March 29, 2020

Communion Practice in a Time of Pandemic



We are living in a moment that is both familiar to human history and unique in technological possibilities. Pandemics have impacted human life for millennia. Even when people did not understand how transmission by viruses or bacteria occurs, they understood the importance of social distancing during a pandemic. People stayed home. Children stayed in their yards and waved at their friends across the street. Neighbors chatted from their porches. Churches closed for months.

During the 1918 flu pandemic, the telephone had just become available to many. I can imagine it was a lifeline of communication for those who had it. During our COVID-19 pandemic, we have means of communication and connection that until recently were unimaginable: Facebook, Instagram, texting, Zoom, Skype… how many ways are there for us to connect as individuals and groups? It’s astounding and it’s a gift, a lifeline.

These internet-based means of connecting have made it possible for churches to do ministry in new and expanded ways while we are not able to gather in person. Worship can be livestreamed. Groups enjoy Zoom meetings. Web sites and emails share information quickly and broadly. One thing technology has not been able to solve for us is the gathering of the church community for sacramental life. For most of the church in the world, weekly gatherings around the table to share communion bread and wine is central to our worship and spiritual lives.

This has created a moment of debate and experimentation in congregations. Faithful church members desire to share communion with the real stuff of bread and wine. It is a pattern and a spiritual practice that forms the lives of many faithful. Many are hungry for this sacramental life while we are unable to gather in person. Some want to find new ways to share communion with a celebrant livestreaming the thanksgiving over the bread and wine while worshipers gather around their own bread and wine at home and consume after the meal is virtually blessed. Some think this is our new digital way of worshiping, especially during pandemic. Others think this is an unfortunate development that distorts the meaning of the sacrament. I am sympathetic to the former, but part of the latter.

As this debate has been taking place across the church, I am going to share a few thoughts on why I think this practice of sharing communion over a livestream is an unfortunate and unnecessary response to the short-term reality of social distancing.

1. In Lutheran teaching Christ is present in the Word just as Christ is present in the bread and wine of communion. The proclamation of Law and Gospel through absolution, Scripture, preaching, liturgy, and song is a means of grace just as much as Holy Communion. In the excellent authoritative document on worship in the ELCA, The Use of the Means of Grace (https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/The_Use_Of_The_Means_Of_Grace.pdf) says this about the Word:

WHAT IS THE WORD OF GOD?

Principle
5 Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate. The proclamation of God's message to us is both Law and Gospel. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Through this Word in these forms, as through the sacraments, God gives faith, forgiveness of sins, and new life.

Application 5A
Proclamation of the Word includes the public reading of Scripture, preaching, teaching, the celebration of the sacraments, confession and absolution, music, arts, prayers, Christian witness, and service . The congregation 's entire educational ministry participates in the proclamation of the Word.

The Word of God is the living encounter with Christ, whether through Scripture, preaching, liturgy, song, or sacrament. All are a gift. But we should not diminish the importance of the Word as gift by altering our communion practice in such a way that distorts its meaning. Word conveys well through technology. Sacrament, with its inherent materiality, does not.

2. Fasting is a long-held spiritual discipline of the church. It is central to Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount on true spiritual practice. It is foundational to the Lenten season and practices. It is a fortunate coincidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is peaking in the United States during Lent, when fasting of one sort or another is already in play in many of our lives.

This is a time for us to speak of fasting from communion as part of our spiritual discipline and social and ethical practice to live in solidarity with the world as we seek to end the spread of the novel coronavirus. Fasting is often downplayed or rejected in our modern lives. The thought of giving something up seems too burdensome for us who are used to having everything now and in abundance. During Lent, many choose to focus on doing something good (giving to the poor is also part of the traditional Lenten focus) rather than fast in any disciplined way.

For our own spiritual maturity, we should use this moment to engage in church-wide shared fasting from the eucharist as an expression of shared sacrifice and solidarity with the entire world. It is an opportunity to reconnect to the importance of not only what we want and consume, but what we give up for greater purposes. It is a moment to see the positive in this response rather than the negative in what we cannot practice for the moment.

3. Communion is a great gift we share in the church. It is the gift of Christ’s self-giving love, Christ’s very presence, made available to us in a meal that connects us to his death and resurrection. As great a gift as this is, and as precious as it is to the ongoing life of the faithful, it is still a gift and not a requirement. We should not make participation in the eucharist on a weekly basis (a wonderful practice I am grateful for) so essential to people’s lives that if they cannot receive they cannot live full lives of faith and trust God’s grace given to them by many means. People’s hunger for the sacrament can be praised while the short-lived fasting can be encouraged.

4. Communion is a material thing, a bread and wine meal. It cannot be separated from these things even if any individual cannot consume one or the other of the elements. At the same time it is by definition a communal event – not just communion with Christ but communion with one another through Christ. The most important physical element present in the celebration of the communion meal, a point often missing from eucharistic theologies, is the gathered community. Virtual gatherings have their place in our lives today. But they do not and cannot replace everything. They are very real and wonderful. But they are not physical bodies gathered around a table, accepting one another in radical grace, breathing and singing together, hearts pulsing in the same moment, receiving from one table, one bread, one cup (I’m not promoting common cup here in this time of pandemic, just the importance of the cup of the table around which we gather in real place and time.)

Communion gatherings are radical theological events: They proclaim the most profound truth of Christian Gospel: incarnational love. Christ is the incarnation of God’s Word in the flesh in history, and in the communion meal. The gathered assembly becomes this incarnation of Christ through this sacred event. Incarnational theology is a Christian belief in direct opposition to mere propositional truth or love as a generalized concept. It is the risky, costly, daring proclamation that God’s love is known in real human bodies and real created stuff.

5. We should not create unfortunate future implications for our sacramental life by responding to the short-term necessary social distancing by practicing virtual communion. We are already living in a digital world where our in-person gatherings are becoming less common. We are already losing an essential aspect of our humanity, living in real community, even as we welcome the gift of virtual life that we have now. One of the great gifts and realities of the church is that we gather together for Word and Sacrament. And when others cannot join us, we remember them and minister to them as an act of compassion and grace.

6. One of the principal characteristics of Holy Communion is its inclusivity of all the baptized. The admontion of Paul in First Corinthians not to partake of the supper in a way unworthy, that fails to discern the body, is specifically about those who are likely of poor means and must work long hours and cannot make it to the agape meal before everyone else has eaten up all the food. Paul admonishes the wealthy and privileged to wait for the others, or else it is not the Lord's Supper they are eating.

We find ourselves in a moment where the practice of virtual communion offers the sacrament in a way that excludes many, including the poor without internet access, the elderly who are not experienced with technology, and the sick who cannot participate virtually and cannot receive by pastoral visit or eucharistic minister because of social distancing. A moment of fasting together in solidarity with all those who cannot participate with the rest of the church in a possible virtual gathering seems true to the intent of Paul and the church's theology of the church as the body of Christ that includes all.


These are the main points that come to mind for me as we engage in this difficult moment for the church and the pastors that care deeply about their people. I am not particularly interested in policing other church’s practices. I am however interested in the norms and precedents we create by responding to urgent needs with short-term solutions that might well diminish our sacramental worship life together in the future.

It is my hope that we can all lift up this moment as a time of fasting, name the hunger we have to gather together again with each other and with Christ in the material, sacramental gifts of bread and wine around the table of grace, and come through this together until we celebrate with exuberance and profound gratitude like we may not have known before. In the meantime, it is my hope that the Word we proclaim through Scripture, preaching, liturgy, song, conversation, and prayer is received fully as the gift of grace that it is.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.