Communion at Home during a Pandemic: an Addendum

My prior post was the letter I published online for my congregation addressing our acts of worship and communion during the current pandemic. This current post is an addendum responding to discussions being held online among clergy colleagues and leaders of the church.

Addendum:

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has said that this pandemic might be a time for fasting from the sacrament. And, the worship resources posted on ELCA.org/publichealth recommend that congregations do not administer Holy Communion during online worship gatherings.

The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 39, states that “the gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Holy Communion, usually celebrated within a congregation, also may be celebrated in synodical, churchwide, and other settings where the baptized gather.” Furthermore, Application 39A: “Authorization for all celebrations of Communion in a parish setting where there is a called and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is the responsibility of the pastor in consultation with the Congregational Council.”

Parishes around the country are currently “gathering” as an “assembled” people of God across the pixels and network cables. Our extraordinary gatherings in this time recall the great canticle, “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you” (As the Grains of Wheat, ELW 465). By God’s grace we continue to gather as the scattered grains of wheat. These virtual assemblies of the scattered are no less legitimate than in-person gatherings.

Many of our parishes are assembling at an appointed time via livestream or Zoom videoconference. Worshiping at the same time and in the same way reinforces the unity of their assembly despite the physical distance.

Certainly gathering in this manner is not ideal, and in contagion-free times virtual assembly certainly would not be the preferred method of coming together as God’s people. The normative practice of the living Body of Christ is and always will be to gather together in person. Yet a “normative” or “preferred” practice need not be the exclusive practice of the church. Exceptions prove and are derivative of the rule.

Our church teaches that “Holy Communion is celebrated weekly” (UMG Principle 35). We celebrate communion frequently “because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained” (Background, 35A). As we meet through digital means, parishes can continue the church’s practice of gathering weekly at the Lord’s Table in response to “Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need” (Background, 35A).

Even as we gather online, “Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and Prayer” (UMG Principle 43), and “a pastor presides at the Holy Communion” (UMG Principle 40). Authentic gatherings of God’s people through digital means provide for a pastor’s leadership, the proclamation of God’s Word, and the elevation of our prayers.

I respect the preference spoken by our Presiding Bishop, some of our church’s theologians, and many of my peers. Refraining from administering the sacrament during these times is a faithful means of waiting with hope-filled anticipation for that day when parishes can gather again, in person, as the Body of Christ. It is a waiting that reflects our faithful waiting for the promised Day of the Lord when the world will be set to rights.

And perhaps the wisdom of Ecclesiastes applies here, that there is “a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces” (3:5b). Certainly we are avoiding our in-person embraces during this pandemic. Maybe the same goes for our sacramental embrace.

Ultimately I have made a different pastoral decision, one that seeks to continue our parishes’ need to hear those most important words of the sacrament: that Jesus is given “for you” (Small Catechism). I think there’s room in our church for different and faithful responses rooted in pastoral care for our congregations and trust in the living, sacramental Word which dares to come to us in our fear, nourish us, forgive us our sin, and make of us a body gathered together not in any given location but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

May the God who is Spirit and Truth continue to bless and keep our church in these days.

Amen.

[Image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay]

Holy Communion Amidst the Coronavirus Disruption

A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation

The coronavirus has ushered us into a time of disruption. Our home lives are disrupted. Schools are disrupted. Business and the economy are disrupted. And most certainly, the medical community is disrupted.

The church, too, is disrupted. We’re scattered in our homes, unable to come together each Sunday “at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave.” We are missing out on greeting one another with God’s peace, singing and praying together, sharing our Lord’s supper of grace and mercy, studying Scripture together, and enjoying fellowship around coffee and conversation.

Ours is a Social and Physical Faith

It’s not just a human need for companionship that is met when we come together, but also a spiritual need. Christianity is inherently a social faith and a physical faith. We were made in God’s image for relationship, just as the Holy Trinity itself is a divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint Paul describes the Christian community as a body of believers of many interdependent spiritual gifts – we need each other to be the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). In Genesis 1 God declares that it is not good for us to be alone.

Ours is also a physical faith. Jesus didn’t come to this world as a disembodied spirit but as a man in flesh and blood. God made the world and saw that it was “good;” when God made humanity, he declared it “very good” (Genesis 1). The created world gives praise to God in the psalms (Psalm 148), Saint Paul writes of the resurrection of the body (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; etc), and Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth joined as a physical, tangible new creation (Revelation 21). Jesus calls us to care for the bodily needs of our neighbors (Matthew 25). And, on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and wine and bid us to receive it as his body and his blood. Our central rituals as Christians – baptism and holy communion – are inherently tactile, physical experiences through which our Lord promises to bless and hold us.

In Lutheran churches this tangible meal of God’s grace and mercy – Holy Communion – is administered within the body of believers by an ordained minister. In obedience to our Lord’s command the church gathers for the Eucharistic Meal, the pastor retells the story of our Lord’s Passion, the congregation lifts up its prayers, and God’s people share in the promised presence of our Lord in the bread and cup – the body and blood – of his holy meal. This has been the practice of the Lutheran church for 500 years, and for our Catholic predecessors for more than a millennium before that.

Worship Disrupted by COVID-19

Out of concern for the health of our neighbors, the public at large, and ourselves, and in observance of the Governor’s stay at home order, we cannot gather together to partake in the banquet feast of our Lord’s grace and mercy. Fundamental to the character of holy communion are the prayers and gestures we share, the proximity we keep while receiving the sacrament, the Word proclaimed and present, and the common bread and cup we share in this sacred meal. At the beginning of this crisis we extended the communion table from New Joy into our homes by delivering bread and wine from our altar to many of our New Joy households, striving to faithfully adapt the Christian church’s longstanding practice to these unique circumstances. Under the current public health protocols, we are unable to do so again.

Prevented from gathering as Christians normally do for communion, do we suspend partaking in the sacrament? During Lent do we now add Holy Communion to our list of Lenten fasts? This is the decision some of the historic Christian churches are making. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and many Episcopalians are refraining from communion during this crisis. Our church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is not of one mind on whether or how we should continue sharing Holy Communion as a church that gathers online rather than in person.

Keeping Communion While Keeping Distance

During these extraordinary days New Joy will continue to share in the communion feast together from our homes, joined together “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) as we worship together. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and receive the promise that Jesus Christ is given “for you.”

Over the coming weeks as we continue to gather together in our homes for worship I invite you to use bread and wine (or grape juice) from your pantry to celebrate holy communion in your homes in concert with your dispersed sisters and brothers at New Joy. This is certainly not the norm of Lutheran practice, nor of the Christian tradition. But these are not normal times. With reverence, grace, and promise, we will continue to share in our Lord’s Supper even as we keep our necessary social distance.

To maintain the unity of our Lord’s table and to nurture your own preparation for worship, I urge you to continue observing, as much as practicable, our shared worship time of 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Wake up, get dressed as you might for church, and prepare as if you were heading out to church. But rather than get into the car, I invite you to set up your computer or smart television or mobile device. Prepare bread and wine (or juice) for our communion meal. Print out the bulletin posted on the website, or view it on another screen in tandem with the livestream. If you can’t join in the livestream, use the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing in your household.

Setting up Holy Communion at Home

It might feel odd to celebrate communion at home, but don’t let that get in your way. Your home is a sacred space where God is pleased to dwell! Set aside a special place as your home altar. Place a linen cloth on a coffee table or your kitchen table as a corporal, the cloth on the altar on which we set the bread and cup for communion. Spread another cloth overtop the bread and cup as a veil. Paper napkins can work just as well if linens are not available. Mark this space as sacred by setting up a small cross, lighting a candle, or placing a bowl of water to recall your baptism. Purple fabric is appropriate for our current season of Lent. When it’s time for Easter, bring out some white or gold fabric to make it festive with a celebration of resurrection life.

Any plain bread will do for Holy Communion. There’s no need to keep it small, however. The small portions we share at church are largely a practical concern of how to serve so many people at once in our ritual meal. In the intimate gathering at home let the communion meal more resemble the extraordinary heavenly banquet feast that is to come! On a grocery run before Sunday purchase a French or Italian loaf from the bakery section at the grocery store, or share home-baked bread still warm from the oven. Break off a piece, share it as the body of Christ, and allow the sensory experience to complement the spiritual promise of this meal. Familiar sandwich bread or crackers can be used, too.

Open a bottle of red wine and pour into glasses for those sharing. Grape juice may be used as well. You may share the cup by intinction – dipping the bread in the cup – or by drinking. Again, enjoy a robust glass of this drink of promise. No need to keep the amounts small.

The communion we share together while dispersed in our homes is the same promised presence of our Lord Jesus that we receive at church. Jesus promised that the bread and cup of this holy meal were his body and blood. Martin Luther wrote that the most important words of holy communion are, “for you” (Small Catechism, Explanation of Holy Communion). The body and blood of Jesus is given for you, especially in these times of social distancing and public concern.

The bread and cup of communion bring God’s promised presence to us. Handle these elements not superstitiously but reverently and with thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the service eat and drink any remaining bread and wine. You may also return the bread and wine to the earth, preferably not down the drain or in the trash can but outside to be received by God’s good creation.

Avoid sharing holy communion apart from participating in the livestream (live on Sunday mornings, or replayed later), or apart from using the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing. Communion is the highpoint of a worship that includes confession and absolution, hearing God’s Word, singing God’s praise, offering our prayers, and sharing and receiving Christ’s peace.

God’s richest blessings to you as we continue to be God’s people gathered not together in person but together in spirit and truth. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the church office via email, social media, Zoom, or phone. Let me know how I can support you during these challenging days.

Blessings,

Pastor Chris