Eucharist during COVID-19 Pandemic
A Note from Senior Pastor, Tim Frickenschmidt
What about the Eucharist?
It’s a question I’ve been asked often over the last month, during Austin’s COVID-19 quarantine and All Saints’ live-streamed services. Other churches are encouraging or offered various creative forms of Communion – self-served, live-streamed, and drive-through. Why not All Saints? Simply put, these three options represent some theological and pastoral lines that I, in good conscience, can’t lead us across. One quick word of encouragement before you continue reading: as Christians we need to remember that everyone will not see things exactly the same way. There is room for a diversity of conviction in this question and we must be kind and charitable toward other Christians and churches who believe differently than us, especially in this season of fear and anxiety caused the COVID-19 pandemic. So, be restrained in your judgments upon any churches who lead their congregations differently than I am leading All Saints in this.
Self-served Communion – by this I mean when a church encourages their members to celebrate the Eucharist alone in their homes with their families or roommates. This option fails to recognize the complementary distinction between clergy and congregants and gives a role to every Christian that the Church has always reserved for some only. All the Gospel accounts agree: Jesus established this Sacrament (the Lord’s Supper) at the Last Supper, which he led as host with only his disciples present. The disciples, of course, became the Apostles; the Apostles were entrusted with establishing the Church and passing on to church leaders the responsibility of presiding at this Church meal in the same way that Jesus presided at his last meal. So, if an ordained All Saints’ pastor isn’t present to lead, it’s not an All Saints’ Eucharist celebration.
Live-stream Communion – All Saints’ pastors are present at our current services. So, why not have one of them lead the Eucharist liturgy during the live-stream? Each person or family at home could then have bread and wine present before their screen; and, when the pastor says: “The gifts of God for the people of God…” everyone at home eats their bread and drinks their wine. Why not this option? Because it fails to appreciate the very nature of the Sacraments. The Sacraments are personal, physical encounters between God and his people, with a pastor consecrating the elements in the presence of the people through word and action. It’s not simply what’s said, it’s also what’s done that makes the Eucharist what it is.
For example, you may have noticed in our Eucharist liturgy that the pastor reaches out and touches the bread and wine that he and the congregation is praying would be the Body and Blood of Christ in that moment. In other words, for an encounter to be personal and physical, both time and place must be shared. We can share time (and words) via live-stream, but we can’t share place (or touch). And you simply can’t have a Sacrament without touch.
Another objection to this option is that the Sacraments are ritual actions, “ordained by Jesus Christ to which he has attached the promise of his presence” (see Scott Swain’s recent essay, “Should we live stream the Lord’s Supper”). And the ritual action of the Eucharist isn’t complete until there is a shared meal, not an individually eaten one. In other words, you can’t have Body of Christ (eaten) without having the Body of Christ (gathered). Which leads us to the third option…
Drive-through Communion – here we have to look to 1st Corinthians 11 for guidance. And while some of the objections above could be mitigated by this option, other issues arise with it. What Paul is so upset about in 1st Corinthians 11:17ff is that, among other things, this church is turning the meal into something that pleased some and left others out (1 Cor. 11:20-22). They’re only taking when they “celebrate” Communion. Some are rushing ahead to eat first; others are drinking so much wine they’re getting drunk. To put it bluntly, Communion, for them, is not communion. It’s a one-way street of receiving only and doing so at other’s expense and exclusion. It’s hyper-individualism on a corporate scale. One of our cultural vices that the Eucharist pushes back against is our rampant individualism. “Does this option minister to me?” That can’t be the primary question we ask as Christians, especially when it comes to Communion. At the Eucharist we both receive from God and give ourselves to God; we also receive from others and give to others as well. Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians that believers must be able to discern “the body” in order to rightly participate in the meal (1 Cor. 11:29). Here, “the body” refers especially to the church. Which means, communion is not just about what we receive, it’s about what we share. If there’s no “sharing” with one another, there’s no Eucharist.
Yes, God can be present to you in your car in the church parking lot and pastors can bring you consecrated elements from the sanctuary, but you’re still alone in your individual car at a distance from others. Your spiritual needs might be met in this way, but what of others’ needs? How would you be giving to them? Where’s the chance for a kind word to be spoken, or an apology to be given? Where’s the chance to listen to a friend’s recent hardship after you’ve partaken together of Christ’s broken body? Is receiving and giving being pulled apart in this option? I can’t help but think so. And there are simply some things we have to make sure always stay together in our Eucharist celebrations. We can’t pull the clergy apart from the congregation, the spoken word apart from physical action, or our receiving apart from our giving.
So, what can we do? For one, we can continue what we have been doing over the past several weeks, which is to lean into the other means of grace: the Scriptures and prayer. Our Reformed Tradition has always emphasized that the same grace is communicated through all three means of Word, Sacraments, and prayer. The Sacraments are not available to us now, but God’s word and prayer, as always, are.
We can also embrace the fasting from the Eucharist that this “exile” period demands, praying that our hunger to return to the Lord’s Table would cultivate a greater desire in us to be regularly present in worship when it’s returned to its fullest expression of ministry in Word and Sacrament. And to fast well we must learn to lament well. This season of forced fasting from the Lord’s Supper should be a cause for sorrow and tears; it is undoubtedly a season of lament for us, but also for so many others besides us. We can now identify with them in ways we couldn’t before – with those who’ve become sick, those who’ve had loved ones die, those who’ve lost jobs, those who’ve lost homes and businesses. We can, through our fasting from the Eucharist, join the world-wide lament that’s happening right now by not rushing through this exile season and forcing a feast the Lord is not currently offering us… but always with the hope that he will offer the feast again soon.
And, lastly, we can practice Spiritual Communion. What is that? Many of you, I’m sure, have never heard those words. It’s also something relatively new to me, but well-established in other Christian traditions. When church members, for whatever reason, are prevented from being in worship and partaking of the Sacrament, a prayer in reflection upon the Sacrament has been encouraged. All the Spiritual Communion prayers I’ve read ask Jesus to be present to Christians now as they pray like as He is in the Sacrament though they are currently unable to receive it.
Here is the one I’ve written for us to pray together on Maundy Thursday and Easter:
Lord Jesus, in union with the faithful at every altar-table of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is still being celebrated, we desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving. We present to you, O Lord, our selves, our souls and our bodies, with the longing that we may always be united to you. We believe you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament and lament that we cannot partake of you now. Because we cannot receive you now sacramentally, we ask you to come spiritually into our hearts. Make yourself more fully known to us. Be present to us. We are united to you in Baptism and by faith and we now embrace you with all affection of soul. Let us never be separated from you, but always live and eventually die in your unfailing love. Amen.
All Saints, I truly look forward to continuing our worship as best we can in this extended season of fasting and lament. And, when the time comes, I look forward even more to feasting together again in the Lord. What a celebration it will be!
Peace, in Christ,
Children & Communion
At All Saints we require (a) that an individual be baptized and (b) that they display a simple, age-appropriate profession of faith before they begin communing. If you feel that your child is ready to begin taking communion, you may reach out to any of our pastors or elders to set up a time for them to meet with you and your child to talk about communion.
After your child has been interviewed please let Kara Dunleavy know when he or she will be celebrating his/her first communion and whether or not you would like it announced on that day.