It is the Second Sunday of Easter: Thomas Sunday, some call it, because on this day every year we read the story of the disciple Thomas. Thomas was not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the resurrection. When he heard of the appearance, he said, “Unless I see the marks on his hands and put my finger into the wound in his side, I will not believe.”
I must say that I am a Thomas fan. First of all, he was obviously a gutsy guy. He was not behind locked doors as were the other disciples. Apparently, he was getting on with his life, or, perhaps, his grief was such that he needed to be alone with it. I get that. Second of all, his relationship with Jesus was so strong, such a personal experience, that he had to have that experience for himself truly to join the others in rejoicing that “the Lord is risen indeed.” It’s important to note that he simply wanted what the other disciples already had.
I don’t see Thomas as a “doubter.” I see him as an insistently faithful person who simply needed to experience, “see,” for himself. That is simply human. On St. Thomas’ Day (December 21) The Book of Common Prayer has us pray that “we might perfectly and without doubt believe.” What hogwash. If there is to be revision of the Prayer Book, that prayer is on my list as the first to go. Doubt—the need to see—is an important part of faith, not its opposite. How about: “Help us see through our doubts and fears the risen Christ present with us always.”
What Thomas is saying to me in this time of COVID quarantine is that it is all right for me to long to see. In particular, it is all right for me to long to see Christ’s presence in the sacrament of his presence. For me Communion is not only about physically receiving, although I will gladly take that any day. It is about presence.
I am reminded of a quote from James De Koven (1831-1879), who was one of the leaders of the liturgical revival in The Episcopal Church in the 19th century. De Koven was elected bishop of Illinois in 1875, but was refused consent by the larger church because of his “extreme” views on liturgical practice, or, what in his day was called “ritualism.” His theological and experiential standard was the objective Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
De Koven said, in a speech to the General Convention of 1874, that the various ritual practices which were so controversial at the time (all of which are now commonplace in The Episcopal Church) were of utter indifference to him. What was essential was this: “To adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart.”
What De Koven was pleading for was the right to see the presence of Christ, and to respond with praise and thanksgiving.
This was the tradition in which I was raised in the church and it is the experience of my faith, which in that presence, as St. Paul says, I find “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” (2 Cor. 13:13)
Some will say—and I do not argue that they must understand this as I do—that this objective presence cannot be transferred via electronic means, over distance. I might have argued the same at one time. But now in this present-day circumstance in which we are cut off from physical reception of the Sacrament, I find the watching of a full service of The Eucharist to be life-giving.
Succinctly put, I need to see.
My bishop has called our diocese to a “holy fast” from Communion during this time of “stay-at-home” orders. I am obeying him. I am worshiping with my parish without communion (we do a prayer for “spiritual communion”). I am a priest, but I am deliberately not celebrating the Eucharist at home because of my bishop’s call. But I am also participating in an on-line Eucharist from Washington Cathedral. For those who cannot physically receive there is also a prayer for spiritual communion. I find the spiritual communion with my parish to be just so many words. That of the Cathedral fills my heart because I have celebrated in that Presence and can see it.
This is not meant as criticism of anyone, just as De Koven’s speech was not critical of liturgical practices other than his own. He was stating what he experienced, and I am doing the same.
Again, I need to see.
 De Koven’s speech was during consideration of a change to the canons which would have had the effect of banning the use of incense, the display of any crucifix, the elevation of the consecrated elements of Holy Communion in such a way as might encourage adoration of them, and bowing, genuflecting, or any other gesture of adoration to those elements. All are now commonplace in Episcopal churches. De Koven is now on The Episcopal Church’s calendar of lesser feasts, on March 22.