brief answers, Communion, Communion elements, Eucharist, Receptionism

Frank Answers Briefly About Communion Practices

This blog is devoted to giving brief answers to questions about Eucharistic faith and practice. Topics are listed in the order I received the questions.

 Table of Topics

About Communion to Online Worshipers

About Receptionism

About Communion on Ash Wednesday

About Daily Communion

About the Use of Gluten-free Bread for Communion

About Communion Wine

About Mixing Consecrated and Unconsecrated Communion Elements

July 29, 2018

About Communion to Online Worshipers

Living Lutheran (August 2018) reports about a congregation in San Francisco that sends communion packets to its online worshipers (a container of grape juice and a wafer) so that they can receive the consecrated body and blood of Christ at home as well as follow the online readings and Bible studies. The recipients of these communion packets (a month’s supply mailed monthly) may be members who have moved away, homebound members, or LGBTQ persons who are alienated from local congregations. How do you assess this practice?

The digital age is here is to stay. Catholic resources already provide Mass on the web (live-streamed Masses on the Pope App), Missal apps, Eucharistic adoration online, and even online Communion. The practice you reference would be a variant of online communion.  I read the story in Living Lutheran entitled “Special Delivery: Congregation mails communion packets to online worshipers”. It struck me that the pastor is trying to be theologically responsible about this: the elements in the packets have been consecrated at the Sunday Eucharist and instructions are provided about receiving the wafer and grape juice and “returning to the earth” what isn’t used.

The basic problem with these practices is that sacramentality is a physical, not a virtual, reality. To be sure, the physical elements in the communion packets will be consumed by physical bodies. But sacramentality also includes the interpersonal body of the community of faith that celebrates the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is a community meal. It is celebrated principally in a churchly context.  The body of Christ is the church as well as the sacrament and the two are interconnected.

The church has provided a pastoral answer to the question of how sacramental reality can be mediated to scattered people. As early as the Apology of Justin Martyr (ca. 150) the writer informs his readers that the consecrated elements are sent to the absent by the deacons. There should be interpersonal contact by the gathered congregation to its scattered members.

So the pastor or appointed communion ministers take the consecrated elements to the homebound, the hospitalized, maybe to those in jail (as in the early church), perhaps even to the alienated. Members of congregations who move away should be encouraged to transfer to congregations in areas where they live. Far-flung people alienated from their local church but attracted to another church’s online ministry (such as LGBTQ Christians) should be helped to find a congregation that will receive and support them. The virtual reality of the digital age cannot replace the flesh-and-blood reality of the Christian community in which the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is celebrated and received.

Presence is relational. Yes, we are to recognize Jesus himself in the Eucharist, but we are also to “recognize the Body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) of those present as the Body of Christ (as St. Paul goes on to describe at great length in 1 Corinthians 12). There is no true Eucharist without a living assembly because we are being saved together and as one. It is good for the scattered members of the body to be embraced by the gathered body; it is better to be present in the gathered body.

Jan. 26, 2018

About Receptionism

Could you say something about the concept of “receptionism?”

“Receptionism” is basically the idea that the reality of the sacrament of the Christ’s body and blood is dependent on the act of receiving it. I think it traces back to Martin Luther’s early teaching that a communicant receives the benefits of Holy Communion only on the basis of faith. In his Treatise on Penance and disputations of 1518 he rejected the idea that the sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” that is, that it produces its effect (i.e. forgiveness of sins) because it is done—unless the communicant obstructs the benefits by actual or intended sin.  In The Babylonian Captivity  (1520) he specified that this faith is vested in the  words of Christ, “This is my body, given for you.”  After being engaged in controversy over the real presence with Zwingli and the Swiss reformers in the later 1520s, Luther shifted his emphasis his emphasis from faith alone to word and faith. In The Small Catechism he teaches that the words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” “when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, the forgiveness of sins.” In The Large Catechism he declares that “if you take the word away from the elements or view them apart from the Word, you have nothing but ordinary bread and wine.”

It seems that some of Luther’s followers, influenced by the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer, came to understand not just that “my faith” is what makes the sacrament efficacious for me, but that the reality of the sacrament depends on the faith of the communicant.  This  suggests that the bread and wine are not a sacrament to those who don’t believe. But on the basis of Luther’s later writings it is clear that it is not the faith of the communicant but the words of Christ make the sacrament. That’s why the words of Christ are not to be omitted in the celebration and administration of the sacrament.  Yes, one receives the benefits of the sacrament by faith alone; but the sacrament is real even if the faith of the communicant is lacking. Bucer could agree that the unworthy receive the sacrament (communicatio indignorum). But Luther held that even the ungodly receive the sacrament (communicatio impiorum).  One can eat and drink the sacrament to one’s judgment as well as to one’s benefit (1 Cor. 11:29).

I understand that some 17th century orthodox Lutherans taught that the real presence of Christ is limited to the act of eating and drinking.  Only what is consumed is the sacrament, no other bread and wine on the altar. This would be another understanding of “receptionism.” In any event, “receptionism” does not recognize the efficacy of the word of Christ to make the sacrament, whether it is received in faith or not, whether it is received at all (although not to eat and drink would be an abuse of the sacrament). There is an anti-Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation embedded in the teaching of ” “receptionist.” This has bedeviled Lutheran Eucharistic faith and practice from the beginning.

Jan. 22, 2018

About Communion on Ash Wednesday

Should The Sacrament of the Altar be omitted at congregation Services  on Ash Wednesday? Many Lutheran congregations begin the fast with the Feast on that day.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship indicates that the Holy Communion may be included in the Ash Wednesday Service or there may be a Service without Communion, ending with the Intercessions, Concluding Prayer, Our Father, Sending, and Dismissal (p. 254, Pew Edition). I served on the Church Year committee in the ELCA’s Renewing Worship project and worked on the special liturgies for Lent and Holy Week. I argued that Holy Communion should not be celebrated on the fast days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The distinction between fasting and feasting as it relates to the Eucharist eludes Western Christians. In the ancient church, and continuing in the Eastern Churches today, the Eucharist is not usually celebrated on a fast day, whereas in the West Masses came to be celebrated on every day except Good Friday. The logic of the relationship between Eucharist and fasting is simple: first, the Eucharist is a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving and fast days are days of lament and penitence; second, the Eucharist is a meal and you don’t fast and eat at the same time.  However, the desire of Christians of antiquity to break their fast by receiving the bread and wine of Holy Communion led to the development of the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified. In this liturgy the elements reserved from the Sunday Eucharist are distributed to the faithful with appropriate devotional texts. (In the Western Church Sundays are never fast days, not even during Lent; they are days of the eucharistic feast.  In the Eastern Churches Lenten Sundays are relaxed fast days on which the Divine Liturgy is  celebrated.) In Byzantine Rite Churches this form of Communion is offered on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent (the traditional fast days throughout the years, except during the Easter season) at Vespers. This is because  Communion is offered at the end of the fast day and before the next fast day begins, that is, at the time of Vespers.  (The practice of taking food at the end of a fast day and before the next fast day begins is also observed by Jews and Muslims.)

The one celebration of the Mass of the Pre-sanctified in the Western Rite is on Good Friday. However, there is some experience of distributing Communion with what is essentially the pre-sanctified (previously consecrated) elements in the tradition of the Extended Distribution of Communion to the sick, whether that is done after the Sunday Eucharist on Sunday or later during the week. If pastors desire to make this form of Holy Communion available at the end of the day on Ash Wednesday, a form of the pre-sanctified for Lutherans on Ash Wednesday could include: bringing the consecrated bread and wine to the altar after the intercessions, concluding prayer, and Lord’s Prayer of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy during the singing of “Lamb of God;” the proclamation “The gifts of God for the people of God;” the distribution of the sacrament, followed by a post-communion prayer, blessing, and sending.

If it would be out of the frame of reference for Lutherans to be communed exclusively from the reserved sacrament, the parish could simply offer the Ash Wednesday Liturgy without Communion. In any event, Ash Wednesday should not be a eucharistic day, in my opinion, because it is the day that calls for the beginning of the Lenten fast. This liturgy of the word with litany of penitence and distribution of ashes is what I offered in my congregation during the last several years of my pastorate, and with explanation about the distinction between fasting and feasting this non-eucharistic, non-communion service was accepted.

See my Frank Answer About Lenten Disciplines for further information on Communion and fasting.

Pre-sanctified gifts served by Serbian patriarch

About Daily Communion

I find myself drawn to participate in a daily Eucharistic celebration as it helps me cultivate a more meaningful sacramental worldview. However, the only opportunity I have to do this is through attending daily mass at a local Roman Catholic parish. As an Anglican, I am unsure if it is appropriate to participate fully through receiving communion. Do you have any thoughts on this? I am also curious why daily Eucharist is not common among Lutheran and Anglican churches.

Daily Eucharist has been a practice of the church since its early days. Acts 2:46 gives us a picture of the early Christians in Jerusalem “day by day” spending time together in the Temple and breaking bread at home (or “from house to house”). “The breaking of bread” was a term for the Eucharist in the Acts of the Apostles. Receiving communion daily was not always easy when the church depended on having someone’s house or a rented inn to meet in. The need for a meeting place for the congregation undoubtedly contributed to the custom of members turning the titles of houses over the church. But once the church moved into basilicas in the 4th century daily communion became possible and it was a devotion many Christians practiced. In Eastern Orthodox Churches the Divine Liturgy was replaced on fast days by the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified just so the faithful could receive communion on days when the Eucharist would not be celebrated. The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy was celebrated at the end of the fasting day and before the next liturgical day began (e.g. at Vespers). Daily Masses became a regular feature of the Catholic Church of the West whether it was fasting day or not.

At the time of the Reformation Protestant reformers abolished daily masses. Many of these were votive masses offered for special intentions on behalf of the living and the dead. Most of these votive masses didn’t include communicants and were therefore regarded as “private masses.”  Martin Luther was OK with daily masses as long as there were communicants. The Reformed believed that the whole congregation needed to be prepared to receive communion together and offered Communion services four times a year or monthly. But basically Lutherans and Anglicans have no problem with daily masses as long as there are communicants. Unfortunately, in spite of the Eucharistic renewal of the last century there are still many Lutheran congregations and some Anglican parishes that don’t even have the Eucharist every Sunday. Many Lutheran and Anglican parishes that have the Eucharist every Sunday also have at least one Eucharist during the week, often a spoken service in a chapel early in the morning.

As for receiving communion as an Anglican in a Roman Catholic parish, you need to remember that the basic condition for receiving Communion in the Roman Catholic Church is being in communion with a local bishop who is in communion with the bishop of Rome (and, of course, not being in a spiritual condition that excommunicates you—like being divorced from a marriage that has not been annulled). So if you receive communion in a Catholic parish it is either by being in the good graces of the priest-celebrant or just being an interloper presuming on the Eucharistic hospitality of the Catholic Church.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You could work with your rector to see how the Eucharist might be provided daily in your parish (and maybe convince some fellow parishioners to make a commitment to attend). Or you could speak with the Catholic pastor and receive his permission to receive communion.  I think the first option is the better one because it doesn’t present a conflicted conscience. You might succeed in getting a Eucharist scheduled at least once or twice a week. That would be a start.

If we took seriously the fact that, as the materialist philosopher Friedrich Feuerbach said, “we are what we eat,” and we believe that Christ is really present body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, then we need to receive Christ into our bodies for daily spiritual nourishment and to keep ourselves in union with him. There is good reason why the early Christians broke bread daily.


Saint John Neumann Catholic Church (Sunbury, Ohio) – daily Mass chapel

About the Use of Gluten-free Bread for Communion

What is your take on the Vatican’s ruling on gluten free wafers?  Is there a biblical citation which require wheat and can Lutherans hold to concomitance?

Answer: To require .009% gluten to make the bread real wheat is the endth degree of casuistry, in my Frank opinion. Undoubtedly bread made from grains is the biblical precedent, but we don’t know what kind of bread Jesus used. If the Lord’s Supper was instituted at a Passover Seder (synoptic gospels), the bread was unleavened. If the Lord’s Supper was instituted before the Passover (fourth gospel), it probably was leavened. The Eastern Church uses leavened bread.  The Western Church didn’t require unleavened bread before the early Middle Ages.

The real issue is why there has been an increase of gluten intolerance and celiac disease in America. Why can people with gluten intolerance eat bread in Europe? The answer seems to be that in America we are using a blended strain of wheat germs that produce bumper crops whereas an older strain is used in Europe. There’s also a thought that too much gluten has gotten into our diet generally, more than our bellies can tolerate. While the science is not totally settled on this,  it would seem that the Catholic Church should take the lead in experimenting with growing the old strain of wheat or encouraging some farmers to do so. If that solves the problem, there may be a market for old strain wheat bread. I know people with gluten intolerance would prefer to be able to eat regular bread.

In the meantime we can appeal to the doctrine of concomitance that we receive the entire Christ under either species and people receive and consume what they can tolerate.  Yes, the Lutheran Confessions argue for receiving both bread and wine (Augsburg Confession 22 and Apology 22). But the argument in the Confessions is that the papal church had gone so far as to declare as heretics those who favored the fullness of Christ’s institution (Jan Hus was burned at the stake). But concomitance was originally a justification for in extremis situations in the communion of baptized infants and the sick who could not swallow bread and communed with the WINE only.  How much better it would be to provide some form of gluten-free bread for those who need it. In my experience this accommodation can be made without a lot of fuss and calling attention to the fact that GLUTEN-FREE BREAD IS AVAILABLE.  A simple announcement in the worship folder suffices, and the pastor usually knows who needs it—another reason why the pastor should serve the bread.

About Communion Wine

What are your thoughts on alternates to wine in communion? I know grape juice is common. I’ve seen even nonalcoholic wine. But I’ve also seen apple juice communion. Could you do a frank answers on this?

Answer: The beverage for the Lord’s Supper is wine because our Lord used it in his institution (probably at a Passover Seder) and the Eucharist is a festive meal. Preferably wine with a little kick to it to produce a slight inebriation. Preferably good wine. Either red or white. Either dry or sweet. If grape wine is not available, then rice wine like Japanese sake. Nonalcoholic wine could be available for children and alcoholics. Maybe a different color than the regular wine so as not to confuse them. But grape juice and apple juice are out. Coke and other sodas are definitely out. Beer is way out, unless you’re a German pope.

(Yes, this is photo shopped.)

About Mixing Consecrated and Unconsecrated Communion Elements

Question: An LCMS colleague sent me an E-mail inquiry concerning the  disposition of consecrated elements remaining after the Mass. I’m wondering if you can shed any light on the mixing of previously consecrated and non-consecrated wafers and wine.

Answer: You don’t mix consecrated and unconsecrated elements. If additional supplies are needed during the distribution you bless them. However, you can add unconsecrated wine from flagons to consecrated wine in chalices during the distribution. It is consecrated “by contagion.” (This is the practice I see in Ordo Romanus Primus when consecrated wine from the chalice on the altar is poured into the vats of wine from which communicants drink with a straw.)  I usually bless the wine in the chalice(s) and maybe one cruet on the altar, but not the wine in the other cruets on a credence table and not on the altar.  But the communion ministers must not run out of wine; they need to signal the acolytes when they need a refill. After the service the consecrated bread and wine are either consumed or set aside for further distribution, as in the communion of the sick. What is reserved should be kept separate from the unconsecrated elements, perhaps in an ambry. I used to keep what I needed for the communion of the sick in the little ciborium and cruets in my private communion kit. If they were not used in a reasonable length of time, I consumed them.

Reserving the wafers is easy and pastors too easily default to using them since freshly baked communion bread will not keep and needs to be consumed. I don’t think we need to default to wafers. We need to develop enough experience using freshly baked communion bread that the presiding minister knows how much is needed. I would note that the Orthodox have figured this out. Before the liturgy the priests cut out of the loaf what is needed for Communion.  Other pieces of that loaf, and other loafs not needed for the Communion (the Antedoron), are broken up and distributed to the worshipers after the Liturgy as food for the journey home.


Orthodox table of preparation of the Communion bread


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    Barrett Scheske

    Very interesting read. GOD bless you.

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    The problem I recall attending the ELW Ash Wednesday liturgy without communion was that it ends with the Law. I, we, left that service still in our sins until holy Thursday–at least liturgically. Including the sacrament with its promises of forgiveness remedies this.

    • Frank Senn

      Three responses:
      1. In the ancient church those who wore ashes were the those enrolled in the order of penitents. Their enrollment entailed excommunication in the sense that they were dismissed from the liturgy with a blessing before the Eucharist, just as the catrechumens were. The order of penitents was correlated with the order of catechumens during Lent. This is what gave Lent its penitential as well as its catechumenal character. Reconciliation of the public penitents took place during the Mass of Reconciliation on the morning of Maundy Thursday so that the reconciled faithful could participate in the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Is this a spiritual discipline that some might wish to claim?
      2. As for law and gospel, the relationship between them and how their reality is received by each person before God is far more dynamic than just pinpointing certain items in the liturgy (or in the Bible) as “law” or “gospel.” Actually, however, the central sign of the day—the ashes—incorporates both. The ashes signify the death sentence of the sinner, but they are made in the shape of the cross by which Christ atoned for sin.
      3. In the practice of the Eastern Church, Holy Communion may be offered from the pre-sanctified elements at the end of the fast day. Lutherans would have to discern whether this practice, that once belonged to the whole ancient church, is something we can reclaim.

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