My congregation celebrates weekly Communion, and we’ve learned how to do it “at home,” via Zoom. It’s hardly ideal, although we’ve discovered unexpected gifts in our homely Eucharists. But as Helen Luhrs wrote here on The Twelve last week, we “miss church,” and we long to return to our sanctuary, not least to be able again to welcome visitors and seekers.
My Consistory has to determine how and when. I assume it will be by stages. At first we may have to maintain our distancing, keep six feet apart (we have a huge sanctuary!), and not touch each other. I won’t mind no hugging while passing the peace, and we can replace the hand-shake with an Islamic-style hand upon the chest. Singing with masks on will be a problem, but at least we’ll have the organ. But what about the sacraments? How do we do them together without touching?
James Brumm of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary asked me to prepare some thoughts on the matter for a Zoom consultation on Saturday, “Come, Let Us Worship.” So I decided to write it up for my consistory, and I offer it to you as well. First some general remarks, then Holy Baptism, and finally Holy Communion.
I begin with a warning. Extraordinary situations allow for extraordinary practices, but the danger is the extraordinary evolving into a new normal. An example is Holy Communion. For two millennia the Church drank wine from common cups (albeit often excluding the laity). Our Protestant forebears valued their right to the chalice, and they drank from common cups with no apparent second thoughts. But in the last century, responding to the flu epidemic and Prohibition, and in our modern devotion (idolatry?) to safety, we began to fear our common cups. For many of us the extraordinary measure of individual cups became the norm. Be warned!
The sacraments are divine pledges, small miracles, signs and wonders. We affirm, on one hand, that the Holy Spirit is sovereign in the sacraments, and is not limited or prevented by the cultural particulars of the elements we offer. God’s pledges hold. On the other hand, over time, the way we offer the elements may well confine and limit how they speak to us. To not share the cup with at least one other person is to miss part of the sign, even if the Spirit does its wonder.
And yet the sign is rich enough that our different practices bring out different meanings. Churches that celebrate frequent Communion have learned to vary their particulars seasonally. Our Lenten Eucharists differ from our Easter Eucharists. I imagine that the way we celebrate the sacraments during the stages of our church’s pilgrimage from social isolation to full communion will bring out new aspects of their signs and wonders.
The sacraments are combinations of words, elements, and actions. In the Reformed churches, the words and most of the actions are generally performed by pastors and elders in some combination. While it is true that the pastor and the elders are responsible for the words and actions, they are not required to perform them all.
We may affirm that in extraordinary circumstances other persons may perform the words and actions, so long as the pastor and elders can be actively responsible for them. Of course, it is the congregation that performs the most important of the actions, in terms of the Holy Spirit’s wonders, which is the eating and drinking. And in Holy Baptism, the most important action is the apparently passive one of being baptized.
In Acts 2, St. Luke reports that 3000 people were baptized on the day of Pentecost. I have friends who think this must be an exaggeration. There is the problem of Jerusalem’s notorious water supply. (Indeed, the amount of water readily available in any ancient city argues against immersion as the apostolic practice.) But St. Luke is the most careful and “incorrigibly tidy” (Rowan Williams) of the gospel writers. I can’t think of any other case of St. Luke exaggerating, while I can think of cases where he tones down and even “humanizes” the descriptions of St. Matthew and St. Mark. He is our most “modern” and most “historical” evangelist. I take St. Luke at his word.
But whether it was 3000 or 1000, we may assume that the Apostles deputized some help to baptize all those people. Both John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus deputized their disciples to perform their baptisms. And so, during our pilgrimage from social distancing to normal contact, I can imagine the pastor and elders deputizing others safely to apply the water.
Our pastors are not priests. Pastors do not have to pronounce the words with their own voices nor have their hands upon the elements to make the sacraments “operative,” though discipline suggests they do so ordinarily. But for now one of the parents or guardians can be deputized to hold the child and apply the water—while the pastor and elders keep their distance—and even to repeat after the pastor the baptismal formula, “So-and-so, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
It would be a baptism not likely forgotten. In the case of an adult, someone safe could be so deputized. I can even imagine an adult putting the water on herself, witnessed by the loose circle of believers all six feet away.
Our elders will prepare the water a full 24-hours beforehand, with a little bleach, which will evaporate in good time. We may infuse the water with lemon or frankincense. It’s our custom to anoint the baptized with oil, but that’s a non-essential that we’ll dispense with during our pilgrimage. We’ll have many opportunities to bless and anoint later on, God willing.
I attended a Communion service at a church in our classis, which offered us, for the elements, what looked like coffee creamers. I peeled off the top, and there was a small white circle of something. I ate it. I peeled again, and there was some purple fluid. I drank it. I don’t doubt the Spirit used it as a wonder, but wherever the sign was pointing I did not like. We were singing, “Let us break bread together on our knees” and “let us drink wine together on our knees,” none of which we did.
Whatever else, you’ve got to break the bread. The formula of “he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave,” occurs eleven times in the New Testament. It’s three times in each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s once in John (slightly varied, of course), and once in Paul, who says he “received it from the Lord.”
I grew up in churches where the bread was carefully sliced beforehand into perfect little cubes. In my dissertation research I came across an overture sent to an early provincial synod in the Netherlands, asking permission to cut the bread beforehand. The synod replied that this was papist, and the bread must be broken in the viewing of the congregation.
When I discovered this, I was serving a Dutch-immigrant congregation. Citing that early synod, I asked that instead of our perfectly sliced cubes, the elders break the bread in the sight of the people. They tried it once, and they were so uncomfortable (I had forgotten to ask them to look like they liked it) that we never did it again. (“Why can’t that new dominee leave well enough alone?”) I had asked for a small loaf that I could break during the Words of Institution, and when we lifted off the cloth I saw a hot-dog bun wrapped in plastic. That was to stop the crumbs, they told me later. It was not always a virtue that my congregation was incorrigibly tidy.
For our Zoom Communions each household breaks their own bread. I think we will bring this with us for our first stage of pilgrimage. Every person (or household) gets their own piece of bread ahead of time, and when I speak the words, we will all take it, raise it to bless it, break it (and maybe share it), and eat it. We won’t use communion wafers (breaking them just doesn’t cut it), so we’ll use something like Hawaiian buns or “water crackers,” which amateurs can break with little fuss. Crackers are bread, in world terms, and more like ancient bread than what we use for our sandwiches. Maybe you can organize your people to make your bread.
We will set up tables with the crackers (or buns) spread out on them, for people to take with them to their scattered pews. We will set out cups, with wine or grape juice already in them. (Will people have to make two trips to keep from spilling?) I’m thinking we will drain our cups all at the same time, like we’re making a toast to the Lord Jesus (Psalm 116:11).
Our elders have decided against using wine in our church, for reasons of hospitality. That’s why we can’t drink from common cups, and so we practice intinction. But intinction is actually less sanitary than drinking wine from a common cup (fortified sacramental wine from a silver cup). All those fingers! Intinction is out of the question for this stage of our pilgrimage.
The Children of Israel did their Exodus in stages. They ate their first Passover in haste, with their kneading bowls hanging from their shoulders. Was that the best Passover ever?
One of my Dutch-immigrant families told me that when Rev. Harri Zegerius met them at dockside in Halifax, he celebrated Holy Communion on an old door laid flat on sawbucks. “Dominee, it was the best Lord’s Supper ever.” It must have been a great sign and a greater wonder.