CEC Theological Reflections: Holy Communion as a Communal Feast amid COVID-19

As part of CEC’s online series of Theological Reflections titled “Communion in Crisis: The Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” this month’s reflections on “Holy Communion as a Communal Feast amid COVID-19” are penned by Bishop Dr Jari Jolkkonen from the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland.

Throughout the history of the Church, those who have closed cathedrals and forbidden Christians to celebrate the Eucharist have been cruel tyrants and godless dictators. The global COVID-19 pandemic changed this. Bishops, pastors and church leaders have had to announce to their congregations: You are not welcome at church, you may not gather to praise God and celebrate the Holy Communion together.

Although we know all the good reasons behind these restrictions, the moratorium on celebrating the Eucharist together has caused spiritual pain for Church members and leaders. How can Christians worship God when churches are closed? How can pastors serve and heal the people of God with the Word and Sacraments when gathering together is not possible? How can ministers carry out their pastoral duties, strengthen people and proclaim hope to the general public when the normal instruments of grace cannot be used normally?

One old method is still strong – although perhaps sometimes forgotten, especially in the secular West. That method is: private prayer life. Persistent prayer in private or with family strengthen human beings to endure prolonged stress. We know this not only by our own experience but also from anthropological studies. For example, Richard Sosis, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examined the extent to which women in the northern Israeli town of Tzfat recited psalms to cope with the stress of the Second Palestinian Intifada. His findings underscore the importance of religious practices like praying and reading the Bible as coping mechanisms that can reduce anxiety and provide a sense of control under conditions of high stress and uncertainty (Richard Socis: “Psalms for Safety,” in: Current Anthropology, Vol. 48, No. 6 (December 2007), pp. 903-911). A corresponding study with similar results has also been made among Palestinian women during the time of the Israeli Occupation. In a situation of prolonged stress, persistent praying heals, helps and strengthens.

The other method, of course, is public prayer. Today, technology offers us new tools for praying, proclaiming and worshipping together. Online liturgies in particular have been a great success in allowing people to gather together virtually, to hear the Word of God and to take part in the liturgy spiritualiter, even as perhaps only ten people are allowed to be present in the church corporaliter.

Church response to COVID-19 challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a pastoral and theological challenge to every church and to our Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland (ELCF) as well. Here I would like to briefly reflect on our findings.

In the first place, it should be the duty of church authorities and not state officials to establish restrictions regarding religious freedom. Of course, churches must exercise this freedom in a responsible way. Church leaders must listen to specialists, communicate with the authorities and have the courage to make all necessary efforts to combine our right to worship in freedom with our duty to protect people, both of which are anchored in the Ten Commandments.

At the very beginning of the pandemic (16 March 2020), we bishops of the ELCF concluded that, although church members could not physically take part in the liturgy, divine services must be held in every local parish every Sunday by an ordained minister, a cantor and other necessary staff. This continuity of common worship is based on theological, canonical, symbolic and pastoral reasons. Worship is not a hobby, but God’s command. Public prayer belongs to the necessary signs of the Church Catholic, as Luther writes in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church. The canonical principle of Church Order of the ELCF (CO 2:2 §), according to which divine service must held in every local parish every Sunday, is in force even during a time of pandemic or other tribulation. A Church building with ringing bells and shining lights in its windows on Sunday is a symbol of living hope and resilience: within the church building the assembly, although with only a pastor and few chosen representatives, still prays for the sick, for their caregivers and for the whole world.

Thanks to technology, local parishes are able to broadcast online liturgies so that church members can participate in them via remote access systems. At first, only the Liturgy of the Word (without the Liturgy of the Eucharist) was broadcasted and not without good theological and medical basis. The prayers are our sacrifice to God, but the sacrament is God’s gift to us, and because the sacrament could not be distributed to the people, something seemed to be missing. Still, the Christian liturgy is based on patterns of Jewish prayer and reading of scripture which included prayer, recitation of psalms, reading of the Scriptures and interpretating them in preaching. Celebration of the Liturgy of Word is better than no liturgy at all.

Later, we also began to broadcast celebrations of the Holy Mass with both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. According to Lutheran understanding, both a pastor representing divinely ordinated ministry and the assembly representing the common priesthood are necessary and must be physically present to legally celebrate the Eucharist. The Sacrament of the Altar was not instituted only for the private devotion of the minister, nor for the special interests of small clubs of like-minded people. It was instituted for the public remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ, who serves the congregation with the Word and Sacrament.

The body and blood of Christ

The proper way to take part in that Communion is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic Bread and Wine both spiritually (in faith) and physically (with the body), oraliter (with one’s mouth), as some reformers put it the latter dimension. But if pandemic, our illness, a long distance to the altar, or some other physical restriction, should hinder our taking part in the Communion Table physically, we are never excluded from the mercy of God nor from the Church of Christ. In those cases it is always possible for us to receive the Lord Jesus with our heart: that is, spiritually. This happens when we take part in the online liturgy, hear the Gospel, confess his presence in the Eucharist and receive his grace by putting all our trust in Christ. According to Martin Luther, this is spiritualiter manducare et bibere, “eating and drinking the sacrament in spiritual way” (De captivitate, StA II, 199, 11).

According to our understanding, Christianity is based on the faith that “the Word became flesh”, therefore not all worship can be performed virtually or online. Baptism, confirmation, ordination, anointing, weddings and funerals are always corporeal actions with audible songs and visible elements. You can follow these actions online, but this is possible only as they are physically celebrated in a certain place with a specific minister and a communicant whose real body is touched by the sacramental sign. Therefore, our bishops have said non possumus to the idea of an online Eucharist in which a person eats bread and drinks wine on his or her sofa at home, while watching the eucharistic celebration on the screen.

Here, it may be good to follow the old distinction between proclaimed Word and celebrated Sacrament. When the Word of God is proclaimed, it communicates the grace of God to a mind by touching a heart. When Baptism or Eucharist, sacraments instituted by Christ, are celebrated, they communicate the very same grace of God to a body by touching a body with the physical elements of the sacraments. Christ is both loving and creative: he always finds the way to us, even during a time of pandemic.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Martin Luther, Ob man vor dem Sterben fliehen möge. WA 23:338–379 (1527).
  • John Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus world, The Good Book Company. England 2020.
  • Rodney Stark: The Rise of Christianity. How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. Harper & Collins: San Francisco 1997.

About the author:

Dr Jari Jolkkonen is bishop of the Diocese of Kuopio of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland since 2012. He taught systematic theology and ecumenism at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Helsinki and has written extensively on a variety of theological topics including Luther’s theology of communion, the doctrine and practice of the eucharist, worship and prayer, and the Lutheran Reformation.

Disclaimer: The impressions expressed above are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the Conference of European Churches.

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