A Sacrament for Christmas

Back when COVID hit U.S. shores in earnest, the church I’m serving did as most other Lutheran churches did. We shut down services for a bit to try and get a handle on what to do. This sort of event is something none of us have had to deal with. No one wanted to shut the doors, but trying to have services while being good stewards and keeping people safe requires care and consideration.

My congregation took a bit before resuming in-person services. We did recorded services with essential personnel for a bit before we had a plan we felt confident would allow for services to continue while minimizing risk of infection.

With the resumption of services comes the further question of Communion. Communion is an essential piece of the worship service, but that didn’t make it a given. It’s rather expected, even assumed, that if you are going to have services you will also provide the sacrament. I certainly approve of a congregation’s desire to receive the sacrament, however, I was not fully in support of re-including it.

I found much of the discussion surrounding the use of the sacrament in the days of COVID centered on the individual Christian’s desire to receive God’s grace. I approve of that desire, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, that was usually as far as the discussion went.

In digging around to see how other congregations were dealing with the situation, I found the discussion much the same everywhere. Christians want the sacrament and so we should find ways of having the sacrament, even if that meant straining the nature of Communion almost to the breaking point. Very little was ever said of what this means for the congregation as a whole. This was especially problematic, since the sacrament takes individuals and builds them together to be the Body of Christ. To think of it purely in individual terms is to sever it from one of its primary functions.

Under more normal circumstances, if you as a member of a congregation go on vacation or are staying home sick or some other circumstance prevents you from attending church on a particular Sunday, the congregation isn’t going to hesitate in continuing to celebrate Communion without you. The assumption is that you are not abandoning the congregation or making some sort of theological statement. You are still a member and you are intending to return and be a part of the congregation again. In essence, you have separated yourself for a short time and you will be back soon. This isn’t a big deal. What was, and still is, a big deal, are all of those members of our congregations who are stuck at home or in nursing homes who desperately wish to be a part of the community and want nothing more than to celebrate Communion together with their brothers and sisters in Christ, but are cut off because of the lockdowns the cover the country.

As St. Paul reminds us, “As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” The church makes a public declaration in the very act of celebrating the sacrament. When someone is absent because of their own choice and desires to return, the congregation misses them and welcomes them back. When someone is cut off and the congregation continues on without them, it is akin to the congregation proclaiming they are no longer a part of the community. This is the essence of what ex-communication is, to cut off from Communion with the church. Except, these people are still faithful children of God.

I very much worried about whether this is the kind of statement a church should be making. If grace and forgiveness are desired, they are still present in abundance within the church through absolution and baptism. Is it worth the damage to the faith and spiritual lives of those who are left out of the celebration, or is it better, as I think St. Paul might suggest, to abstain for a time so that the sacrament might be enjoyed in its fullness?

In the end, while I continue to hold that this is a problem, I was also reminded that the sacrament proclaims more than just the unity of the Body of Christ. It is a proclamation of the Lord’s return. Christ has not simply died and risen again. He will return to fully establish His eternal kingdom, and this is a part of the proclamation that comes in Communion. Communion carries a great deal of meaning with it and the loss of one piece of that, while it grieves the church, does not mean the rest suddenly becomes invalid. We continue to proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Nevertheless, especially at this time when the church comes together in whatever way, shape, and form it is able to to celebrate the Incarnation, we must continue to remember those who are not able to be there. The sacrament is meant for them too, perhaps especially so. As we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, with our brothers and sisters in Christ, do not forget that the Body of Christ is not bound by the four walls of the church building. Many more are out there who earnestly await the glorious return of our Incarnate King.

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