With enforced quarantines as a result of a global pandemic, church leaders across the Lutheran church are suddenly needing to justify a practice in our denomination theologically that is, in point of fact, insupportable.
Because they have tied the Eucharist to specific locations (so-called “assemblies” that typically gather in church buildings) and because they have tethered serving the meal to ordained ministers, they have to come up with a justification for pausing from the Eucharist for these weeks of isolation.
So what we get is a bunch of bloviation in an attempt to justify what is actually a theological novum: waiting for or fasting from the Eucharist. One of the longest and most painful justifications was even posted out of The Lutheran World Federation itself.
Dirk Lange says it is okay to wait for the sacrament. He’s not wrong about that. But he’s wrong to trap the meal in the way he does.
Other Lutheran theologians, like Paul Hinlicky, have even taken to calling this theological novum, in this coronavirus moment, “Eucharistic fasting.” Of course the origin of that term is in Roman Catholic practice, an encouragement to fast from food for an hour before worship and the Eucharist.
What it is definitely NOT is encouragement to observe an indeterminably lengthy fast from the meal of Christ altogether during the time of a plague.
Those who are arguing for Eucharist fasting are introducing a radically new practice, the burden of proof resting on them to establish. Is there even an example in Scripture of encouraging the people to fast, not from meals altogether, but from their core communion with God?
I had promised myself I wouldn’t sally forth with an additional reflection on the value of sharing communion in homes, and finding creative and sound ways to worship through virtual means, but when this kind of edifying bullshit arrives I”m not sure I can wait with my follow-up piece.
So here we are. I don’t want to make this overly long, as I’ve already articulated rationale for both virtual communion (and illustrated some of the problematic assumptions critics of virtual worship make regarding what counts as properly mediated sacraments) and for communion presided at in smaller groups and homes.
What I want to do in this post is simply make a case for the Eucharist as precisely the kind of sacrament that is to be distributed “on the way,” precisely in moments of crisis.
The meals established in Scripture are all meals initiated on the way, and for the people. Let’s take a variety of them in turn.
- Abraham’s meal with the three visitors: In Genesis 18, the LORD visits Abraham in the form of three visitors. In this moment, Abraham, the head of the household, as it were, washes the feet of his guests and prepares a meal for them. Sarah assists by making bread from some flour. Here, I simply want to call attention to this, one of the first mentions of bread served as a fellowship between the LORD and the people of God. It’s served on the way, in the moment, to meet the need of travelers.
- The Passover meal: This meal, recorded in Exodus 12, is a meal organized in each household. There are even instructions for how to share if very small households find one lamb to be too much. God gives other instructions here, all related to safety as the final plague passes over, and preparing a meal that will gird them up for the exodus from Egypt.
- The Manna in the wilderness: In Exodus 16, we have the first record of “true bread from heaven” (a phrase sometimes ascribed to the bread of the Eucharist). A flaky substance blankets the ground, and God gives instructions for each household to gather as much as it needs.
- The widow and Elijah: In 1 Kings 17:7-16, Elijah asks a widow in Zarephath to bring him bread. She says she has run out, and is starving. He promises if she returns home, her jar of flour and jug of oil will never run out. She goes home, and is able to make bread for herself, her son, and Elijah throughout the famine. Elijah does quite the opposite of call for a fast during the famine. Instead, he ordains the woman to be the presider at the meal.
- A variety of table fellowship practices during Jesus’ earthly ministry: It would simply be too lengthy to recount all the times Jesus shares a meal with others in ways that break the traditions of the culture and the religious community. From the meal at the home of Zachaeus, to the jars of water turned to wine at the wedding, to the miraculous feeding of thousands, Jesus seems completely uninterested in either where the meals take place or who is there to serve them, and in some instances when one group doesn’t accept the invitation to the meal, rather than cancel the meal, he tells a parable of inviting others in from the street to share it instead. The gospels are in this sense a study, through and through, of how wrong-headed our strictures around the sacraments have become.
- Jesus’ meal in the upper room before his crucifixion: This is a meal established immediately before the “presider” dies and becomes unavailable. Rather than teach the disciples that they should fast in the absence of the properly ordained person, or that they can only repeat the meal whenever the right person, in proper apostolic succession, says the right words with the right kind of community at the right time, he emphasizes “do this as often as you eat and drink.”
- Think that’s the end of the open-ness of rules around meals in New Testament? Think again. Immediately in Acts in one of the first references to eating, it is a blanket of previously forbidden foods (Acts 10) that Peter sees and is encouraged to eat.
I make this list of references simply to illustrate how wide open meals and table fellowship become if considered in biblical perspective. That we have so narrowly confined the Eucharist, the meal of Jesus, to something that takes place in a specific liturgy, and only on Sunday morning, and only with an ordained pastor, simply flies in the face of this more open and capacious biblical imagination.
Furthermore, notice the lack of middle men here. Priests and other religious leaders are not in place to set boundaries around the Israelites as they share the Passover meal, or the people as they gather Manna, certainly not the flour for the widow, etc. Where they are connected to it, they are there to give instructions to those who will serve (Moses’ instructions to the people, Elijah’s instructions to the widow…).
Perhaps most importantly, notice almost all of these meals are instituted not in a time of stability, for a rightly ordered and proper religious institution, but quite the opposite, at the moment of instability, crisis, plague, exodus, famine, arrest and execution of the leader.
Nor can I find a single instance where the people of God are told to fast from their sacramental practices for a time because of a pandemic. Like, that’s not a thing.
That we can’t share the meal of Jesus because of our present moment isn’t a call to waiting and fast. Instead, it’s a call to claim the pastoral and loving way of God, who presides a meal miraculously to 500o who had not brought their own food, to a people enslaved who are finally getting free, presided over by a foreign-born widow, and capturing visions even of eating foods previously forbidden.
This is the God in whom we have communion through Christ, and none other.
If we want to add some additional reflections on sacramental practice, we might add that moment in Acts when the Ethiopian eunuch, “What is to keep me from being baptized?” Answer: “Nothing, so he gets baptized.”
The church today might ask the bishops and clergy, as they watch online videos of Roman Catholic priests presiding at private masses broadcast online (and I would add, more power to them, they are providing comfort within their ecclesiological tradition), and hearing their own denomination teach how to do worship at home (but without communion), “What is to keep us from sharing the meal of Christ here?”
The answer: “This is a plague, you should all be penitent while we keep our magic hands at home” simply doesn’t cut it. And the, “We can wait and just remember our baptism” is a skilled but problematic deflection.
The answer: “Please, share Christ with one another, and here’s how to do it” is the better answer, and more in keeping with meals shared and recounted in holy scripture.
All justifications for the current state of affairs are simply post facto attempts to establish theological underpinnings for practices that should have been abolished long before this pandemic.