Question: As Lent approaches, and we’re still in the COVID-19 pandemic, some are talking of “fasting” from communion during Lent. As if this were our usual practice. I believe Sundays during Lent fall outside the Lenten fast? This feels like rationalizing the withholding communion during the pandemic. What do you think of fasting from Communion?
Answer: One doesn’t fast from Communion, one fasts before receiving Commnion. That is the tradition, even if Western Christians fail to observe it. Eastern Christians do observe the Eucharistic fast (abstaining from eating and drinking before receiving the sacrament). The Eucharist actually breaks the fast. (Isn’t the first meal of the day called “breakfast?”)
Sunday is the day of resurrection. It is never a fast day. The forty days of Lent are fast days and that’s why Sundays are “in” Lent but not “of” Lent. Eastern churches also maintain the ancient notion that all 40 days of Lent are fast days and therefore non-eucharistic days. That means the Eucharist or Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on the weekdays of Lent. You can’t fast and feast simultaneously. However, the Eastern churches offer the Liturgy of the pre-Sanctified on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent in the window of Vespers when one day ends and the next day begins. This means that the faithful may receive Communion from the reserved sacrament after Vespers on those days.
This is the tradition.
But we are in an extraordinary situation of a pandemic. And now as we approach Lent 2021 new and more contagious variants of the coronavirus are breaking out just as people are being vaccinated. Not everyone will be vaccinated at once. The rollout will take months. In the U.S. the states make decisions on how open or closed society will be at every stage of the pandemic. The states receive guidance from the national Center for Disease Control, and the new federal administration of President Biden promises to give better oversight than the previous administration. All this will dictate how much in-person gathering there will be, and that affects gathering in-person for worship. Congregations and denominations may also on their own apart from state guidelines decide not to gather in-person until the pandemic is under control. The reality is that just because places can open up doesn’t mean that everyone will feel comfortable going into them, at least not until they are vaccinated.
Apart from gathering in-person, I cannot countenance celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacred meal of the church, the assembly (ekklesia). It is not “your own supper” (1 Cor. 11:21). The church gathers as the body (soma) of Christ, body-to-body. It receives the body and blood of Christ into individual bodies that are made one body by sharing the one loaf and the one cup (1 Cor. 10:16—17). This cannot be done over the computer or TV screen. Virtual is not real. An image is not flesh. There are no sacraments without bodies to receive them. Christianity is an incarnational (in the flesh) faith. Sharing “your own supper” at home is not “the Lord’s Supper.”
If churches are able to assemble under government guidelines, the Eucharist should be offered. And measures that mitigate spreading the coronavirus should be observed. For the sake of the health of fellow members Christians wear masks and maintain physical distance. I saw an Old Lutheran face mask with the face of Martin Luther that said, “Here I stand. You stand over there.” Luther and the early Protestants were very concerned about public health. They did not “put the Lord to the test” during plagues (which recurred quite often) as some Christians are doing during this plague.
Decisions about administering the sacramental elements will also take into account mitigation measures. This past summer the Episcopal Church I attend with my wife offered Mass on the Grass (outdoors in the church yard) in which people brought their own lawn chairs and spaced them apart where little flags had been posted in the ground. People received communion by forming a big circles around the perimeter of the church yard and the presiding minister brought the hosts to them and slightly dropped the wafers in cupped hands. One family each week went to the Communion table and shared the cup of wine on behalf of the whole assembly. Other parishes have developed other ways of handling the sacrament.
If in-person gathering inside the church building is allowed, the number of people able to attend will be limited. They will have to be spaced out. The building will have to be well ventilated. In colder weather this will require opening doors and windows while running the heat in older buildings.
If in-person gathering in a Eucharistic assembly is not allowed (or discouraged), the Eucharist is not celebrated. The Eucharist is not celebrated apart from the assembly, even though ancient practice already indicated an extended distribution of the sacrament to the absent using the elements consecrated at the assembly’s Eucharist. (See Justin Martyr, Apology, 67.)
Apart from the three summer months, I have not received Communion since last February. It was not because that’s what I preferred. Lord knows I’ve devoted my entire life to promoting weekly Communion and the Eucharist as the chief service on Sundays and festivals. I have also taught the fullness of Eucharistic faith and practice. (See my book Eucharistic Body, Fortress Press, 2017.) And since I’m not in charge (being retired), I receive what the church offers. But if the church did offer the Eucharist in ecclesia I would not abstain from it. I pray for the time when the eucharistic assembly can again convene, and through the sacrament reconnect, touch, and bond with one another in the flesh.
The primary experience of any shared meal is bonding. That is why meals are shared regularly in families, in family reunions, at special events in the lives of family members such as weddings and funerals, and with the God whose presence is invoked. That’s why we call the sharing of the blessed bread and wine “communion.” In the ancient meals in connection with sacrifices, the god was actually the host of the meal since the meat was given to the god.
So it is also with the Lords Supper. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the host; it is his banquet to which we are invited. And he is present according to his promise: “This is my body.” This is me. Meal practices have created community and strengthened its bonds. The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion shares in this phenomenology of meals. I believe the bonding experienced in years of receiving communion together is strong enough in our corporate and individual memories to keep us steadfast until we are again summoned to the feast “when all is ready” and we will again meet the Lord in his Temple.
Pastor Frank Senn