brief answers, Communion, Communion elements, Eucharistic Prayer, fasting, receiving the chalice, Receptionism, self-reception at home, Spiritual Communion

Frank Answers Briefly About Communion Practices

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

The image above this post is “Jesus Breaking Bread” by Walter Erlebacher (1933-1991), commissioned for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in 1976 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  I would entitle it, “Take and Eat: This is My Body.”

 Table of Topics

Why does the priest alone drink from the chalice at Mass? – February 2, 2022

About Words of Distribution – February 15, 2021

Fasting from Communion – February 2, 2021

About In-Person Communion During COVID-19 – November 12, 2020

About the use of the Eucharistic Prayer – May 9, 2020

About Spiritual Communion – April 14, 2020

About Self-Communion at Home – March 16, 2020

About Communion to Online Worshipers – September 29, 2019

About Receptionism – March 6, 2019

About Daily Communion – January 15, 2019

About the Use of Gluten-free Bread for Communion – December 20, 2018

About Communion Wine – December 15, 2018

About Mixing Consecrated and Unconsecrated Communion Elements – March 1, 2018

About Celebrating Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday – February 1, 2018

February 2, 2022

Why does the priest alone drink from the chalice at Mass?

I was recently asked about the priest only taking the cup in the Roman Catholic Mass, and wondered when that began and why? My best answer was 1215 Lateran, but was unable to verify. Then found mention of Council of Trent, affirming the practice over against the Protestant insistence on both kinds? Thought I had this, but no, and know you will.

Priest drinks consecrated wine in Catholic church Basque Country Spain (Core Number: ANWW051P)

Thanks for your confidence in my knowledge. I don’t really know so much. But I have a good liturgical library.

Communion in both the bread and wine was normative practice in the Western church up until the 12th and 13th centuries. By this time the eucharistic piety of the laity centered more on adoration of the host than on receiving the elements. The sacramental realism also raised concerns about the precious blood of Christ being spilled in the transmission of the cup (chalice). The doctrine of concomitance held that the whole sacrament is received under either species. These factors led to the practice of the celebrant alone drinking from the chalice. Gradually it became customary for the laity to receive communion sub una, under one kind—the bread.

In reaction to the Bohemian ultraquists (both kinds) insisting on receiving both the bread and cup in Communion, the Council of Constance in 1415 declared communion sub una to be the rule of the church. This was affirmed by the Council of Trent, in reaction to the insistence of the Protestant reformers on everyone receiving both bread and cup. They reintroduced the sharing of the cup in their reformed communion services. The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I objected to this hard and fast decree, and Pope Pius IV granted indults (permissions) to certain dioceses in central Europe for communion in both kinds. These were withdrawn by later popes, and from 1621 until 1965 (the end of the Second Vatican Council) communion under both kinds was restricted to priests.

Restoration of the cup to all communicants had been a desire of the liturgical movement. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, adopted by the Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI, conceded the authority of bishops to grant communion in both kinds to clerics, religious, and laity in occasions to be defined by the Apostolic See (Vatican). The 1965 Rite for Distributing Communion Under Both Kinds listed occasions when this permission could be given, and the list was expanded and finalized in the 1970 Roman Missal (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 242). National conferences of Catholic bishops have developed occasions when the laity could receive the cup, some as often as every Sunday and Festival. It remains the prerogative the the diocesan bishop to grant special permissions for the laity to receive communion in both kinds. This might be especially at confirmations and weddings. But as of now, communion under both kinds for all communicants is not universal in the Catholic Church. In this practice, the Catholic Church is not so universal since Christians in all other churches (Orthodox, Oriental, Protestant, Pentecostal) receive Communion the way Jesus instituted it when, in the upper room he said, “Take and eat… Take and drink…”

Catholic confirmands receiving the cup.

February 15, 2021

About the Words of Distribution

This is a question that may need a Frank Answer: what is the history of the distribution formulae, “The body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you?” I’m not asking for the specific wording–I’m aware of confessional differences in how the formulae are stated–nor am I looking for a theological justification of the wording (“for you,” etc.). I mean the usage of distribution formulae itself. Was there ever a time, post-Apostolic era, when the formulae were not used and the Supper was distributed in silence, perhaps accompanied only by chant or song?

Answer: The only Eucharistic text in the post-apostolic era is in the Didache, chapters 9 and 10. This was a Eucharist celebrated in the context of an actual meal, as in 1 Corinthians 11’s deipnon and symposion. The bread broken and cups (at the beginning and end of the meal) were shared, not administered. So there were no distribution formulae.

Probably the next oldest texts were East Syrian in the 3rd century, of which the most prominent was the anaphora of Addai and Mari. As in the Didache prayers, no words of institution were recited (at least as far as the best textual evidence is concerned) and there were no distribution formulae.

When we come to The Apostolic Tradition, we do have words of distribution. The Eucharist in the Communion after Baptism includes cups of water and milk and honey as well as the cup of wine. The Latin text (probably 5th century, but maybe earlier) clearly indicates that the bishop gives “an explanation about all these things to those who receive.” The Sahidic, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions agree with this. Breaking the bread the bishop says, “Heavenly bread in Christ Jesus.” Those who receive say “Amen.” For those who receive the three cups the bishop says, “In God the Father Almighty.” “Amen.” “And in the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Amen.” And in the Holy Spirit.” “Amen.” The Sahidic, Arabic, and Ethiopic texts agree about words distributing the bread: “The bread of heaven, the body of Christ Jesus.” But they use the formula “This is the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord” over the cups.

The Egyptian Canons of Hippolytus have “This is the body of Christ” and “This is the blood of Christ.” The church order called the Testamentum Domini (maybe ca. 250) has: “The body of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, for the healing of soul and body.” There are no words with the distribution of the cup.

The Apostolic Constitutions, Book VIII (ca. 380) has the bishop giving “the offering,” saying, “The body of Christ.” R/ Amen. The deacon gives the cup, saying “The blood of Christ, the cup of life.” R/ Amen.

Theodore of Mopsuestia (bishop 392–428), in his Mystagogic Catecheses preached to the newly baptized, reports that the bishop says “The body of Christ” when administering the cup and the communicant says “Amen.” He says it is the same with the administration of the cup, although he cites no formula of distribution. As commentaries on the liturgy, the mystagogic catecheses of the fathers don’t necessarily give us all the liturgical texts.

These church orders and catecheses suggest that the words of distribution serve a catechetical purpose. We don’t know if they were used at all Eucharists at that time, but eventually words at the distribution were provided.

In the Byzantine tradition each communicant is named in the distribution. E.g. John, servant of God, is receiving the body and blood of Christ.” The baptismal name is used, indicating the connection between the two sacraments.

In the Roman sacramentaries after the time of Pope Gregory the Great, as devotion turned inward, communicants say the prayers “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul for everlasting life” and “The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve my soul for everlasting life” as each element is received.

Martin Luther retained these words in his Formula Missae. However, in his Deutsche Messe there are separate distributions of the bread immediately after the words of institution were chanted over the bread while the German Sanctus is sung and of the cup after the words of institution over the cup were chanted while the German Agnus Dei is sung. There are no separate individual words of distribution.

Johannes Bugenhagen based his North German and Danish church orders on the German Mass and there were no words of distribution. Other Lutheran church orders did have words of distribution, including the Swedish Mass of Olavus Petri, which turned the Roman prayer into a word of blessing by the minister—from “preserve my soul” to “preserve your soul.”

The Reformed Liturgies had no words of distribution. The Anglican Prayer Books had one formula of distribution in 1549 (suggesting the real presence — mention of body and blood), another formula in 1552 (suggesting a Zwinglian position with no mention of the elements — receive “this”), and a merger of these formulas in 1559 to reflect the Elizabethan via media. This is a reminder that the words of distribution have also served to shore up the doctrine of the sacrament.

Formulas of distribution returned in Lutheranism in the late 17th and 18th centuries adding pietistic or rationalistic tropes. Some pastors added Scripture citations as they administered the elements.

The Common Service (1888, 1917, 1958) simplified this development with “The body of Christ, given for thee” and “The blood of Christ, shed for thee.” The old Roman prayer formula was turned into a blessing after Communion, recited either table by table or after all have communed. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ and his precious Blood strengthen and preserve you unto eternal life.” This post-communion blessing seems to be a Lutheran peculiarity.

I can see eliminating the communion blessing, but having some words of distribution has a long history in the church. Sometimes, however, there has been theological mischief in such words in terms of tweaking doctrine or emotions. The Lutheran emphasis has been on the pro nobis—“for you.” I think the simple words, “The body of Christ” and “The blood of Christ,” with no further explanation would be best. Communion may be administered silently or with the singing of psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs that serve to focus devotion during the distribution.


Fasting From Communion?

February 2, 2021

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. I describe in the following brief answer the practices for the outdoor mass of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, which I attend with my wife. When we return to worship in the church building, perhaps by Pentecost, I expect similar practices will be in place.

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Mass on the Grass in the courtyard of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wilmette, IL

November 12, 2020

In-Person Communion During COVID-19

Question: Many churches have been returning to in-person worship. Many issues have to be considered to make in-person worship safe, including how to administer Holy Communion. What do you think is the best Communion practice during COVID-19?

Frank answers: Our in-person worship and communion practices are dependent on local conditions and government guidelines during during this pandemic. So it’s not easy to be specific about “the best Communion practice.” In the U.S. each state has developed its own policies and guidelines based on the percentage of positive cases in relation to the number of tests. The situation in Canada has been more favorable in comparison with the U.S. But with the end of summer in the northern hemisphere and people returning to indoor activities and failing to maintain physical distance from one another and even fighting about wearing masks, the predicted second surge of infections has arrived everywhere—in all fifty states and in Europe where the coronavirus had seemed to be under control. My state of Illinois had the virus under control but now it has become a hot spot along with the rest of the upper Midwest. During the summer state guidelines allowed gatherings of up to 50 people. But in October it was reduced to 25. Now in some areas the governor has reduced it to 10. These constant changes make it very difficult to prepare for in-person worship with any certainty that conditions will remain stable.

The same restrictions apply to bars and restaurants. I think the fact that Holy Communion is a meal with food and drink makes the comparison with bars and restaurants appropriate from the standpoint of people gathering. Our state supported outdoor dining with physical distancing, limited dinner parties to 10, and required wearing masks except to eat. Then limited indoor dining with adequate ventilation and the same mitigation practices was approved. Now with the spike in cases the governor has suppressed indoor dining.

I will use the church I usually attend, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wilmette, Illinois, as an example of a shifting response to local conditions. In March the Episcopal bishop of Chicago ordered the church buildings closed. We had been and are continuing with a 9:30 a.m. Zoom liturgy of the word. In July our very conscientious Re-Entry Task Force arranged for outdoor worship—Mass on the Grass—in the church yard at 8 a.m. It would be the first Eucharistic liturgy since in-person worship was suspended in March. People had to register online to attend. They would bring their own lawn chairs which would be spaced six-feet apart in all directions. Wearing masks would be required. There would be no singing, no touching during the greeting of peace, no passing the offering plates. Communion would be distributed only in the bread. Our rector instructed those who wished to receive the sacrament to move to the perimeter of the yard, spacing themselves 6 feet apart. She made the circuit of the communicants, dropping the hosts slightly into their hands without touching skin. Those not receiving were asked to remain in their places. Those desiring gluten-free wafers were to approach the deacon at the altar. The chalice would be consecrated but not distributed. Each week one family would come to the altar and share the chalice among themselves on behalf of the whole congregation.

The plan was to continue this outdoor Eucharistic liturgy as long as weather permitted. In September as the daylight was decreasing the time of this service was moved from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. The 9:30 a.m. Zoom service continued. We planned to continue the outdoor service at least through All Saints’ Day (so we could gather in the Columbarium area) while plans were made for a safe indoor service. By November the gathered congregation (including worship leaders) had to be reduced to 25 by order of the governor. Our plan for indoor worship was that doors and windows would remain open for ventilation (the building heated ahead of time). The congregation would be spaced with family groups 12 feet apart. Communion would continue to be administered in the bread only but at the church door as people were dismissed (outdoor dining). The priest or deacon would consumed the consecrated wine after the dismissal.

Mild weather in early November enabled us to remain outside for one more Sunday on November 8. We would re-enter the church building on November 15. But now the governor has ordered people to stay at home as much as possible (an order that will be mandated if necessary) because of the increased positivity rate in our state. Gatherings were reduced to 10. The Episcopal Bishop of Chicago ordered churches closed through November. Maybe the positivity rate will be reduced enough by December that it will be possible to re-enter the church with at least 25 in attendance. Or maybe not. I note that my Lutheran congregation, Grace in River Forest, is also suspending in-person worship at which the Eucharist is celebrated and communion distributed and is offering only live streamed worship until an all-clear is sounded by the governor. (Both congregations have distributed communion only in in-person worship.)

I would note that on no Sunday did we reach the maximum number of attendees allowed. Advanced registrations online indicated that people were reluctant about re-entering the building. People have been reluctant to gather in-person.

In terms of the best communion practices under the COVID-19 conditions, I think they are demonstrated here. The Eucharist is celebrated only in the assembly where the bread and a cup of wine are consecrated. No virtual communion is encouraged. To mitigate infection the cup is not shared by the whole assembly. We receive the whole Christ in the bread (concomitance). Pre-filled individual glasses of wine are offered at Grace Lutheran, but this is not an Episcopal practice and some of us discourage the introduction of that practice. Intinction is definitely not recommended. None of these practices are optimal, but they are rooted in the eucharistic tradition and are practiced with care and reverence.

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Praying the Great Thanksgiving during Holy Week at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, IL

May 9, 2020

The Eucharistic Prayer

Question: In the various congregations I’ve served, some would pray the Thanksgiving at the Table (with Words of Institution), others the Words of Institution only.  (Curiously, they all have been formerly LCA congregations.)
At seminary, the prof encouraged the Thanksgiving at the Table, but Midwestern piety seems to find that too fancy, too long, “we don’t know the words,” or “too Catholic.”

In one congregation, we re-crafted the seasonal Thanksgiving at the Table to be a back and forth litany between the pastor and the assembly.  I guess I don’t know enough of the theology of the Thanksgiving at the Table in Lutheranism to discern if that is “permitted”?!  It did help keep the assembly engaged in what otherwise was perceived as “something the pastor does up there.”

Help!  Thanks.

Frank answers: This is a big liturgical issue for Lutherans that we have gone around and around on since about the mid-20th century. I can’t unpack it all here. A lot of the historical information is in my big book, Christian Liturgy — Catholic and Evangelical (Fortress 1997), which has been used as a textbook in some Lutheran seminaries. More recently I published Eucharistic Body (Fortress 2017), which deals with the eucharistic prayer or anaphora in its various parts.  

The chances are you don’t use the Words of Institution alone. You probably also include the Preface (with its proper) and Sanctus. This is all part of the Great Thanksgiving. In my view using a full eucharistic prayer opens up the fuller range of eucharistic meaning. Has you congregation considered that the eucharistic prayer expresses a worldview? In its various parts it includes elements of cosmology, praise of the Father in creation; salvation history in the remembrance of the Son; interconnections in the invocation of the Holy Spirit for the blessings of communion that evoke the fellowship (koinonia) of the church. There are also touches of eschatology in this foretaste of the feast to come. You could do a whole systematic theology on the basis on a full eucharistic prayer. Your congregations, like most, have not been taught this by your predecessor. But there’s no reason you can’t begin to rectify this deficit by providing the catechesis that’s needed. My Eucharistic Body could be a helpful resource.

There’s no problem with litanizing the eucharistic prayer. Great Thanksgiving I in Lutheran Book of Worship (in the rose column) did this by providing several congregational interjections: the Sanctus, the Memorial Accalamation, the Maranatha (“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”), the Epiclesis (“Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.”), and the concluding Doxology. Some of the eucharistic prayers in Evangelical Lutheran Worship do the same. These congregational interjections can also be sung, just like the Sanctus and Doxology. Is God worthy of our praise and thanksgiving?  Yes? Then don’t withhold it!

April 14, 2020

About Spiritual Communion

Question: During this COVID-19 Pandemic when churches are closed and worship is live streamed, I see Catholic bishops celebrating Mass (even on local TV stations on Sundays) and an Episcopal Eucharist celebrated from the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on Easter Day by the bishop of Washington. It is announced that this is a “spiritual Communion.” What is “spiritual Communion” and do Lutherans practice it?

Frank answers: Spiritual Communion is a desire to receive the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ when conditions prevent one from communing orally. It was a doctrine taught in ancient times during periods of persecution when the Eucharist could not be celebrated and again during plagues in the Middle Ages when stricken Christians could not attend Mass. Thomas Aquinas defined Spiritual Communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” Pope John Paul II explained in his 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist),  “unlike any other sacrament, the mystery [of communion] is so perfect that it brings us to the heights of every good thing: Here is the ultimate goal of every human desire, because here we attain God and God joins himself to us in the most perfect union.” Thus, the passionate desire of the believer for union with God is at the root of this practice.

In terms of Anglican practice, Philip Tovey points out that “The 1549 Prayer Book said that if the person is so sick as to be unable to receive the elements but is repentant, they eat and drink spiritually” (The Theory and Practice of Extended Communion [London: Routledge, 2016], p.], p.61.)  He says that this statement was included in other Prayer Books. But interestingly, the word “spiritually” is omitted from this rubric in the 1552 Prayer Book so that it says, “he doeth eate and drinke [spiritually] the body and bloud of our Saviour Christ, profitably to his soules health, althoughe he doe not receive the Sacrament with hys mouth.” The word is omitted, but it is still a spiritual Communion in all but name. It has been appealed to during recent pandemics and now again in the COVID-19 pandemic, and Anglicans have provided prayers to accompany this practice. 

The repentant desire to receive the sacrament has certainly been a part of Lutheran teaching. This was expressed in times past when communicants had to announce to the pastor before the time of the celebration of Holy Communion their desire to receive it (and be catechized and absolved). But there has been no comparable teaching that one can receive the sacrament spiritually instead of orally. Oral eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ was a major issue dividing Lutherans from the Reformed in the sixteenth century. Since the Reformed taught that one receives the body and blood of Christ “spiritually” by partaking of the bread and cup, Lutherans would not want to appeal to that concept. In Lutheran teaching, just as Holy Communion should not be celebrated without communicants, so one does not receive the benefits of the Sacrament – “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation” (Small Catechism, V, 6) – without eating and drinking it.

In a time when the faithful received Communion infrequently, spiritual Communion may have been a more meaningful concept. In the Catholic Church mass was celebrated every day but the faithful seldom received Communion. In the Lutheran and Anglican Churches of the Reformation period Holy Communion was celebrated only when there were announced communicants. The Reformed Churches actually prepared the whole congregation to receive Communion on the four Communion days during the year (usually Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, in the fall).

Now Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans may receive Communion at every celebration. They are used to it and miss the sacrament and its benefits when they cannot receive it. This desire has spiked the proposals of virtual communion and household communions. Anglican bishops (and even Roman Catholic bishops) may think offering Spiritual Communion helps to avoid these other ill-considered practices. I don’t think Lutherans should go anywhere near proposals that avoid eating and drinking in the gathered Eucharistic assembly, apart from provision for the extended distribution of the Sacrament to the absent (see the following “Frank Answer). In our theology sacraments are embodied, real not virtual, corporeal not spiritual, and the benefits come from an embodied practice.

Quite frankly, it is bad optics for the bishop and deacons and other worship leaders to receive Communion in front of the faithful watching at home. Father or mother will receive this food and drink that is good for us, but the children go hungry and can only desire to be fed. Let the bishops also abstain from receiving Communion as a show of solidarity with the faithful.  Let them preach from their spiritual hunger.

This pandemic will not last forever. As good Lutherans we will obey the governing authorities who are exercising their God-given vocation and stay out of churches and not have any private masses in the church building or in the homes of the faithful. We will lament the whole situation in which we find ourselves in the church and in the world and long to conclude our song of lament with the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving at the altar of the Lord when we can gather again as a eucharistic assembly.  

March 16, 2020

About Self-Communion at Home

Question: Is it a valid communion for lay Christians to offer the elements to one another in the absence of ordained clergy, during a plague?

Frank answers: By “during a plague” the questioner is undoubtedly referring to the worldwide COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic.

At the outbreak of this pandemic, churches were re-thinking communion practices because they obviously involve touching containers and elements with hands or mouth and not maintaining social distancing. Some Protestants were canceling the celebration of the Lord’s Supper altogether. Then by government decree and denominational or congregational compliance, public in-person worship was being canceled totally. Some churches with the capability began live streaming worship with the pastor and organist and maybe a lay reader or a few singers present.  In Frank Answers Briefly I recommended using Ante-Communion or Morning Prayer rather than The Holy Communion or Eucharist since it would seem exclusionary for the pastor to celebrate the Eucharist and receive the sacrament with an absent congregation. The pastor and congregation would abstain from celebrating and receiving Holy Communion until such time as the eucharistic assembly can congregate again.

While baptisms can and are performed by lay people in cases of emergency, the same is not true for Holy Communion. The bishop, priest, or pastor is always the presiding minister of the Eucharist because the Lord’s Supper is the central rite of the church. This has been the case at least since the post-apostolic age when, as the Didache says, in the absence of apostles and itinerant prophets the church elects a bishop to preside at the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch also  states that there is no Eucharist without a bishop. The Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) also specify that the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments belong to the office of the Ministry of the word and sacraments.  So families at home cannot have their own Communion Service. Moreover, for families to go ahead and have “your own supper” (1 Corinthians 11:21) instead of waiting for the whole assembly to gather for the “Lord’s Supper” is schismatic.

However, there is another possibility: receiving the consecrated elements for self- or mutual-communion at home. This would involve the extended distribution of elements consecrated from a Eucharistic liturgy. The live streamed worship would then be the Service of Holy Communion or Eucharist. Elements would be consecrated for extended distribution to those sheltering at home.  Under the guidelines of social distancing blessed communion elements could be packaged for delivery to residences by the pastor and designated communion ministers. I will not venture into the briar patch of suggesting how to do this. I would only insist that it be done reverently and with care.

The intention to celebrate the Eucharist should be announced in advance by all means of communication and those who desire to receive communion could register their desire (online response, telephone call) so the pastor and assistants know how many communion packages to prepare. Because of the encouragement to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that some states are issuing stay-at-home directives except to pick up essential supplies, ministers (ordained or lay) who take the sacrament to people at their residences should behave like other delivery persons. Call or text that you are approaching the residence, give the elements to the household members, and do not stay for a social visit, especially with the elderly who are most vulnerable to infection. Families and individuals at home would self-communion from these consecrated elements.

Is there any precedent for this practice? As a matter of fact, yes. There is testimony from the third and fourth centuries of lay people taking home the consecrated elements to be consumed after a period of fasting or during a period of persecution. Witnesses to this self-communion include Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 200), Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 250), Apostolic Tradition 37 (3rd or 4th century), Jerome (late 4th century), and Augustine of Hippo (early 5th century). Augustine, however, wrote to discourage the practice since the age of persecution was over and there was the danger of profaning the elements by impious use. Also, by the 5th century fewer people were receiving Communion regularly (i.e. daily, weekly).

A brief order for self or family communion would include: a brief Scripture reading such as 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (institution narrative) and the Sunday Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer, reception of the consecrated bread and wine, and a post-communion prayer. The church staff could make these texts available on a card to be included in the packaged elements.

I offer these suggestions for an emergency situation requiring social distancing that seemingly will last several months. These practices should be abandoned once the crisis has passed and people return to public worship. I stand by what I wrote in the following answer as the normative practice even in the digital age. 

Pastors and church leaders might decide that one of the fasts of Lent would be abstaining from the eucharistic communion entirely during this time of pandemic. This means that NO ONE receives the sacrament until the time when the eucharistic assembly is able to convene again and ALL are able to receive together the bread and cup.

I want to address two other issues. People have asked about “virtual communion” in which the live streaming pastor proclaims the words of institution and people at home receive Holy Communion using their own bread and wine. Sacraments have a physicality to them, which includes body-to-body connection with the eucharistic assembly. Pastors/priests also have a responsibility as stewards of the mysteries (sacraments) to provide for accountable administration of the sacraments. Putting the eucharistic rite on You Tube or Face Book and letting people at home have their own Communion does not provide for this.

Those who believe in the Real Presence say that the Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality” (Ignatius of Antioch). We should not fear contagion from receiving the body and blood of Christ. Be that as it may, our concern is being infected by other people by passing the virus to others. Stay at home. When out, practice social distancing. That’s responsible Christian behavior in this pandemic. 

In a situation such as we are in, there are no absolutely right answers, not even from Frank. Conditions seem to be changing daily. “From plague and pestilence, good Lord, deliver us.” We long to return to the eucharistic assembly when these images below are our sacramental signs — bread broken and divided and a shared loving cup.

September 29, 2019

About Communion to Online Worshipers

Question: 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?

Frank answers: 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.

March 6, 2019

About Receptionism

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

Frank answers: “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 that 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.

January 15, 2019

About Daily Communion

Question: 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.

Frank answers: 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

December 20, 2018

About the Use of Gluten-free Bread for Communion

Question: 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?

Frank answers: 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.

December 15, 2018

About Communion Wine

Question: 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?

Frank answers: 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. In the ancient Hellenistic/Roman world wine was a staple beverage with meals, even with breakfast (which was probably just bread and diluted wine). For festive meals one would prefer 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 (kidding!).

Yes, this is photo shopped.

March 1, 2018

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.

Frank answers: 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

February 1, 2018

About Communion on Ash Wednesday

Question: 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). Should The Sacrament of the Altar be omitted at congregation Services  on Ash Wednesday?

Frank answers: 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 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


  1. Barrett Scheske

    Very interesting read. GOD bless you.

  2. Dan

    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.

    • Comment by post author

      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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