Maxwell E. Johnson
What will become of the centrality of the Eucharist in Lutheran worship as a result of the current pandemic? I have been thinking about this question ever since many of our congregations moved rather quickly to Zoom and You Tube liturgies with an increased emphasis upon the oral proclamation of the Word in various forms (e.g., the use of the Liturgy of the Hours (especially the Morning Office of Matins) the provisions made in Lutheran Book of Worship, Evangelical Lutheran Worship and the Lutheran Service Book for a Service of the Word, or home-grown devotional services). It is the use of such Word-based services that has been recommended by the ELCA:
We recommend that we do not urge people to employ virtual communion, that deacons, pastors, and bishops use this time as a teaching moment about the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God, and that we make use of the Service of the Word and Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer and Responsive Prayer.
The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod has issued similar guidelines in its statement “Communion and Covid-19.”
Contrary to these recommendation, however, several ELCA congregations, at least, have, in fact, continued to celebrate the Eucharist with the suggestion made for people at home to “set the table” at the Offering with bread, wine (or juice) and to then receive these at the time for distribution of communion during the live-streamed rite. Such “Zoom or YouTube Communion Services” have drawn a large amount of critique from others, including from me, though reading Valparaiso faculty member and Eastern Orthodox deacon Nicholas Denysenko’s recent column in Pray Tell, “COVID-19 and Orthodox Liturgical Reform: What’s Possible?” may cause me to reassess my initial negative reaction. After noting favorably the possibility of using Orthos (Matins), small group Eucharists, and even the ancient custom of giving people communion to take home, Denysenko writes of a Zoom Divine Liturgy:
There is…no objection that can be raised to the power and love of God to consecrate any gift offered by his holy people. Certainly, a Zoom Liturgy is extraordinary, but a Zoom gathering is a still a gathering, the participants constitute a community, and they are gathered in a real space, virtual, but no less legitimate than the normal embodied gathering. The problem… is neither technological nor legal. The problem is one of trust. The laity can take communion home and partake of it responsibly and with faith and awe of God – if the clergy trust the laity to see it through. God will send his Spirit upon the loaves and cups offered by the people through a Zoom liturgy, if the clergy trust the laity to handle those holy gifts responsibly and in conformance to good order.
To this end I do not think we have even begun to think theologically about the relationship between technology, liturgy, and community, though we may well have to do so sooner rather than later.
At the same time, I am not ready to embrace this option theologically or liturgically, not least because it tends to excommunicate those who have no access to Zoom (just like current online education procedures tend to discriminate against those without similar access), and there are too many horror stories about the gifts not being handled responsibly with even animal crackers and coffee, and other elements, substituted for the bread and wine, or anti-clergy sentiments in favor of “lay consecration” of the Eucharist. Nor, in spite of the ELCA’s and Missouri Synod’s recommendation, am I willing to embrace wholeheartedly the substitution of “Word Services” for the Mass during this time period. Indeed, for those of us who regularly pray the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours daily using this to replace the Sunday Eucharist is itself problematic since the Office would be prayed anyway (and historically, at least, the Office was never intended to be “Service of the Word” but a daily cursus of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving).
My purpose here is to suggest another alternative to abandoning the Eucharistic Liturgy altogether in favor of the restoration of a pre-LBW or ELW/LSB Word-based worship (which well might call into question the so-called centrality of the Eucharist for us in the long run) or to the practice of people in their homes self-communing as part of a live streamed celebration. This alternative is one I tried to suggest when I was part of a conversation group with Bishop Eaton and others before the ELCA March statement but the conversation was already advanced before I entered or had my thoughts clarified and which was summarily dismissed without much conversation. The rest of this essay seeks to set out that fasting from the reception of Holy Communion is not the same as fasting from the Eucharist, that is, from the Eucharistic Liturgy itself, and, as I will show, there may be great value in seeing and hearing the Eucharistic Liturgy even if one cannot receive holy communion physically.
It is hardly an “adiaphoron” that for Lutherans Sunday and the Eucharistic Liturgy go together, although it has taken us some five centuries to come closer to realizing this confessional norm again. As the Augsburg Confession says clearly in Art. 24: “our churches are falsely accused of abolishing the Mass. Actually, the Mass is retained among us and is celebrated with the greatest reverence. Almost all the customary ceremonies are also retained.” And Melanchthon’s Apology to the Augsburg Confession makes it clear that what is intended here is the reverent celebration of the “Mass” specifically on Sundays and Festival Days, including the keeping of “liturgical forms, such as the order of the lessons, prayers, vestments, etc..” But to this general description of the centrality of the Mass Melanchthon’s Apology adds that at the Mass, “the Sacrament is offered to those who wish for it, after they have been examined and absolved,” thus drawing an often unnoticed distinction between the celebration of the Mass, the Eucharistic Liturgy itself, and the reception of holy communion. I want to suggest that this might be an important distinction for us to consider in this current crisis. That is, the reception of holy communion may not be the only way to participate in the Church’s Sunday Eucharist and that if we are called to fast from holy communion during this pandemic we are not thereby or necessarily called to fast from the Eucharistic Liturgy itself. Or, should we be content and simply abolish the Mass during this crisis?
I remember that in the days before our current books and the recovery of every Sunday Eucharist, there would often be an announcement in the bulletin on “Communion Sundays” saying something like: “those who choose not to receive communion are, nevertheless, assured of Christ’s presence and promise of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in His Word.” For whatever reason it was assumed that not everyone in the assembly would necessarily commune at every Eucharistic celebration but they were included in the benefits of Christ’s gift and promise nonetheless. Perhaps that is the situation we all find ourselves in today or perhaps we are more like our shut-ins and home bound members, who yearn to be at worship, and who, outside of this pandemic, may well watch the Sunday Eucharist via live stream if provided.
Being only a “supply pastor” for a congregation that has its own “vacancy pastor,” it has been the vacancy pastor’s role to provide for Sunday worship during the pandemic and I have not been involved with this in any way. But what this time away from presiding and preaching has done is to enable me to “see” and “hear” the Mass in its entirety in several places and forms. Without being able to commune I was able this year to celebrate via live stream Passion (Palm) Sunday and the Paschal Triduum with the monks at Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN, together with Abbot John Klassen’s wonderful homilies. In the same way, without being able to commune I was able to join with my dear friend Bishop M. Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church, at the Easter Sunday Badarak (Divine Eucharistic Liturgy) over which he presided in St Vartan’s Cathedral, New York, New York, with only a handful of others present, or Sunday live stream Eucharist from the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, DC, with a bit larger community of clergy, assistants, and musicians, or at St Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church (aka “Smokey Mary’s”) Times Square, New York, New York, with the assembled community of clergy, musicians, and Anglican Franciscans present, or at Christ the King Lutheran Church, South Bend, IN, where the two pastors, musician, and, at least, one other parishioner are clearly present. Of course, what unites all of these is the very fact that it is the Mass, the Church’s full Liturgy, that is being celebrated here for all to hear and see. If, unlike those in physical attendance, participating viewers cannot receive communion they are not excluded from hearing the Eucharistic readings of the lectionary, the great chants of the Mass, whether spoken or sung (Kyrie, Gloria In Excelsis or “Worthy is Christ,” Creed, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), or hearing and yes, seeing, the Great Thanksgiving over the Bread and Cup, embodied in the orans position of the vested presider, which, as The ELCA Statement on the Means of Grace says, “proclaims and celebrates the gracious work of God in creation, redemption, and sanctification,” and in which we acclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The Eucharistic Liturgy is not simply to be identified with the communion rite, the rite of the distribution and reception of holy communion, although a barebones use of the Narrative of Institution without Dialogue, Preface, Sanctus, or full Eucharistic Prayer might well give that impression. Of course, the reception of communion is the culmination and goal of the liturgy and we cannot celebrate that without some form of community physically present, at least, the pastor as part of the dominical two or three gathered “in my name” (Matthew 18:20), the two at table with Jesus at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), or more. But, I would assert, we dare not lose sight of the fact that the Eucharist itself, as noted above, is not just “meal;” it is also proclamation, praise, thanksgiving, memorial, epiclesis, and intercession! And it is not just aural, something heard, but it is something visible, something seen.
Our own sacramental theology flows from Augustine’s great definition of sacraments as “visible words.” In his Tractates on the Gospel of John, 80.3 Augustinenotes that a sacrament results from “the word…added to the element” and becomes “itself also a kind of visible word.” And Article XIII of Melancthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession draws special attention to this Augustinian notion in a way I believe highly relevant to our own situation today:
[T]he sacraments…are…signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us, through which he moves [peoples’] hearts to believe…. Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), ‘Faith comes from what is heard.’ As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament ‘the visible Word,’ for the rite is received by the eyes and is sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore, both have the same effect.
The very visibility of the rite of the Eucharist is here given a sacramental emphasis often lacking in Lutheran theological approaches. That is, the visibility of the Rite is visible gospel; seeing the rite is one way – a way, according to Melanchthon, equal to hearing the Word (!) – for the gospel “to move the heart!” And I would assert that part of our seeing the rite includes those gospel-centered ceremonies of procession with the Gospel book, the thanksgiving over and sprinkling of the assembly with water in remembrance of baptism, even the visibility of our worship space centered around font, ambo, and altar, physically and visually reminding us of the visible word of the sacrament and its benefits, just as the water in our fonts accessible to our use in signing oneself with the cross, calls visibly to mind our Baptism. In his defense of retaining the elevation of the Host in his Deutsche Messe of 1526 Luther also had this sense of the need for the visibility of the rite, saying:
We do not want to abolish the elevation but retain it because it goes well with the German Sanctus and signifies that Christ has commanded us to remember him. For just as the sacrament is bodily elevated, and yet Christ’s body and blood are not seen in it, so also is he elevated by the word of the sermon and is confessed and adored in the reception of the sacrament. In each case he is apprehended only by faith, for we cannot see how Christ gives his body and blood for us and even now daily shows and offers it before God to obtain grace for us.
But without the actual “seeing” of the Eucharistic rite (which includes those who are abled with sight and those who “see” in other ways), which modern technology now makes possible in ways never before in our history, the obvious benefits of the rite entering us through the eyes “to move the heart,” underscored by Melanchthon, are unavailable.
To claim here that we must fast not only from the reception of holy communion but from the entire Eucharistic rite as well in favor of a Word Service alone during this pandemic may also do a disservice to the very theology of the Word expressed in the celebration of the Eucharist itself. Support for Word services alone in this crisis is sometimes defended by appeal to the following quote from Luther’s 1520 Treatise on the New Testament, that is the Holy Mass:
Let us learn, then, that in every promise of God there are two things which one must consider: the word and the sign. As in baptism there are the words of the baptizer and the dipping in water, so in the mass there are the words and the bread and wine. The words are the divine vow, promise, and testament. The signs are the sacraments, that is, sacred signs. Now as the testament is much more important than the sacrament, so the words are much more important than the signs. For the signs might well be lacking, if only one has the words; and thus without sacrament, yet not without testament, one might be saved. For I can enjoy the sacrament in the mass every day if only I keep before my eyes the testament, that is, the words and promise of Christ, and feed and strengthen my faith on him.
What ought not be neglected here is that Luther is referring to the Eucharistic words themselves! The New Testament, Christ’s last will and Testament for him, the entire “gospel in a nutshell,” is the proclamation of the Narrative of Institution. These are the words that need to be heard both by those who receive the sign and by those who do not! And again, Luther is talking about the Mass, not a distinct or generic theology of the Word apart from the Eucharist but about what is central in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Words of Christ need to be heard giving rise to our communion with Christ whether we receive the elements or not. That is why Luther could say that with or without literal communion any Christian can celebrate Mass at any time or place by clinging to these Words in faith.
But again, this emphasis on hearing the Testament, like the visibility of the Eucharistic rite itself, pushes us toward the actual celebration of the Mass itself so that, if nothing else, these Words may still be heard as central. Here as well, I would urge caution in so-quickly substituting a Word-based non-Eucharistic rite for the Sunday Eucharist, precisely because of our theology of the Word. That is, as Principle 34 of our ELCA statement, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, says: “the two principal parts of the liturgy of Holy Communion, the proclamation of the Word of God and the celebration of the sacramental meal, are so intimately connected as to form one act of worship.” Further, Lutheran use of the common three-year lectionary embraces what Fritz West has called “the Catholic liturgical paradigm” which “is marked by weekly Eucharist, a balance of word and sacrament, a sacramental perspective on worship, an appreciation for ritual and symbol, an organic understanding of the Church, and a veneration of tradition.” To this West juxtaposes what he calls “the Protestant liturgical paradigm,” which, not surprisingly:
is a preaching tradition characterized by the centrality of the sermon and, in most cases, the infrequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Other attributes include a preference for the verbal over the symbolic, an emphasis upon the local expressions of the Church…, and a more occasional appreciation for Church tradition.
These paradigms are also related to how the three-year lectionary is actually used within various traditions, whether all three readings are regularly employed or only one chosen as a “sermon text.” For Lutherans the “Catholic liturgical paradigm,” marked by the weekly Eucharist is well demonstrated by Gordon Lathrop:
We read a text from the gospel, not in order to recapture the time when independent tradition units circulated in the Christian communities, but in order to set the pericope we read next to the passion and resurrection of Christ held forth now in the Supper. Hence reading the individual pericopes and then celebrating the Supper presents us with a skein of images reinterpreting images which is the very pattern of the gospel books themselves. The Sunday texts are not then understood aright unless they are understood as leading to that Supper. The hierarchy of readings in the Sunday Eucharist may then be thought of as a primary example of a skein of images reborn.
The readings of the lectionary, at least as it has been recovered in our own day by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans, are Eucharistic readings and are interpreted that way in the Church’s Liturgy. To substitute a Service of the Word, using the same readings, removes those readings from their hermeneutical, Eucharistic context. I’m not sure we want to do that, that is, abandon our Catholic liturgical paradigm so quickly for a Protestant liturgical paradigm.
So, where does that leave us in the midst of this crisis with regard to the Eucharist? I do not find either the replacement of the Eucharistic Liturgy with a Service of the Word or with some kind of Zoom service of home communion to be the best alternatives. To answer the question that the title of this essay raises, no, fasting from the reception of holy communion is not the same as fasting from the Eucharistic Liturgy. One may be necessitated by quarantine and social distancing in this time of pandemic but the other is not. For all the reasons I have suggested above, the Mass, the Eucharistic Liturgy, can and should still be celebrated and livestreamed for the benefit of our parishioners. This is not to be equated with private Masses (at least a small community must be present) or with devotion to the Host or the reserved Sacrament (this is in the context of the liturgical action of the Mass itself). Nor is this what the medieval mystics called “ocular Communion” or viewing the elevation of the Host as the be-all and end-all of Mass piety and devotion (although it could be argued, as did Louis Bouyer, that Luther’s retention of the elevation of the Host stands firmly in that tradition). No! This is about hearing and seeing and so receiving in faith what the Church does on Sundays and Feasts in proclaiming the Word audibly and celebrating that Word visibly, so that the visibility of the rite itself entering “through the eyes”may “move the heart” to believe just as hearing the Eucharistic proclamation of Christ’s last will and Testament may move the heart to faith!
For those unable, for whatever reason, to receive holy communion during a Mass in Western Christianity there has long been a tradition known as “spiritual communion,” an act of belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist and an expressed desire for Christ’s presence in the believer’s soul. Forum editor Richard O. Johnson gives the following version of this traditional prayer being used in his congregation during this pandemic:
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You in my soul,
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there
and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You Amen.
Others have attempted to update this prayer by attending to communion with the whole Body of Christ which the Eucharist ultimately signifies. Roman Catholic Deacon Fritz Bauerschmidt suggests:
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You in my soul,
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my soul,
to be in communion with Your body, the Church,
and to feast at the Lamb’s sacred banquet in the new creation.
I embrace You as if You were already there
and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You
build up the bonds of charity among your people,
and bring us all to the feast of heaven.
And liturgical theologian, Teresa Berger, at Yale Divinity School has composed an alternative prayer altogether:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the bread of life and the one true vine.
I believe that you are truly present
in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
I seek you.
I worship and adore you.
Since I cannot receive you
in the eucharistic bread and wine,
I pray that you will come into my heart and soul,
that I may be united to you,
by your all-powerful and ever-present Holy Spirit.
Let me receive you, and be nourished by you.
Become for me the manna in my wilderness,
the bread of angels
for my very human journey through time,
a foretaste of the heavenly banquet,
and solace in the hour of my death.
I pray all this, trusting that you yourself are
our Life, our Peace, and our everlasting Joy.
Even Pope Francis at his daily Mass in Casa San Marta, which always has a small participating community in attendance, has used the following for those unable to commune physically:
My Jesus, at your feet
I prostrate myself, and I offer you the repentance of my contrite heart
which goes deep in its own nothingness and in your holy presence.
I adore you in the Sacrament of your love, the Eucharist which is beyond all words.
I desire to receive you in the poor dwelling which my heart offers you.
In anticipation of the happiness of sacramental communion,
I long to possess you in spirit.
Come to me, my Jesus, so that I may come to you.
Let your love inflame the whole of my being in life and in death.
I believe in you, I hope in you, I love you. 
There is absolutely no reason why one of these prayers or another like them could not be used at the time of communion distribution for those participating via Zoom, YouTube or some other means. It could be led by the pastor before communion is given to those physically present, with the text provided to members of the virtual congregation in advance.
Finally, I am well aware that are different ways of responding to this COVID-19 crisis liturgically. My concern here is to provide a kind of via media between what I have seen appears to be a wholesale abandoning of the Mass itself in favor of a Word Service alone, or a retention of the Mass with questionable practices for the sharing of holy communion. I understand very well the need to fast from Eucharistic communion during this pandemic, and I am willing to do so but I am not willing to give up the Eucharistic Liturgy at the same time. So, is fasting from the reception of Holy Communion the same as fasting from the Eucharistic Liturgy? No, it is not. And there are plenty of good Lutheran reasons why it is not. But since so many of our congregations have abandoned the Mass during this crisis, how long will it take to recover the centrality of the Eucharist again once this crisis has passed?
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Worship in Times of Public Health Concerns: COVID-19/Coronavirus,” (March, 2020) at https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Worship_in_Times_of_Public_Health_Concerns.pdf
 Commission on Theology and Church Relations, “Communion and Covid 19,” (March 20, 2020) at https://files.lcms.org/wl/?id=F64Yu9xwsZKeXMxfXEvRCQK6EaEBgSkw
 Nicholas Denysenko, “COVID-19 and Orthodox Liturgical Reform: What’s Possible?”PrayTell (May 1, 2020) athttps://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2020/05/01/covid-19-and-orthodox-liturgical-reform-whats-possible/
 See Richard O. Johnson, “What the Crisis Shows Us,” Forum Letter 49, 5 (May 2020), 3.
Article XXIV, “The Augsburg Confession,” in Theodore Tappert (ed.), The Book of Concord (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1959, 56.
 Ibid, 249.
 The Easter Liturgy is still available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhlL5brUUeQ&feature=youtu.be
 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), Principle 43 [emphasis added].
 The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 4, 344.
 Tappert, 211-212.
 See Robert Jenson’s work on Lutheran sacramental theology, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1978).
 Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E Johnson (eds.), Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, Fourth Edition (Collegeville: Liturgical Press Academic, 2019), 241.
 Luther’s Works, vol 35, 91-2.
 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), Principle 34 [emphasis added].
 Fritz West, Scripture and Memory: The Ecumenical Hermeneutic of the Three-Year Lectionaries (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 199), 8-9.
 Gordon Lathrop, “A Rebirth of Images: On the Use of the Bible in Liturgy,” in Worship 58, 4 (1984), 296 [emphasis added].
 See Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: The Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), footnote 14, 388.
 See Richard O. Johnson, “What the Crisis Shows Us,” Forum Letter 49, 5 (May 2020), 4.
 Fritz Bauerschmidt, “Some Thoughts on Spiritual Communion,”PrayTell (April 27, 2020), at https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2020/04/27/some-thoughts-on-spiritual-communion/
 Teresa Berger, “Seeking to Encounter the Eucharistic Christ in Digital Bread and Wine,” PrayTell (March 15, 2020), at https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2020/03/15/seeking-to-encounter-the-eucharistic-christ-in-digital-bread-and-wine/