‘Sorry…We’re CLOSED’: Thinking Sacramentally about the Challenges of COVID-19 on Church Closures and the Sacraments

This paper attempts to think sacramentally about the challenges of COVID-19 on church closures and identifies the question of what constitutes “real” sacramentality or experiences of grace in the absence of physical sacraments due to closures as the primary challenge. Despite this, the author argues that our focus as sacramental theologians should not be whether grace can be located solely inside (condensed sacramentality) or outside (disseminated sacramentality) the confines of the church, but how the faithful are to appropriately encounter grace and position themselves in relation to it in the wilderness of COVID-19.

By shifting the conversation to how the faithful can reorient themselves to the presence of grace in the wilderness, the paper explores two models for thinking about appropriate orientation to grace in a sacramental worldview.

The first model draws from the work of sacramental theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet who understands faith as being structured not only by the institutional sacraments, but the spirit of the sacraments. He warns against a form of sacramental idolatry he calls necrotic temptations which hinders authentic faith and prevents encounter with grace. The second model draws from the work of orthodox theologian Christina M. Gschwandtner who focuses on postures of gesture and finitude in relation to the sacral mysteries, arguing that the giving over of our bodies to vulnerability can become a gift to God and the other.

The paper concludes that both thinkers open us up to the sacramental principle of recognition as the appropriate orientation to grace. Recognition involves the giving over of the body to vulnerability both as a gift to be given and a return gift to be received by the community. This orientation helps us avoid the urge to control God via neuroticism while also respecting our finitude as human beings which exposes our genuine existential anxiety.