While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
Communion and Social Distance
During the week leading up to Sunday, March 15 it became increasingly clear to me and many others than celebrating Holy Communion and distributing the Sacrament, however much care we took, would not be safe or advisable. And after that Sunday, we had to cease meeting in person, in our building, altogether. With many other clergy and churches, we had to figure out the best and most faithful way to keep worshiping during a time of mandatory (and entirely justified) "social distancing." And foremost in the minds of many Lutherans and churches in other traditions where the Sacrament is central was the question of how, and whether, to celebrate Holy Communion.
It's good that people love the Sacrament so much that they struggle to find ways to adapt during a plague. Our synod's bishop, Erik Gronberg, has posted a thoughtful consideration of how eucharistic practice can adapt during an extended hiatus from in-person assembly. The first option, which gets rather little consideration, is the idea of a "fast" from the Eucharist. The argument for this is that we are unable to assemble as "the Church," we are not able to do all the things we do together as the Church, and therefore we should look at this as a period of abstinence from this gift. Can our absence from the altar, from the elements, and from each other help us grow in our longing for this gift? Can it teach us about how we approach it under normal circumstances? Have we come to take it for granted?
After all, it was not so long ago that most North American Lutherans received the Sacrament only monthly or even less often than that. This practice evolved because pastors were in short supply and seminarians or lay leaders would preside at "reader's liturgies" or "services of the Word" when ordained clergy were not available. But our understanding follows our practice, and for many Lutherans the practice of infrequent celebration of the Eucharist was explained as a custom that made it "more special." This is, in my view, an inadequate understanding. The Sacrament is special in itself, the most special thing in the world, and that would be true if we celebrated it every day or once every ten years.
Nevertheless, a forced interruption can be a way to search ourselves. Can God use this moment to instruct us? To purify our motives? To make us newly eager to return when circumstances allow it?
I thought about this, and I still incline this way when I push my own thinking. We opted to do something different. Since both public regulations and our circumstances allowed it, and since I am reluctant to make big liturgical changes, I decided to continue celebrating the full liturgy of Holy Communion in our streaming services. My oldest son was able to assist at the altar, requiring no one to be exposed to the virus and meeting the Lutheran requirement of two people to present for the Eucharist to take place (there is a long tradition of "private" Mass in the Western Church, but for various reasons we can talk about later, the Reformers rejected this practice). He and I would each receive and the home worship bulletin would provide a prayer for making a "spiritual communion":
In union, O Lord with the faithful at every altar of your Church, where the Sacrament is now being celebrated, I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. I present to you my soul and body with the earnest wish that I may always be united to you. And since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to you, and embrace you with all the affections of my soul. Let nothing ever separate you from me. May I live and die in your love. Amen.
I borrowed this prayer from our Anglican siblings, which was intended for times of inevitable separation from the worshiping community. This seemed to me to be the best way available to keep worshiping as we are accustomed while offering our prayers and also sharpening our desire to return to the altar.
Reflect: Have you participated in worship online during this period? How have you experienced the celebration at the altar? Or, if you've skipped or watched services from other churches, how have you experienced its absence?
But there are other options on the (literal and figurative) table. One has been "drive-thru" communion, where a service is streamed to people's homes or cars and then individuals and families drive up to receive the Sacrament without coming into direct contact with other parishioners. Another has been to celebrate "virtual" communion, where people bring their own bread and wine to the screen and the presider consecrates the elements through that medium. Bishop Gronberg explains the thinking here:
- God’s Word and promise are efficacious when proclaimed and received in faith. Distance or means of transmission does not diminish the efficacy of God’s Word. The spoken word of the presider transmitted through air is no more effective than those same words transmitted through electronic means.
- Physical connection between presider, elements, and every congregant is not required. It is accepted that during in-person liturgies the presider may not touch and elevate every loaf or wafer or every chalice or tray of juice or wine nor physically serve each congregant.
- What is made clear is the proclamation of God’s promise “for you” and the presence of those particular elements of bread and wine/grape juice. It is in the proclamation of those words given by Jesus that the elements are transformed by the Word and work of God for the salvation of those in whom faith has been formed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.
What Happens in Holy Communion?
I don't like to publicly disagree with my bishop but, well, in this case I disagree with my bishop. I don't think elements should (or can) be consecrated through a screen, nor that a common service of Word and Sacrament can be rightly replaced with a lot of personal home celebrations united by piped-in words from a presider. I don't want to create the impression that the Words of Institution are magic words that "work" by themselves, or that the presider's voice or action abstracted from the presence of the elements, the community, or the whole act of worship is an efficacious trigger for making those words "work."
But I realize this is a good opportunity to say more about why I preside the way I do. You may have noticed that as long as I've been at Christ, I've prayed a "Eucharistic Prayer" in which the "Words of Institution" are just a part. I do this because the Words of Institution are actually a relatively late addition to Christian worship. The earliest sources we have for the celebration of the Eucharist give us prayers, either from a presider, a community, or both, with the dividing and sharing of the loaf and cup as the culmination. Only later did this ritual need the explanation of Christ's words at his last meal with his friends. The Reformers guess, wrongly it turns out, that the Words of Institution were original and the prayers added later, when in fact it was the other way around. The consecration and distribution of the Sacrament was the culmination of a whole act of worship. Moreover, it was originally celebrated with one loaf, divided among those present, and one cup, from which everyone drank. Only much later did we come up with ways to "dose" the sacrament in individual servings.
So this is why I try to use a full (though seasonably variable) liturgy of Holy Communion every week. The prayers, song, and readings are all supposed to lead us to the Lord's table and forth into the world in a continuous, unified act of worship. We shouldn't define the Sacraments by the minimum requirements for "efficacy" (as Protestants tend to put it) or "validity" (as our Catholic friends more typically do). And this is why I do make a point of touching every vessel of wafers, wine, and juice during the eucharistic prayer, holding my hands over them as I pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and handing them to each assistant. I don't distribute to everyone and we don't have a single loaf or cup, but my role as a presider is to act as that element of unity--not because I'm uniquely special or important, but because something has to unite us in a common celebration. It's also why we bring the same sacrament from the altar to the homebound, rather than bringing new elements that can simply be consecrated by repeating the words, playing a recording of my voice, or having me consecrate the elements over the phone. In my view, we really do need to be together: presider, elements, and assembly, sharing the same space and the same meal.
This is not a new scruple for me. I once served a church where a regular meeting would end with Holy Communion, which was just the words of institution said over the elements to be shared. When I was put in charge of "presiding," I always added at least a passage from a Gospel, some brief intercessions, and a eucharistic prayer to offer God our worship and praise as part of receiving a gift of grace. It wasn't, in my view, enough that I was ordained and licensed to say some words.
Reflect: What element(s) of the celebration of the sacrament is/are less clear to you? What element(s), if removed, would change the experience for you?
If this period of social distancing lasts much longer, I may feel obligated to embrace a eucharistic fast with the rest of the community. Or we may try to find a safe way to have a few people receive each week. We are adapting as we go, and I try hard to be charitable toward what I may view as misguided attempts to do that necessary adaptation. But while we wait, please do remember that longing is as much a part of this sacrament as presence is. Jesus tells his friends that he has longed to eat the Passover with them, and again that he will not eat or drink of it again until they are together in God's Kingdom. Each week, each hour, is already a fasting from that Presence that we long for with all our being, and each time we gather is only an anticipation and foretaste of the great feast that awaits.
from Psalm 34
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
The sick and the dying
Those who mourn
The lonely and anxious
Those required to work under dangerous circumstances, especially grocery store workers, delivery workers, and warehouse workers
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy,
Lord, have mercy. Our Father...