Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why Skype helps us understand Christ's Presence at the Table

I struggle to articulate a view of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, particularly about views of Christ's presence. I think the Reformation debates were not so much about presence (sans Zwingli, of course) but about the means and modes of presence. Luther and his compatriots committed the unforgivable sin of mixing the humanity and divinity of Christ into a cocktail that allowed Christ to by present in his humanity everywhere: the infamous doctrine of ubiquity. Calvin says a solid "No" to this proposal, suggesting instead that we be lifted up into heaven with Christ. It is not that Christ's humanity is made present to us; we are made present to Christ's humanity. The Anglican way is somewhere in the midst of this morass, struggling around words like "sacrament," "presence," and "sacrifice" in order to find something, anything, that might account for the words of Scripture and the tradition of the Church.

If there is anything that the 39 Articles of Religion are clear about, it is the local presence of Christ's humanity in heaven. Here is the first mode of presence we need to discuss: local. To say that Christ is locally present in heaven is to say that the location  of Christ's resurrected humanity is there, not here. It affirms that we cannot be in the presence of his body and blood without being present there as well, and this is where Calvin's solution comes in. By means of the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually lifted into the presence of Christ, united with his humanity by grace through faith. This seems elegant to me, but I think we should explore some other modes of presence as well.

We can talk about symbolic presence. This might be closer to Zwingli than anything. One can be present with another when the second person uses authorized symbols of the first. In the Best Picture winner The Artist, the female lead experiences this kind of presence when she puts her arms through the sleeve of the absent Artist's coat and wraps herself in an embrace. Through the coat and her interaction with it (by faith?), the Artist was symbolically present to her. It was a real presence of sorts, though not a local presence.

We can also talk about hyper-presence, when a mediated version of a person is "more real" to us than the person him- or herself. If you have ever attended a conference where the speaker was projected onto a big screen, you've experienced this kind of hyper-presence. The screen is so big, and the person on it is so close, that it is common to experience shock when you turn to look at the person behind the podium. For a moment, the local presence of the person seems less real than the hyper-mediated presence of the person on the screen. Of course, you snap out of it, but that's the way it is.

Then, there is virtual presence. When Monique and I lived in Canada, it was difficult to get home for holidays. One Christmas, Monique's mother and brother came to visit. When they stepped through the opaque sliding doors of the international gates at Toronto's Pearson Airport, a jolt shot through me. I had expected to encounter the feeling of shock that rolls through you when your brain has to combine your old memories of a person to the living, moving, breathing person walking towards you. Instead, the jolt was of perfect recognition. I had the experience of having seen them before. Not only of having seen them, but of having been with them, a sense of their presence. A few days prior we had spoken on Skype. I was recoiling from a shared experience of presence, but a virtual presence instead of a local one.

The thing about virtual presence is that the medium of the presence becomes transparent to the person being made present by it. At Skype's best, I forget that I am talking to a computer screen. I am with the people on the other side. The medium disappears to my conscious experience, even though the entirety of my experience is made up only of the medium itself. We could even say that the medium is instrumentally effecting what it symbolizes; it is an "effectual sign" of the person's presence with me. Video chat made my wife's mother and brother present in a way they could not be otherwise. Even though the medium (video chat) is all my senses are really interacting with, I am truly communing with the people on the other side.

It is no difficult thing to extend this metaphor into the realm of the Eucharistic presence. It preserves the local presence elsewhere of the person with whom I am communing. The presence is mediated by an effectual sign of that person. It even involves a faith of sorts that allows me to treat the screen "as if" it were really the person I was talking to, instead of the zeros and ones that the representation really is. In fact, it would be wrong of me (and counter-productive) to commit the cynical and ultimately Zwinglian error of over-emphasizing that I am not talking to my mother-in-law, just zeros and ones. It would also be an error on the naive and ultimately medieval Catholic side to claim that the zeros and ones somehow have become my mother-in-law in order to mediate her real, personal presence to me.

In the same way, the Eucharistic bread and wine as media of Christ's personal presence preserve his local presence at the right hand of God the Father. The presence is mediated by an effectual sign of that person. It involves faith that looks beyond the "zeros and ones" of the bread and wine to the person whose presence is being mediated. It would be wrong of me to commit the cynical, Zwinglian error of over-emphasizing that the bread and wine are just bread and wine. It would also be an error to commit the credulous and medieval error that says the bread and wine have become, substantially, the Body and Blood. They really do give me, wholly and completely, the presence of Christ, and Christ would not be present in the same way without these forms in place. To focus on the "nature" of the zeros and ones entirely misses the point.

What is elegant about the "virtual presence" metaphor made possible by internet video chat is that it preserves what all sides are seeking to preserve while making it understandable that Christ might be wholly and personally present to us in the Eucharist. Like Calvin, we are present to Christ, just as I am present to my mother-in-law over Skype. Like the Zwinglians, I don't have to say that the medium is anything other than Bread and Wine wrenched to this use by the Spirit. Like the Catholics, I can say that the Lord really is present in his personal humanity with us here and now. Once the door is open, it is open.

And, remarkably, what this allows is for us to get that shock of recognition, of real personal recognition, when Jesus finally comes walking through the opaque glass doors that shut us off from his home in Heaven.

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