Syn·​ax·​is: A Gathering

Each year, with the onset of Great Lent, the monks of a certain monastery along the Jordan River would strike off into the wilderness, each going his own way, spending the entirety of the forty days seeing and speaking to no one. Thus, we read in the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. But, continuing, we learn that on Palm Sunday these monks would return and once more gather to celebrate the services of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection. Alas, that now such gathering is forbidden!

With the advent of COVID-19, there is no other verb in greater danger of extinction than the infinitive, to gather. I find it significant, therefore, that the Church, from her earliest existence, used precisely this word to describe her raison d’être. Ekklesia and synaxis, two Greek words used most often in ancient Christian literature to refer to the event we would describe as church, both convey the sense of a coming together, a gathering or assembly. More precisely, Synaxis, a direct cognate of the Jewish (via Greek) synagogue, is commonly used to refer to a eucharstic assembly, i.e. the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and the partaking of Holy Communion. Thus, in Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy he uses communion (κοινωνίαν) and gathering (σύναξις) interchangeably (EH 4.1.1, Migne 3.472d). St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on I Corinthians 11:17 observes the same parallel between the synaxis and communion of the divine mysteries (μυστήριον κοινωνίαν)(M. 10.240e). In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the word synaxis is repeatedly used to describe the gathering of the monastics on Sundays—as often they were isolated in their own cells during the week—for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the agape meal which followed (cf. Ward, p. 11, 110, and 205, etc.). 

There exists not the slightest doubt that all of us, given the choice, would gladly abandon our quarantine “cells” for the joy of synaxis, the more so as it seems inevitable that Pascha will be celebrated this year alone, isolated, served by “skeleton crews” and streamed to the faithful to be watched in their scattered homes. The degree to which the present extenuating circumstances are justified is a matter of debate, a debate that I have no wish to enter. At this moment, our hierarchs, clergy, and faithful are struggling to practice the prophet’s dictum, “obedience is better than sacrifice” (I Sam. 15:22). In lieu of resentful remarks, I wish to offer instead an opportunity to reflect upon the painful lesson we are all being taught: the value of synaxis.

In a stroke of impeccable timing, InterVarsity Press recently released a fascinating read, Analog Church: why we need real people, places, and things in the digital age. Jay Kim, the author, has been a pastor for many years in Silicon Valley, the fertile crescent of the digital age, the birthplace of the live stream everyone has been scrambling to set up these past few weeks. His critique, though somewhat predictable, is nonetheless poignant. Scot McKnight, in his foreword, provides a striking synopsis of Kim’s message:

“If Jesus is God incarnate, then God chose to reveal himself in analog, not digital. You can communicate a message in words … but you can’t see the revelation of God except in that one person—the person who lived, who died on a cross, who was raised up, who ascended, and who will come again” (Kim, 2).

“Church is the same way,” McKight continues, “We can communicate conveniently and quickly in digital formats … but we can’t get to know one another apart from embodied realities” (Kim, 2,3). I am reminded of St. John’s expression in his first letter, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life” (I Jn. 1:1). “…our hands have handled,” this phrase suggests another common word for Church: the “body” (σῶμα/soma) of Christ (cf. I Cor 12:27, Eph. 4:12, et al.). There is nothing “digital” about a body. Instead, there is the fullest sense of proximity, physical dependence, and intimacy. The Church is an incarnate, embodied reality, an analog reality, a reality that exists not in ideas, words, and images, but in concrete, real people.

Kim observes that “digitization” has the propensity to fracture the incarnational character of the Church. Streamed services, multi-campus broadcasts, social media posts, and the host of other digital tools made available for today’s pastor can certainly dazzle the imagination and stroke the ego. However, Kim points out the medium (device, platform, format, etc.) by which something is presented shapes how that thing will be experienced, echoing Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “The medium is the message” (cf. Understanding Media, 2003). I wonder, what is the message we are presenting?

Let’s consider, by way of example, the medium of streaming church services. For the present, suspend critique on the basis of the casual attitude of which the faithful are suspected to exhibit while they “tune in.” Let’s assume that the millions of faithful that have been instructed by the clergy to watch the services online are piously attending to their screens. What do they see? A priest, maybe a bishop, and a select few: an altar server, a chanter or two. All are very likely to be men, regaled in black, of some order of the clergy or another. What is the message this medium conveys? That the divine services, even the Eucharist, is something performed by “essential” personnel; it is something to be seen and heard by the passive spectator. At best, these streamed services may encourage prayer and perseverance. At worst, they provide only the ambiance of “church,” a box to check in one’s religious conscience.

How does this medium shape the performer, i.e. the celebrant and his “skeleton staff?” Kim is no luddite. Analog Church is not a blanket dismissal of technology. Yet, Kim offers the wise observation that all technologies, without moderation, have the potential to work in direct opposition to their original intention. Advances in science and technology are not without adverse side effects. In an effort to connect the faithful to the performance of divine services, we must not think that this is not without danger. We must recognize the gravitational pull acting upon the priest toward putting on a good show for those watching, instead of offering up undistracted prayers for their absent brethren, “on behalf of all and for all.” There is a danger that, instead of the holy altar, the lens of the camera would become the focal point for the priest; and that the choir would sing, not for God’s ears but for the microphone.

It would be completely blind not to remark that such temptations described above do not occur in “analog.” On the other hand, it would be naive to assume that such a shift in medium will not have far reaching implications. My fear is that the divide between “essential” and “non-essential,” between those who do and those who watch it be done will only grow as a result. However, it is the precarious position of our entire ecclesiology that concerns me the most, a concern that the “digital age” only acerbates.

It may be redundant to mention here Alexander Schmemann’s vision of the Church in his classic work, The Eucharist. His insight, nonetheless, is still relevant. We would benefit from recalling his approach to the Divine Liturgy as synaxis. For Schmemann, it is the physical, real, and we may add, analog, gathering of the Body of Christ that makes present the Church and of which reality the Eucharist serves as the fulfillment. The Church, for Schmemann, cannot exist in the abstract—the digital.

Kim, although a Protestant Evangelical, makes much the same point in Analog Church. Communion, Kim writes, “…was a meal that required the community to come together. It demanded, and continues to demand, that we gather as the body of Christ in order to receive the body of Christ as one” (Kim, 177). He concludes by pointing out, “as much as modern technology wants to tell you so, you can’t eat and drink together online” (ibid., 179).

A much shared image at present. Original source unknown.

I wish to assume that all Christians are feeling, with deep pain, that void that no live stream will fill. With hearts warmed by this pain, this time affords us the opportunity to discover the “Liturgy of the Heart.” At the same time, this pain is real and we should not wish to quell its pang. Rather than relishing the false hope that we can somehow create ‘“church” at home with a screen and a few religious items, we should recognize the antithetical nature of our position—there can be no church where synaxis is forbidden. We should not entertain the false consolation that somehow we can be together by the wizardry of technology. Instead, we should accept our present situation as nothing less than a tragedy, one that no live stream or Zoom meeting can reverse.

I can think of no better way to illustrate this fact than by the following example: say, hypothetically, that I am a member of a “skeleton crew” who streams services over the internet to a wide audience which includes but is not limited to the local community. For one or a number of services I completely mess things up: I fumble this and stumble over that. What do I do? I ask for forgiveness from my fellow “skeletons.” Following the Orthodox Christian tradition, I physically make a prostration to the people I have failed, then I stand up and we physically kiss each other’s hands. How am I supposed to ask and receive forgiveness over a screen? Someone, “tuning in” from Fargo, N. Dakota, gets frustrated over my foibles and changes the channel to a more professional broadcast. I’m just a religious show to this person, and I didn’t make the cut.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God, “neither death nor life, … nor things present nor things to come,” and we may add COVID-19 (cf. Rom. 8:38). This moment presents a unique opportunity for us to realize many things, among which is the indispensable value of gathering, in all its analog messiness. Doubtless, we could present a better theatre production if our churches contained only “essential” personnel. Absent would be the alto that perpetually sings flat, the altar server with two left feet, and the celebrant with the voice of a bullfrog. But, then that wouldn’t be church. I hope we learn, during this period of deprivation, that the Church is not made up of those who do and those who watch it be done, but that every single person is an essential member of the Body of Christ, whose absence is felt with the same pain as one would feel to lose an arm or a foot. I hope we discover that church is not all about “me:” about what I get or what I do. I hope that we realize that church is not something to watch, smell, and listen, but rather something to be. I hope we see in the presence of the people around us: there is Christ, there is the Church. “Where two or three are gathered (συνηγμένοι/synagmenoi) in my name,” Christ tells His disciples, “there I am in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

The Mystical Supper, Andrei Rublev (15th c.)

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