2020 is a year we will never forget. We went through a raging pandemic that took many from our midst. We endured lockdowns, social distance, and face coverings in order to protect the lives of our neighbors.
For me, all of this unfolded within the context of beginning pastoral ministry. In September 2019, I began a year-long pastoral internship (vicarage). In September of 2020, I started in my first parish as a pastor. At the beginning of my internship, my supervisor said to me, “I assume that you will be a quick study, and that this will be a fairly normal vicarage.”
While I learned many things studying under my supervisor’s outstanding example of pastoral servant leadership, my internship and first few months of ministry were anything but “normal.” I’m not sure that any pastor intern before 2020 ever learned about the spread and potency of human aerosols. There were, in fact, many things in 2020 that I never expected to be part of my training for the pastorate. So many disruptions and changes made their way into the communal worship life of the Church. We went from remotely worshipping, to worshipping in small groups with social distance, to worshipping for short times all together, to worshipping more fully but without music, to a final restoration of the full worship service. For me, one change in worship during the pandemic rises above all others: the interruption of the regular and communal celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
As a Lutheran, the weekly reception of Holy Communion together as a community is not an occasional add-on, but the regular center of Christian worship. Receiving Jesus’ true body and blood under the bread and wine of his supper assures us that we are at peace with God, because of what Jesus has done for us by his death and resurrection. Communion is, at the same time, extremely personal and communal. In this sacrament, Jesus comes to us, forgives our sins, gives us his salvation, and forms us into one people in him.
The sacrament brings us close to Jesus and close to each other. We all come as equals to the altar to receive our Lord. No matter what ethnicity, no matter our walk of life, no matter our income, we all come to the altar as sinners and we all leave forgiven. The saving and forgiving action of our Lord in the sacrament forms us into a people who are forgiven, free, loved, and empowered to share the Good News of Jesus with others
So, what happens when the people of God are unable to receive their Lord’s body and blood and the forgiveness and salvation that it brings? The COVID-19 pandemic brought us an unlooked-for and unwelcomed case study on the privation of the sacrament of Holy Communion within the people of God. The results of this real-life study demonstrate the importance and centrality of this sacrament in our life together as believers in Christ. Most Christians unwillingly fasted from receiving our Lord’s body and blood. Such was the case with the two congregations I served in Minnesota during the pandemic.
It was not long before people began clamoring for a way to receive Holy Communion. Could we gather in small groups of just ten people to celebrate the sacrament? Could we arrange for back-to-back times for pastors to hold brief services of the Lord’s Supper? Could we gather outdoors to hold the service of the sacrament? All of these were questions raised by believers longing to receive Holy Communion.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther talks about this Christian desire to receive the sacrament. Luther describes how, for believers, Holy Communion is a necessary and eternal treasure. “Indeed,” says Luther, “those who are true Christians and value the sacrament precious and holy will drive and move themselves to go to it.”
Take away the communal aspect, take away the communal gathering around Christ’s body and blood, and the Christian will begin to suffer a malnutrition of faith.
As a vicar and then a pastor, I saw this truth play itself out in real life. As I talked with parishioners, I heard them say how much they longed to receive Holy Communion. At first, we pastors and vicars emphasized how Jesus gives us the same benefits in the preaching of his word as in Communion. Pretty soon, though, we began to find ways to gather safely for the communal celebration of the sacrament.
Holy Communion is communal, not individualistic. Communion gives us Jesus’ real presence, and it requires the real presence of the community. Communion also forms the community as the saved, forgiven, gathered, and sent people of God in Christ. At the same time, Holy Communion is the very source of the Christian’s personal life in Christ. Through the regular reception of this sacrament, the believer’s personal life in Christ is anchored in the gathered community of Christ’s body, the Church. Take away the communal aspect, take away the communal gathering around Christ’s body and blood, and the Christian will begin to suffer a malnutrition of faith.
Jesus gave us the gift of Holy Communion with the promise that, in this meal, we receive forgiveness and salvation. He did so in such a way that we are meant to receive this gift together with our fellow Christians. It is a meal that our Lord intended as a communal experience.
The greatest thing I learned as a pastor through the pandemic is the importance of Holy Communion in our communal Christian life. Of course, I had a doctrinal “head-knowledge” of the importance and necessity of this sacrament. In the pandemic, however, I saw this truth played out in real life. As Christians, we are moved by our common faith in Christ to gather together and receive our Lord’s body and blood for our mutual forgiveness, salvation, and formation together into the people of God in Christ. May we never again take for granted the necessary and eternal treasure of the sacrament of Holy Communion.