Through social media, we participate in the memories of others, on the internet, memories are continually snatched out of their “pastness” and into the present of commemoration. “Live-streamed” events heighten this participatory nature, as we participate in the memory and fact of the event as it is occurring.
Made possible by the internet’s nature as a space of witnessing memory, listening to or watching a Mass via live-stream is different than other forms of observing. Watching a play in a theatre is not an act of memory, the play’s action occurs before the audience on the stage, the audience lives in the present moment with it, their breath, attention, and imagination are essential participants in the fact of the play’s happening. Watching a movie is not an act of memory, since the story happens outside of the viewers’ realm of experience and physical location. The audience is not invited to participate, but rather to meditate upon the events unfolding on film. But the internet and other spaces that host “live” events function as unique spaces of witnessing memory. The audience is invited to “bear witness” to an event in which they are not essential participants.
Witnessing an event via a screen, however, can never be a full, direct participation in the instant of its happening, as we are removed from the event by both distance and by time. As anyone who has experienced a five-second delay or a lag between the audio and video of a film can attest, in a live-streamed video event, we are not perfectly “live” or in the moment of the event. Our witnessing is mediated by a secondary space.
While our witnessing participation is not a full participation, through live-streams, we are present in a unique space and manner to a particular celebration of the Eucharist by a local community. The action of witnessing an event by participating in the fact of it happening in a space in which we are not located but that we make present in our own here-and-now is an action of memory. The event is snatched from its pastness and is made present in communal commemoration.
The Mass is always an act of remembrance, anamnesis, the sacramental action of liturgical, communal memory. Our digital participation in the memory of the Eucharistic celebration draws its life from that anamnesis that is the fundamental action of the mystery of Eucharistic celebrations. Absent the ability to participate sacramentally, we, as the Body of Christ, can physically commemorate our participation in the Lord’s banquet in a para-liturgical manner, through these digital spheres, these “second line Eucharists.”
Second Line Parades and Second Eucharists
In New Orleans, second line parades are an established tradition of liberation, with its roots in African American resistance to the oppression of the human slave trade. Sponsored by New Orleans’ Social, Aid, & Pleasure Clubs, exuberant brass band and jazz parades are a pillar of New Orleans culture. The “second line” refers to the neighbors and the community members who accompany the main “first line” band in the parade. Although not constitutive of the parade proper, the second line members, like the band members, participate in the essential function of the parade. Their accompaniment is an act of witness, a secondary participation in the superabundant, overflowing celebration of the parade band itself.
Their action, although taking place in the present, is a sacrament of memory. The second-line band makes present the music of the main band in a new geography, in a new temporospatial locality, in new bodies. Their music brings to a new present, in a new moment, the action of the main band. Their communal action brings alive into their own secondary community the living action of the principal band. Together, making music, the second line’s actions call to mind its traditions deep roots in memories of liberation and resistance. Contemporary second line bands bring into the present its deep past of celebration and enaction of freedom from enslavement, making the past present in the here and now.
Our liturgical celebrations of the past two months have broken open a new liturgical space, or perhaps more properly, brought into the mainstream of American Catholic consciousness a liturgical space that was created with the first broadcast Mass on live television. Then, and now, in Masses streamed on the internet, this digital presence at the table of the Lord enacts a “second line Eucharist.” The second line Eucharists are an act of ecclesial memory by which we are able to witness to the Church’s sacramental remembering occurring in Eucharistic liturgies across the world.
Our extra-liturgical participations that spring from the spiritual reality and the physically expressed memory of our liturgical actions are these second line Eucharists. As we participate in a live-streamed Mass, physically bearing witness through our ears, our voices, our eyes, or our bodies to the local community elsewhere, we make present the function of the universal church. Our spiritual participation bears fruit in a new kind of physical participation. The community we build with one another, on the margins of the liturgy, creates a new expression of the Church’s life, a rich para-liturgical participation in the Eucharistic sacrament.
Found in the lay-led gatherings via a video call, by which we gather together in a physical commemoration of Eucharistic gatherings, and in houses across the world, streaming Mass onto a screen, second line Eucharists are the joyful expression of the sacrament of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. The Church’s fundamental identity is the remembering Body who eternally, perpetually, snatches the historical memory of Christ’s love unto the end out of the past into the present, so that his sacrifice is the “living genesis”[iii] of each moment of the Church’s existence today.
Renée Darline Roden, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, is as an editor and playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Howlround Theatre Commons, America, and Dappled Things.
[i] Augustine, Sermon on 1 John, §1.2
[ii] L-M. Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 233.