Communion in a time of COVID-19

“Pastor, I’m really missing communion too,” she said to me. (The ‘too’ is because I had just been grumping about it.) “I’m thinking of making bread at home and gathering my boys around me and just doing it. God won’t refuse to show up, right? We let laypeople baptize in an emergency, don’t we?”

Oh Lord, do I feel her pain and her longing. My congregation celebrated First Communion on March 1st, two weeks before we made the decision to cancel in-person worship thanks to COVID-19. I know we made the right decision. And. It hurts to be planning a Maundy Thursday worship that will include no Eucharist. It is painful to be preparing for the feast of resurrection on Easter Sunday knowing that there will be no actual “foretaste of the feast to come.”

I miss communion. And I’m not OK with it.

I’m not OK with missing communion like I am OK with missing human contact (to date, it’s been 35 days since I last hugged someone that wasn’t my dog), where the missing is real but I understand why it’s necessary and I can make peace with it.

I miss communion like I would miss my kneecaps right before a marathon. We are in the long haul, my friends, and I’m missing something necessary. I have been blessed to grow up in a time of liturgical renewal, when Eucharist was put back at the center of our Sunday liturgy. I have been taught to hunger for that bread and that cup. And now, in a time when I need to taste the promise it contains and touch the presence of Christ more than ever, we can’t do it.

This, at least, is what my church is telling me.

I love and respect my church, and believe strongly in the communion of saints and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that moves and speaks through them, and so I very much want to accept and make peace with this dictum. But it’s just not happening.

I have some thoughts about why that might be.

A quick but necessary rant

I’m going to take space here to say something important to religious leadership, because this is something that we need to do better at, now, immediately, without delay:

Please stop telling me and my people that the desire for communion is unimportant, flawed, or a product of laziness or discomfort with grief.

I am so frustrated with religious leadership who are dismissive of people’s need for communion in this time. I’ve heard it chalked up to wanting a “quick fix” in a time of discomfort. I’ve heard it called theological laziness. This is spiritual gaslighting, and it is NOT OKAY.

In one video I watched from an Episcopal seminary, a pastor/professor said something like, “We’ve done a wonderful job of restoring the centrality of the eucharistic rite to the Sunday liturgy. Unfortunately, now we’ve arrived at a point where we think if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing anything.”

Let me make something clear: from where I sit, that is not the problem. People are missing communion because that’s where we see, touch, and taste Jesus showing up, and we need that right now really badly. And the Table is the place where the church has taught us to go when we need strength, sustenance, and a sign of God’s presence. Please stop dismissing hunger for the body of Christ as a failure to understand that God’s word also conveys grace, or implying that it’s a flaw in someone’s spirituality. There is not a damn thing wrong with hungering for communion, especially now.

Please treat me like a spiritual adult.

I have a sense that my church has been quick to arrive at a “no” to the specific question of virtual communion (where parishioners gathered around a screen at home consume bread and wine that the pastor consecrates through the medium of the internet) without feeling out to the edges of our theological framework and providing a satisfying explanation for that decision based on how we understand sacramentality and God’s presence among us. The spiritual impact of that is something like being told “no” by a parent when I’m asking for dinner, and when I ask why, hearing not an explanation but rather “there’s nothing wrong with being hungry.”

Look, I’m the heir of a Protestant tradition. Of course I want to argue about the meaning and method of the Eucharist. This is my theological heritage. I want my church to meet me here and engage me and my people with all of its considerable wisdom, intellect, and pastoral sensitivity around this conversation. So please: treat me and my people like spiritually mature adults, and give us reasons.

In the absence of that kind of conversation, what I can do and will be doing for the remainder of this epicly long post (sorry) is feel out the theological edges for myself and share with you where it’s gotten me.

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First, a working definition of what eucharist is.

It’s a sacrament.

That means (to Lutherans), that it has three things going on:
a) a physical element (the bread and wine)
b) a mandate from Christ to do it (the Last Supper)
c) the presence of God conveyed through it.

Lutherans believe that there are two sacraments: baptism and communion. Other denominations have different understandings of what constitutes a sacrament, and I want to flag that, because it means that Lutheran conversations about virtual communion are going to be different from, for example, Episcopal conversations.

We believe certain stuff about what it does.

The Lord’s supper in particular is linked to the forgiveness of sins, a connection to Christ’s covenant with and sacrifice for us, and spiritual and physical nourishment. While baptism is the sacrament that makes us part of the Body of Christ, Eucharist is the sacrament that nourishes us as members of that body.

Also, gotta say, one of the best metaphors I know of for the function of communion in our lives is lembas bread from Lord of the Rings. It’s the thing that keeps us going when faith and future feel shaky, and somehow, it never seems to run out.

We believe we don’t know everything.

All of what I just wrote is what we can say with some certainty is happening in communion. But the other piece Lutherans hold fast to is that this sacrament is a part of and expression of divine mystery, so there are parts of it—especially, like, HOW IT IS that CHRIST SHOWS UP—that we’ll never understand by reason, but can only grasp through faith.

What’s particular about our Lutheran understanding?

Real presence

Lutherans are super clear on our belief that Jesus is REALLY DEFINITELY THERE. We don’t think that Christ is present “for us.” Like, because we believe it, we make it so (read that in your best Picard voice). Neither do we believe that the bread and wine transform into body and blood. But we do believe that Jesus is there. He’s in, with, and under the bread. We don’t know how. We just know it’s true.

It’s a party, not a date

Lutherans are also super clear on the necessity of the assembly. This is a group activity, not an intimate dinner for two, me and Jesus. There is something beautiful and mysterious and profound in this sacrament, where the body of Christ is offered for the sake of the body of Christ. We receive what we are, and pray that we might become what we receive.

The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ

Going deeper into that idea: the official physical aspect of this sacrament is the bread and the wine, but the implicit physical aspect is the assembly of believers whom God gathers around the table. This belief is reflected in the way that we practice the sending of communion to the homebound: the bread and wine are gathered up from the table where the congregation has communed, and are carried from there to those who couldn’t be present as soon as possible afterwards. Communion isn’t re-enacted for the homebound person, but remembered. (I needed a friend to remind me of this distinction, because I oh-so-badly wanted to send pre-consecrated elements to my congregants for Maundy Thursday worship at home, but our Lutheran theology teaches us that that is not what pre-consecration is for. Gershdangit.)

Can virtual be real?

Yes.

Yes. Yes it can. I know there’s substantial debate that can be had around this, but my Lord, this blog post is already going to be so long, I’m going to pretend otherwise. My congregants are telling me that they sense that God is really with them when we gather via livestream on Sunday mornings, so I’m just going to thank Jesus for answering that prayer well enough for today and leave the debates about whether virtual can be real to the better-equipped. For the sake of this blog post, yes, virtual can be real.

But.

What it cannot be is tangible. I cannot get this bread here to you over there. If we were to practice virtual communion, then you go to the cupboard yourself, procure your own bread, pour your own wine/juice, and set your own table.

These elements are a gift—we give them to God in the act of offering (and hey, God first gave them to us!), and then God gives them back to us along with the very presence of Christ in communion. That sense of giftedness is lost in a virtual medium. And so is the visual symbol of the one bread and one cup that everyone shares. There’s a lot about the unifying symbolism that is untranslatable in a virtual medium. And in sacramentality, symbolism overlaps with function until it’s hard to tell them apart.

Because…

As an embodied pastor, here’s what I know about virtual communion: I can’t press that bread into your palm. I can’t look into your eyes. I can’t tell you, you, specifically you, there in that body, that this is the body of Christ, given for you.

There is a fundamental embodiment here that matters in our Lutheran sacramentality, and it doesn’t, it can’t, translate to a virtual medium because of the very nature of what the thing is. It is this bread. It is Christ’s real presence. It is here, in my hands. I cannot put it into yours.

This is the thing I keep running up against when it comes to virtual communion, and I can’t find a way around it. I want to. I really want to. I’m hungry, too, friends, if I haven’t made that abundantly clear. The eucharistic centrality of the liturgy has been a part of my spiritual practice and identity for my whole life, and when we don’t get to do it, there is a part of me that is both literally and spiritually unfed, and it’s happening in a time when we need that nourishment more than ever.

Nobody puts baby in a corner

To end on a hopeful note: my sense is that my theology has me backed into a corner, but God does not. I’m pretty sure that God is not limited in the way that I am. I’m pretty sure that God’s imagination and action are both broader than mine. I’m pretty sure that God can work through virtual communion, but right now, in this moment, I, as a Lutheran pastor, cannot. At least, not responsibly, and not with the theological integrity that I have inherited and that I cherish.

This disconnect is a problem, but it’s not one I can solve on my own. In order to get out of the corner, I need the whole people of God asking questions and seeking understanding about this sacrament in a new way. In order for God’s word to stand at the center of this sacrament, I need that Word, that grace, and how it can be really present virtually, to be expressed through the community of believers who taught me to love this bread and this cup in the first place. I need the theologians of my church to start thinking and writing, and to tell me, in terms my Luther-lovin’ sense of sacramentality can understand and embrace, whether and how we might recover a eucharistic practice in a time of social distancing.

And if the answer still turns out to be, “no,” then tell me in a way that preaches to me that the gospel good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which my body has learned through the sacrament of communion, isn’t conquered by the powers of social distancing and pandemic.

Tell me in a way that preaches to me about this Jesus, who loved himself some fish barbeque on an Easter morning in Galilee, who made it his business to eat with outcasts and sinners and those who no one else would touch, whose eating with others was inextricably linked to his embodied expression of the reign of God come near.

Tell me in a way that leads me into the presence of that Jesus, because that’s the one who I met in this Meal, and I cannot for one second believe that he’s not hungry for this communion too.

 

 

Further reading:

Dirk G. Lange. “Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic.” Lutheran World Federation blog. March 24, 2020.

Aidan Luke Stoddart. “A Eucharistic Proposal for a Time of Pandemic.”  The Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. March 2020.

Deanna A. Thompson. “Christ is Really Present Virtually: A Proposal for Virtual Communion.” Lutheran Center for Values, Faith, and Community at St. Olaf’s College. March 26, 2020.

Jim Gonia. “Reflections and Recommendations on Holy Communion during COVID-19 Pandemic.” Rocky Mountain Synod (ELCA). March 31, 2020.

Jim Hazelwood. “Hastiness and Lament: Why Do I Object to Virtual Communion?” From the blog of Jim Hazelwood (bishop of the New England Synod, ELCA). March 29, 2020.

3 Replies to “Communion in a time of COVID-19”

  1. You and I have the same problem. We both so badly want to find an explanation for how the physical, tangible part of Holy Communion can be translated through a virtual medium, and we haven’t been able to find one (but I haven’t lost hope yet). The comfort I’ve found is in the ancient practice of Spiritual Communion, something I think we definitely need to reclaim.

      1. I only discovered the practice because of this pandemic. But it’s been around for at least 800 years, if not longer. It’s the idea that there are times when, through no fault of their own, Christians are unable to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Maybe there is no church around, or there is no sacramental minister. So instead, Christians pray for the same presence and forgiveness of Christ to come and be with them anyway. It recognizes the longing one has to share in the physical celebration of the Eucharist, but also the truth that God will not hold back the blessings of the sacrament from those who cannot receive it.

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