Saturday, April 18, 2020
Virtual Sacraments are not Sacraments. . .
Why this is such a surprise I cannot fathom. Why do we struggle so to replace the real with the imagined in the mind or the image imprisoned upon the screen? Why do we tell ourselves the lie that watching on screen is the same as being there and feeding upon Christ in our hearts is the same as feeding upon His flesh in bread and His blood in wine? Why do we work so hard to make these live streamed or video services the equivalent of services where you sit in the pews, join your voices in song, confess the creed with one voice, hear the Word from lips, and eat the Eucharist placed upon your lips?
The whole attraction of virtual reality is that it is not real. It cannot be. The terms exclude each other. Virtual reality is a tool and an aid for many things but it is no substitute for reality. If someone chose to live in the virtual world of video games, we would suggest that there is something wrong there. So why have we come to presume that living in the virtual world of sacraments that are not there and a Word that is digitally conveyed is a real place to live? We console ourselves with the violence of many of these games by telling ourselves that it is not real and yet when it comes to worship on video screen, we act as if it were. Isn't there a mixed message in this?
The Church may have to forego meeting together for a time. War, pestilence, pandemic, and plague may preclude the reality of our gathering in one place together to hear and confess, to eat and drink. But we cannot allow the deception that they are the same. The water of baptism must be real water. The bread and wine of the Eucharist must be real bread and real wine. The two or three who are gathered in His name cannot be joined by technology and must be together in one place. It only works this way.
I get it. When times demand it and we cannot meet together in the Lord's House, we can console ourselves by watching as spectators what took place at another place and time or even what is taking place somewhere we are not. But at least let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this is the same, the equivalent, of reality. It may be the best we can do under the circumstances, but it is not the same. If we understand it in this way, it should build a yearning in us for that which is real. If we confuse the virtual with the real, we will not hunger or thirst for the Lord's House but will be satisfied to remain apart and to consume worship as a spectator consumes entertainment.
There were certainly theophanies in the Old Testament in which God appeared in human form but was not flesh and blood. Yet these did not suffice to save us. Only the God who took flesh from the Virgin and was born as every human child is born, grew into manhood, walked among us as one of us, suffered in real pain upon the cross and died a real death to free us from death. Only this is salvation. Not an appearance of God but the Godhead fully in Him who was born among us. And His resurrected life is not virtual or spiritual or somehow not real or else the grave will have won. No indeed. His resurrection is real -- from the touch of St. Thomas to the bread and fish eaten upon the beach in early morning to our own joyful resurrection in glorious flesh and blood.
Don't get me wrong. If watching on a screen is all we can do, do it. Do it prayerfully as one who watches from the perspective of the faithful desiring to be there. Dress up, give it your full attention, participate where you can (speaking the liturgy, singing the hymns, praying the prayers). But do not let this become a reality it is not. For if we teach ourselves to be satisfied with what is not real, we will be the poorer for it. Yes, the virtual may and must suffice when that is all we can have but it is not the reality that is our longing and desire and it is not the same as what God does in persona Christi when our Lord uses the voice and hands of the Pastor to absolve, proclaim, and distribute the eternal reality of the Gospel.
Be careful, my friends, in the way we rush to fill the void with a virtual reality that is not reality at all.