Mesa Sagrada: The Sacred Table in the Virtual World

One sunny spring afternoon my husband of twelve years left the house for a basic grocery store run and was killed in a car accident.

Our children were five, eight, and ten at the time.  Shock and trauma filled our days and we had a lot of questions for God. Questions that kept us away from church for some time, questions that eventually led us back.

One Sunday morning, I sat them down and looked at their small hurting faces and  announced that we were indeed going to go to church. I was immediately met with protest. I took a deep breath, prayed, and what came out of my mouth surprised all of us.

I explained to them how in the Lutheran church there were special, extraordinary things. These things were called “liturgy” and “hymns.” These were things the people of God had been using for worship for generations, they provide comfort in times of pain and serve as a way to build community. The repetition provides a way for the mind to put to memory words and songs that come to mind at times of need.

At the time my five year old could recite much of the service from memory because he had been attending church since his birth and he had heard the words repeatedly. I told my children that if they didn’t want to participate then they didn’t have to. They could simply sit in the pews and let the songs, prayers and words wash over them. “Let the church be the church; let them speak and sing for you and embody the Spirit. You can just sit there and cry. Participate or don’t. God loves you no matter what. God is present no matter what.”

I explained to them that the only place I would encourage them to participate would be at the Lord’s Table. Communion.  I told them this place was special because it was a place where we don’t have to do, or say anything. We just get to receive God and God’s grace.

My kids were deep in their grief. So telling them they didn’t have to do anything in order to receive any kind of love was a relief to them. They were still new to the concept of grace. 

The means of grace explained to kids who were grieving went like this: 

“When the pastor calls us to the table and we all gather around it, I want you to know that we are gathering with those who have gone before us, people like my grandfather and your dad. When we take the bread and drink the cup there is an amazing thing that happens. It is an extraordinary moment when we are present with one another while simultaneously being present with Christ and our ancestors, with everyone who has loved you and has passed on. We are all gathered together at the table.  When you receive the bread and the wine today, you are also receiving God’s presence — and your dad’s presence too.”

This explanation struck a chord with them. After a little crying and comforting each other, we got dressed and went to church.

We nervously hopped out of the car and were immediately greeted by members of the church. All of them were happy (and surprised!) to see us. They smiled, hugged us, and told us how much they missed us. 

I noticed the children were quiet for most of the service. No one made a fuss or asked them to join in. When the Great Thanksgiving began, my eyes filled with tears as I listened to the Words of Institution – this time with a new understanding. 

Then I felt a small, pudgy hand grab mine as the ushers came to our aisle. Each child looked over at me, looking for a direction. I looked at their small faces and said, “Come on let’s go feast with daddy.” 

That morning we gathered around the sacred table. We saw it set with the chalice, the plate, the bread and the wine. We gathered with each other, with the congregation, and the cloud of witnesses. 

This Cloud of Witnesses is this invisible church that stretches across time and space. It is a virtual church and meets us at the places we set and gather.  It is virtual in that we cannot physically see it, but is present in incomprehensible ways. God’s presence is not limited by time, space or place nor is God’s grace. Every time I take communion I think of this. I think about this sacred presence extended to me, my children, their father and others. This virtual space, this sacred space is not one we can physically see, but it is present in the communion with loved ones. 

***

Deep theological discussions regarding the presence of Christ and the reality of community in receiving the meal have surfaced among my clergy colleagues and parishioners. In particular, we are talking about the presence of Christ in the meal in a time of social isolation and increased necessary usage of technology.

We are asking, “Is Christ present in the meal if we celebrate through a computer screen?”

In my conversations, however, I have noticed something – something I notice on a daily basis because of where I find myself in the world: Latina, female, an  immigrant, and ordained in a predominantly white Christian denomination. The majority of insights I have heard and read have come from white individuals, and often those are from men in positions of power or privilege. 

Similar to many other conversations in the church, those with the most privileges are quick to share their scholarly opinion on a matter, to speak on behalf of a tradition whose mission it is to serve the least among us.

As a liberation theologian, I find myself frequently remembering the encouragement from those who have gone before me to break from any and all elitist notions of Church and return all agency to the people, particularly those with the least control and power.

By involving the poor in their own liberation and offering Christianity as a tool that leads us toward a more perfect society, liberation theologians have dramatically changed the relationship between not only the Church and the state as well as Church and the people. 

In liberation theology the oppressed are set free. We are not just called to be with people on the margins — we are called to empower them. This empowerment happens when we are called to the table, when we are all equally loved and extended grace despite our circumstances. Today, those who need the most empowerment are those who have mobility issues, have no community to shelter with, and have poor or no internet connection. By providing virtual ways of gathering, faith communities are providing empowerment in ways many of us have never dreamt of before.

We are now in a time of severe isolation and physical separation so that we might prevent ourselves and our neighbors from becoming infected with the coronavirus. This has led to all in-person worship services to no longer meet in-person and move to alternative platforms.

What might a liberationist perspective on offering communion through online worship look like? How are we being called to empower individuals as they are sheltering in place?

***

At the time of Justin’s death, we were living in the backwoods of Alaska. I was far away from my family and the Latin community. After my husband died, my community showed up for me and empowered me in ways that extended beyond the walls of our church. 

I was not ordained yet, but was serving as Mission Developer in the Alaskan synod. I had begun a small missional community. The group was filled with Latin Americans and was named Mesa Sagrada, or Spanish for “The Sacred Table”. This community would gather weekly with one another and do liturgy all over dinner. Church was at the table.

One afternoon, a member from Mesa Sagrada paid me a visit. She was an older Mexican woman who had brought over sweet bread for cafecito, or “little coffee.” We were having an afternoon coffee break. It was autumn and she was preparing for El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. As a Latina, I was well aware of what El Día de los Muertos was, but as a Costa Rican, it is not as common in my culture as in other Latin American countries to celebrate the day.

We sat with our coffee and pan dulce and she described all the items she was intending to gather in order to prepare her home altar for the holiday. She asked me if I had everything I needed for mine. This stopped me in my tracks. I had never celebrated the holiday.

That afternoon this woman encouraged me to practice Day of the Dead, to build my own altar, and to teach the practice to my children.

She taught me how to make an altar. We went through a box of pictures and picked out the perfect one of my beloved Justin. I found ones of my grandparents and friends who had passed and I set off to find ornate picture frames to display them in.

Building the altar for Day of the Dead is sacred and requires intentionality. It is a space to honor and remember those who have gone before us. 

For generations, women have been teaching their daughters and granddaughters how to honor their ancestors. These holy days from October 28 to November 2,  El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and El Día de Todos Santos (All Saint’s Day) commemorates loved ones through rituals that honor people’s lives and marks when they passed into the heavenly realms. All members of the family participate by decorating the altar, designing sugar skulls, preparing favorite foods of those who have passed, baking specific bread and painting our faces as catrinas. 

The items on the altar remind us that, although we are in this world, we are not far from the other. And then we do something amazing: we feast. At times this is done at the burial site eating food alongside the dead. When we are far removed from those sacred spaces we do so virtually, at home beside the altar.  

In preparing our altars, we are preparing our tables for loved ones to join us. We gather in community with them.

Heavenly presence overlaps with the earthly presence. We are reminded that only a thin veil divides us.

It is in that overlapping that we feel the presence of our loved ones. It is in that overlapping that we feel the presence of God, too.

***

California has been in lockdown for the last three weeks and I have been social distancing for 29 days now. As a result of this, the community I serve has not been able to meet physically during this time. However, we maintain weekly, sometimes daily virtual meetings to help us stay connected. 

This pandemic has left me raw. It has me physically, emotionally, and spiritually undone.

When I come to these virtual spaces, I am hungry for grace. I allow the liturgy to wash over me. I am reminded that by just being in the space, letting the church be the church, God is present there. And I do not need to do a thing. I can be more vulnerable. I can come as I am: in my pajamas, having just cried or not showered. 

These virtual spaces have become safe space, a holy space. We are bare and we stand on holy ground. 

The individuals in my virtual gatherings are allowing themselves to become more vulnerable too. Our forced division has not hindered our connectedness. When I am communing with folks online, our geographically distant realms meet. They overlap for a moment and I am again reminded that it is only a veil that separates us.

The virtual overlaps with the tangible.

And you know what? I believe God meets us in the overlapping.

Virtual gathering is real, it is an embodied tangible community and it has become central to my experience as a believer. I feel that and so do those across the virtual realm.

When we gather around the altar on El Dia de los Muertos, I am able to express myself in ways I am not able to do when we gather physically. Our ofrendas, or offerings, invite us to bring parts of ourselves that might not be accessible when we gather physically. Our ancestors, my grandfather and my husband, join us as we build the altars, set the table, and feast together. 

As we find ourselves talking about the presence of Christ and all the saints who have gone before us in the practice of communion, I can’t help but think that in setting the table for eucharist, we are setting an altar with those living and los muertos and Christ is present. 

Like the altar, this virtual table we are now setting is a different kind of table where everyone gathered is invited to bring parts of themselves as well as the rich history handed to us from saints who have come before us. 

When we bring all our pieces together, holy ground is created. Community is present. God is present. 

***

Even though we are building connections virtually, the physical restrictions are growing more intense by the day. This week more folks have started wearing masks and gloves whenever they leave the house. Another step of separation. The world of social distancing is isolating, sterile, and quiet. It disconnects us from one another physically, but, I think miraculously, connects us in other ways.

Believers across the globe are connected in our intention to gather even in the midst of orders to shelter in place and maintain a 6 foot distance from each other.

We are connected by our intention to create new spaces to worship.

My mind travels back to my ancestors, those whose pictures I lay on my altar every November. I think of the manner in which we have taught and continue to teach future generations how to set up an intentional space and I can’t help but wonder:

Why would we want to keep people away from a means of grace that they can tangibly touch and feel and drink and prepare in their own homes?

I am an ELCA Lutheran pastor, a tradition that finds its roots in the Reformation. In many ways this reminds me of the move from Latin to German during the time of The Reformation, a move from the officially-sanctioned archaic language to the common vernacular.

The common vernacular of the world today, right now in the midst of COVID-19 and social distancing, is virtual. We speak technologically. Our language and our practice lives in the virtual realm.

The virtual world is accessible and remains connected to nearly anyone in the physical world. The Reformation was a way to move toward a world where even the least privileged folks wouldn’t need a translator to access God.

By participating in Eucharist virtually we are providing a space for individuals to understand Holy Communion on a deeper level. It allows for discussion and sharing of grace in ways that are not available elsewhere. It also serves as an invitation for believers to connect with our ancestors, those who have been at the mesa sagrada and continue to be at the table even though they are not physically present.

***

For generations, Latin Americans have taught their children how to prepare their home altars in a reverent manner. This same reverence, care and love can be displayed as we ready the Lord’s Table in our own homes. 

Why is it that the church is not teaching the lay community to do so now with the Lord’s Table? As a part of a predominantly white denomination I believe it is time we take the opportunity to learn from other cultural traditions. We, as Christians and as communities of God’s creation, are losing an opportunity to “make disciples of all nations” when we recommend to our congregations that we “fast” from administering the Eucharist. My home and family have been forever marked by the presence of our ancestors. I believe it is beneficial, especially in a time of social distancing, to forever mark our homes with traces of the holy meal. To be reminded regularly that “at all times and at all places” Christ is present. 

Practicing the Eucharist in our homes makes sense to this time and this place. Practicing it virtually alongside other believers is necessary. The table looks differently than we have ever experienced before but we are still setting the table.  

Communion does two things.

It builds community. That’s in the name.

It also offers God’s presence without us needing to do anything to ask for it or receive it. We just get to be there as God resides among us while we eat and drink.

I believe real presence is in the meal and in the lives of those that taste and see – no matter how, when, or where we have the meal.

I believe that we, as pastors, deacons, and lay people can facilitate real presence in many ways into the lives of those who wish to be a part of the body of Christ. I believe I have been called to do just that.

Let the church be the church. We are all called to facilitate, witness, engage in the overlapping of virtual and physical realms and to stand in awe of the Spirit’s presence. 

22 thoughts on “Mesa Sagrada: The Sacred Table in the Virtual World

  1. Brilliant, vulnerable, challenging, teaching, loving, honest, tearful— words and emotions that came to me when I read this. I look forward to more from you, dear Hazel.

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  2. Pr. Hazel, I so appreciate your sharing these thoughts with us. Your reminding us that “although we are in the world, we are not far from the other”reasonated with me..to think that no matter whether we be together physically or online, we can share in Jesus’s presence along with those who have gone on before us.
    It was good to hear ok once again that I don’t have to to do anything, or be anything , to have grace wash over me.
    It was really nice to have had you as our guest preacher st St. Pauls..

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  3. Beautiful and so eloquent in a context that we all have asked, why not partake of communion in our homes! Such a meaningful piece that brought tears to my eyes and closer to you my sister in Christ!
    Blessings

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  4. This is stunningly beautiful, and has opened up for me even further how communing virtually at home connects us with our ancestors and with God who is already present. Thank you, Hazel.

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  5. Oh Hazel, I don’t know you, but you are my sister! Thank you for sharing your family story, leading us as “isolated yearning for Word and Sacrament Lutherans” to a familiar safe place of refuge at the Table! Sharing with my community, Salt and Light Lutheran in Portland Oregon

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  6. Thank you Hazel! Your words remind me that I am not alone in my vulnerability as I wake up each day to meet the challenges of caring for others…and myself. “God meets us in the overlapping” and “These virtual spaces have become safe space, a holy space. We are bare and we stand on holy ground.” These quotes provide me with so much comfort. For all the time and space between us, my and Mark’s eyes always glimmer when you show up on our computer screen. Your videos have brought us so much joy and laughter these past weeks. We love you.

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  7. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for being vulnerable enough to share yourself with us.
    La mesa sagrada es un tiempo íntimo que nos conecta con Dios, no con un edificio. Gracias por compartir.

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  8. Pingback: Virtual Eucharist During Covid-19: Hot Takes and What-Have-Yous | claytonfaulkner.com

  9. Pingback: Communion During the Pandemic | A Place at the Table

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