Keeping a Eucharistic Fast

KEEPING A EUCHARISTIC FAST
April 2020

A print-ready PDF is available HERE.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 13:35, 37-39

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Luke 4:1-2

The Coronavirus Pandemic has thrown things off kilter. Restrictions from the state mandate physical distancing, closures, and sanitizing practices. We recognize the heroic efforts of healthcare providers who with considerable risk to their own lives care for those stricken with the disease as well as others who experience medical emergencies. We remain grateful for those who also risk contagion by working in grocery stories, pharmacies, and gas stations.

At the same time, the pandemic has brought into relief elements of our culture that have long been questioned by leaders in Christian communities: an overemphasis on individualism that fails to recognize the social and interdependent nature of life; the quantification of life through economic productivity alone; the intense growth of a culture of entertainment that induces passivity in its participants. Indeed, all of us have been socialized unconsciously into these elements of American culture, elements that can shape our perceptions of religious practice.

Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ
As our presiding bishop Michael Curry notes, our expectations around worship can be shaped more by cultural elements than core Anglican Christian convictions. Thus, he has asked all Episcopalians and other Christians who regularly worship in Episcopal parishes to consider this core conviction: God the Holy Three is present with us through Holy Baptism where we are marked as Christ’s forever, in and with the Holy Scriptures, household prayer, and various forms of Daily Prayer present in The Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, we hold that the communion of saints is with us, encouraging us in our faithfulness to God and love for our neighbors in need, interceding for us in the presence of the Holy Three.

A eucharistic fast is no new thing
It is within the context of pandemic restrictions and recognition of the Presence of the Holy Three among us that we keep a eucharistic fast at Christ Church until that time when we can gather to celebrate together the Holy Eucharist.

To be sure, this is nothing new in the history of Christianity. During the epidemics of 165 and 250 CE, the plague of 541 CE, the spread of the Black Plague in 1347, and its recurrence in the midst of the 16th century, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1871, and the global influenza pandemic of 1918, Christians refrained from gathering together and celebrating the Holy Eucharist. No different from us, they practiced daily and Sunday household prayer, they meditated on the Scriptures, they sang by themselves or with others in their homes, they renewed their baptismal life, and they assisted their neighbors in need through works of mercy – but: they did not gather for worship, they did not celebrate the Holy Eucharist together in church or privately in their homes. Priests and pastors did not hold private communion services for their families while many others had no communion.
What might their practice mean for us today as we, too, refrain from gathering, as we keep a eucharistic fast?

Not an individual but a communal bodily act
It can be a challenge for some American Christians, raised on robust individualism, to grasp that the Holy Eucharist is a communal rather than an individual action. For us, the Holy Eucharist is an action in which people gather bodily, in the flesh, to join in the Great Thanksgiving over bread and wine, to respond in word and song together, to pray with one voice, to receive together a fragment of bread from the one bread, and a sip of wine from the one cup. We do not gather as private individuals for private worship with other people who just happen to be in the same space.

The Holy Communion is an action of the Spirit, the presider, and the assembly. It is not an action “done” by the leader for “passive” people watching. Rather, the Great Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, makes clear that the entire assembly participates in the action by standing together, through speaking or singing responses, canticles, acclamations, the Great Amen, praying the Lord’s Prayer with one voice, and communing together. Episcopalians do not pass out individual cubes of bread and wine in disposable cups to people seated in pews as we see in many Protestant communities. Rather, we walk to the eucharistic table to receive the one bread from which many are fed, the one cup from which many drink.

Virtual communion?
While some churches during this pandemic invite members to place a bit of bread or cracker and cup of wine or juice in front of their computer screen or television and then consume these elements, this practice simply reinforces a private and individualistic view of the Holy Eucharist. It is a practice contrary to our understanding of the Holy Eucharist as a communal action of the people gathered bodily together to receive together the material elements of bread and wine. The Book of Common Prayer envisions this: an efficacious communion is dependent on the bread and wine being consecrated at the altar and then received directly by the communicant or directly by a homebound communicant through the ministry of a eucharistic visitor. During a recorded or live-streamed Eucharist celebrated in a studio or church, the priest and other liturgical ministers may well receive the Body and Blood of Christ consecrated during the service – but such is not the case for those watching at home with a cracker and a cup of wine. Watching a Eucharist separates members of the Body of Christ from each other and too easily gives the false impression that someone else, who is at some distance, is “consecrating” the bit of bread or cracker through the airwaves. Indeed, one is reminded of those faith healers who tell people to place their bodies next to a television screen and pray for healing.

Thus, The Book of Common Prayer exhorts the ministers of the church to do this: assure those who desire to receive the Eucharist, but are prevented from doing so, that their prayer of desire to receive Christ sacramentally is heard by Christ and that the benefits of the sacrament are theirs: the forgiveness of sin, the strengthening of their union with Christ and other Christians, and the promise of joining Christ and 4 the blessed in the heavenly banquet (BCP 859-850). In this, the Prayer Book recognizes exceptional cases but it does not suggest that exceptional cases become normal practice, that normal or regular practice being the reception of the Body and Blood, consecrated at the altar, in the hands and mouths of the communicants.

This is not to say that spiritual edification can’t happen while one is watching a pre-recorded or live-streamed service. Clearly it can and has been a source of spiritual comfort over the past sixty years to people who are permanently or temporarily homebound. But such a practice during this pandemic, while comforting or even uplifting, can also participate unfortunately in the cultivation of passivity: of watching others do something while we sit comfortably on a couch or chair at some distance. We hold to this: Christ has promised to be present when and where his disciples “do this” and do this together. The Holy Eucharist is thus rightly celebrated by the Christian people when they are together bodily and participating actively in the power of the Spirit who transforms bread and wine into the living Presence of Christ for the life of his Body, the gathered church.

It is good to remember that we have not been baptized into a community of passive spectators. Indeed, the practice of watching an edifying service on a screen should not be the norm for us and should never overshadow this deeper intuition: that we do enjoy the presence of Christ because of our baptism into his life, because he continues to speak to us through the Word of God, and because he is with us in the practice of daily prayer.

Living with limitations
The practice of keeping a eucharistic fast is an odd and uncomfortable one for many of us. The Holy Eucharist is the primary worship of the church. We baptize, confirm, and receive new members, forgive, marry, bless, ordain, and bury within the context of the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, the entire service leads us to its culmination: the breaking of the bread in which we encounter the presence of the wounded and risen Christ in the forms of bread and wine. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (Luke 24:30-31). It is here that Christ comes to us together – rather than as isolated individuals – and gives himself to us in bodily form together, nourishing our common life in his Body and directing us in our mission of service in the world. Indeed, his words – Given for you – is a plural you – You all together – not a singular you alone.

A fast is clearly a limitation. For Americans who think “freedom” means doing anything one darn well pleases whenever one wants to do it with no restrictions, any limitation is viewed with considerable skepticism. Yet we keep a eucharistic fast and inhibit gathering together in order to protect others, demonstrating our love for the neighbor. We are “free” in Christ to care for our neighbors.

Assisting our neighbors in need
But more than refraining from food and drink, a fast in the Bible is first understood as a bodily sign of distress, that something is wrong in society. It is a “distress call” that draws attention to something terribly amiss. And, indeed, are we not living with distress at this particular moment in our local, national, and global life? Within this pandemic, a fast can bring to our awareness the many who increasingly have diminished access to food: people newly unemployed who must decide between housing or food and medicine; the many homeless people who have little access to healthcare and sufficient food; the many children in our city and region who rely on school breakfasts and lunches in a time when schools are closed and kitchen staff work overtime and voluntarily to ensure young children receive adequate nourishment.

Our fast from communion can actually inspire us to consider how we might support initiatives that strive to secure adequate food and drink for others. Perhaps we need fewer photographs of sumptuous home-cooked meals posted online and more energy and money devoted to caring for our neighbors in need.

A word of hope
We know this: that in the midst of anxiety, isolation, and the threat of sickness, we are not alone. Neither hardship, distress, or peril, nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

While he served in the trenches of the First World War, unable to celebrate the Holy Eucharist with battle-worn and dying British soldiers, the Anglican priest and military chaplain Eric Milner-White was inspired to compose the following prayer, a fitting one for the time in which we live. May its promise take hold in our lives.

O God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Amen

It is in within this promise and this hope that we look for the day when we can gather as one body around the one eucharistic table and feast together on the one bread and drink from the one cup – our nourishment for our common life in the world.

NOTES

Image 1 photographer unknown

Image 2 “Communion,” woodcut, Stephen Crotts, American, contemporary

Image 3 “Fractio Panis” (Latin, “Breaking of Bread”) fresco, Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria, Rome, 1st half 2nd century

Image 4 “Last Supper,” Jesus Mafa Community, Cameroon, 1970’s

Image 5 “Need Food? We Can Help” Emergency Food Network, Pierce County, Washington

Image 6 “Bread of LIfe,” James B. Janknegt, American, 2014

For the presiding bishop’s letter on worship during pandemic
The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, “A Word to the Church on Our Theology of Worship” at https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-michael-currys-word-church-our-theology-worship

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