Eucharistic Fasting

The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 6

The Covid-19 pandemic has created something of a crisis of communion in the Church. The Orthodox churches have largely suspended communion where they cannot gather. So also have the Roman churches. For non-sacramental protestants, this is not as much of a problem because music, preaching, and Bible study can be live-streamed or recorded. But for the sacramental churches, quarantine at home measures pose a serious challenge to theology and practice. Many Lutheran churches have resorted to a variety of extraordinary measures, attempting to comply with local health directives and sanitary practices while offering the Sacrament to the faithful. These measures include serial small group communions, private communions, drive-in communions, and in a few cases, virtual communions over the internet.

Once it became apparent that we could no longer safely or legally gather as a congregation, I chose to suspend the Sacrament altogether in our congregation and declared a “Eucharistic fast” until such time as we could again have the Sacrament as a gathered congregation. This also included our shut-ins who commune as an extension of the gathered congregation. We are receiving this as the loving discipline of our God for our repentance and faith. This was neither an easy decision to make nor was it made without considerable theological reflection and prayer.

This Eucharistic fast is not a voluntary one, such as the practice of some to “give up” something such as coffee or chocolate for Lent. This is more in the way of Orthodox Christians, who view fasting not as a sacrifice but as a discipline. In this case, the Lord Himself laid this fast on us, as He is disciplining His people even as His wrath is poured out upon the world. He has made it impossible for us to offer and receive the Sacrament in the ordinary manner as a simple bread and cup in the gathered community. God has spoken through His left-hand minister of the sword (Romans 13); we would do well to heed Him. Shelter in your homes until His wrath passes over (Isaiah 26:20). Christians have no special immunity to viruses or special exemptions from the laws of the land. This is not a ‘we ought to obey God rather than man” moment.

While the idea of going without the Sacrament may seem unthinkable to Lutherans accustomed to frequent, if not weekly participation in the Sacrament, it is not foreign to the Reformation. In 1522, Luther advised just such a fast for those who were troubled in conscience by the radical reforms of Andreas Karlstadt. “You are not lost if you do without the Sacrament,” Luther said. “Train yourselves without this Sacrament in God’s Word, in faith, and in love” (StL ed 20:210,734, quoted in Pieper, 392). In 1523, advising the Senate in Prague, Luther wrote, “…the Eucharist is not so necessary that salvation depends on it. The gospel and baptism are sufficient, since faith alone justifies and love alone lives rightly” (LW 40:9)

At the heart of this pastoral counsel is Luther’s unwavering reliance on the Word of Christ alone. It is the Word of Christ that makes Baptism and the Supper sacraments. In the words of Luther in the Smalcald Articles, our churches confess the richness of the Gospel: “…God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. Matt. 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered,” etc.” (SA IV, Tappert, 310) To be forgiven in many ways is so much better than just one way.

Faith alone in the Word of Christ alone is necessary for salvation. This is the hallmark of the Lutheran Reformation which was able to navigate through turbulent times of plague and persecution, when pastors were lacking in certain areas or when churches had to ordain pastors for themselves. Christ’s church, as a priesthood of believers, is never without His Word. This same reliance on the Word guided the Saxon forebears of the Missouri Synod through their own troubled beginning in America.

Lutheran dogmaticians have always distinguished between “ordinary” and “absolute” necessity. Only the Word of Christ and faith in Christ is absolutely necessary. Francis Pieper, the leading dogmatician of the LCMS in the early 20th century, reflects this persective in his Christian Dogmatics.

Still, there is no absolute necessity of the Lord’s Supper, because the remission of sins is not divided among the various means of grace, but each one of them offers the full remission of sins provided by Christ’s satisfactio vicaria and works, or strengthens faith. All means of grace have the same purpose and the same effect. Hence he who believes the preached or written Word of the Gospel is, through his faith in the Word, in possession of the full remission of sins and salvation, though circumstances keep him from using the Lord’s Supper.

Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (CPH, 1953) 3:392

We already know this. Most of us grew up in Lutheran churches that offered the Sacrament no more than once or twice a month, some even less frequently. We withhold the Sacrament from our baptized children until such time as they are able to understand and confess properly. We withhold the Sacrament from our guests and catechumens until they are properly instructed in the faith. We do not say that they are without Christ or forgiveness. I have blessed many non-communing catechumens and guests at the altar with the Word of Christ while they fast from the Supper.

This Gospel-centric approach to the sacraments gives us clarity in extraordinary times. No water? No Baptism. The Word is sufficient. No bread? No Eucharist. Scripture seems to make allowances for the absence of the Cup, however. “Do this as often as (i.e., whenever) you drink it….” ( Cor. 11:25). One may reasonably envision a Eucharist without the Cup, not only for the laity is in Rome, but for the whole congregation including the pastor. The Bread and Cup belong to the whole congregation not to the clergy. This might be helpful to us in our post-quarantine period where we will be able to meet, but must maintain a safe distance and sanitary practices. Without the gathered congregation, however, there is no Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ.

Under ordinary circumstances, it is sinful to absent oneself from the gathered congregation to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament when one is able and these are offered. But in extraordinary circumstances, it is no sin when one cannot receive and the church cannot offer. Augustine said, Contemptus sacramenti damnat, non privatio. Contempt of the Sacrament condemns, not privation.

There is no such thing as an emergency Lord’s Supper, just as there is no such thing as an emergency Thanksgiving dinner. Israel in Babylonian exile went for seventy years without a Passover meal. The Lord’s Supper is a feast of victory not an act of despair, panic, and emergency. If it doesn’t look, sound, and feel like the Lord’s Supper we know, perhaps it would be best to forego it for a while until we are able to receive it in the ordinary way once again. Our Lord knows our need, and He knows best how to fill it. He is rich in His Word.

I fear the extraordinary measures to have the Sacrament at all costs and by any means will do us more harm than good in the long run. Many bad ideas and practices have entered the church through emergency situations and extraordinary measures. The extraordinary tends to become the ordinary. Grape juice and individual cups entered the Lord’s Supper during the time of Prohibition.

I do not presume to speak for the whole church. I am nothing more than a parish pastor to a small congregation of saints. But these times and circumstances compel me to provide a public rationale for my decisions. The Holy Spirit always works out in the open, never in secret. I am ever open to the mutual admonition and correction of my brothers and sisters in the Lord on the basis of Holy Scripture, our common Confession, and sound reason. These matters are far too urgent to wait and sort things out later. I am convinced that the path of Eucharistic fasting is good, right, and salutary at this time. In my judgment, it is far better than attempting to have an ordinary means of grace in an extraordinary way.

Should the Lord tarry in His coming, we will hopefully soon be able to gather again in our congregations and receive the Sacrament according to our Lord’s mandate and institution. But until then, it is no sin not to gather or receive the Sacrament when times and circumstances do not permit it. God knows this and has richly provided for us with His Word and the gift of prayer.  

My brothers and sisters in Christ, beloved children of God, do not let this light and momentary affliction drive you to despair. The Lord is with us. Let the solitude we are now experiencing kindle a greater love for our gathering, so that we never again take a divine service for granted, whether on Sunday or a festival day. Let the hunger we now feel kindle a deeper hunger and thirst for the Sacrament when it is offered. You never know when it will be your last. And let this time of sheltering at home be a season rich in the Word of God, in the liturgy of the hours, in deeply contemplative prayer, so that when we rise from our domestic tombs, we emerge enlivened in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.


©2020 William M. Cwirla