Celebrating a Eucharistic fast

April 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

John Wesley taught that one of the most important reasons for fasting is that it is a great aid to prayer. As one means of grace (fasting) assists the other (prayer), the two of them together serve the practice of “confirming and increasing, not one virtue, not chastity only ... but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience, deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God, and every holy and heavenly affection.” [1] Fasting, Wesley believed, was an important way of drawing closer to God.

Keeping the fast is a timely topic right now — not only because it is the season of Lent, but because the circumstances that we are in effectively inhibit us from coming together around the Lord’s table to celebrate Holy Communion. This is an odd occurrence for us, because we are so used to making that observance the centerpiece of our services of worship at least at the beginning of each month. Participating in the Lord’s Supper together is a ritual, to be sure. But it is so much more than that. It is a sacrament — literally, a holy thing — which God gives to us as an efficacious sign of the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for us. Holy Communion is a means of grace, by which we receive the love of God through the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our common worship together. [2]

So what are we to do now, when we are practicing physical distancing from one another as a way to arrest the spread of this terrible virus epidemic that has so interrupted our regular daily lives? There have been two possibilities suggested of late. One is that we should ignore the practices we have adopted in these past few weeks in favor of coming together and celebrating Communion in spite of the practical dangers involved. Yet surely this is not the right course of action to pursue. Prudence dictates that we need to maintain our discipline for a few more weeks, particularly to protect the weak and vulnerable amongst us.

Then there is the second suggestion that has been made. We could use the technology at our disposal to simply change what we have always understood Communion to be. That is, we could simply have a pastor celebrate Communion online and allow people to receive with whatever form of bread and beverage they have available to them at home. Would that be preferable, or even permissible? No, in its own way altering our practice in such a dramatic way would be just as dangerous as coming together physically before the viral danger has passed. Radically altering our practice by virtual technological means would have the effect of redefining what we mean the sacrament to be. It would ignore the significance of the singular geographic space that people inhabit within what we call a service of worship; it would likewise disregard the embodied characteristic of the worshipping congregation that makes the sacrament what it is — the one body in Christ, located in one place, receiving the one body and blood of Christ. Our root image of what Holy Communion is meant to be comes from that night in the upper room when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Real, physical closeness to one another is not only the pattern we are given for what the Eucharist is meant to be — it is the most obvious meaning of the word communion itself.

Perhaps throwing caution to the wind on the one hand, or changing the very definition of the sacrament on the other, is not what God is calling us to do right now at any rate. Indeed, perhaps God is drawing us to a particular kind of discipline right now for our own good, which is a discipline that we do not embrace very readily or easily in our cultural context.

Almost 600 years before the birth of our Lord Jesus, a virus swept through the land of Judah. The name of that virus was Babylon, and it wreaked havoc across the towns and cities of the Jews. By the time it had finished its work, the walls of Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble and the Temple had been burned to the ground. The people were carried into exile, and the Temple worship that had symbolized for them communion with the God of Israel was denied them. It was the greatest disaster that they could have ever experienced — the inability to practice that form of worship that had stood at the center of their faith since it had been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. What, then, was their response? Did they choose the analogs of either of the choices we have considered in our own situation? Did they forcibly escape and return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple even when the danger of the Babylonian plague was still at hand? No, they did not. Then did they build a temple replica by the rivers of Babylon and carry out an imitation of true Temple worship as a way to fool themselves into thinking that they were doing what they had always done? This they did not do either.

What those faithful exiles did in fact was to embrace the fast that was forced upon them, and use that fast itself as a means of grace. The discipline that it gave them opened up new ways of receiving the Lord in the situation in which they found themselves — through the singing of the Psalms of David, and through the study of the Torah and the Prophets. And indeed, these means of grace became their bread and wine at the time that they were forced to be away from their common home.

We find ourselves in a period of exile, although ours is very mild and will surely be of short duration. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that we are away from our Temple, which is not a building of course, but is the body that we represent when we are together in the assembly of the faithful. So how might the biblical example of fasting offer us a pattern for how to live faithfully during this time in which we find ourselves?

Wesley himself points out the way in which fasting was used in crucial periods of crisis and challenge, both in ancient Israel and in the early church. He also insists that the church should practice fasting in the present, for it is one of those means of grace appointed by Christ Jesus himself. Wesley’s advice is drawn from the fruits of fasting as they are found in Scripture:

[F]irst, let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of his holy law; to wait for an increase of purifying grace, drawing our affections to things above; to add seriousness and earnestness to our prayers; to avert the wrath of God, and to obtain all the great and precious promises which he has made to us in Jesus Christ. [3]

With this as our aim, and united with deep and abiding prayer, we may well find that the true fast we are called to embrace right now is not only a fast from one another and the experience of common worship but also from the greatest joy of worship, which is the celebration of the Supper of the Lord. As painful and ironic as it would seem as a subject for fasting, it might be the very thing we need to provoke us from the spiritual slumber that our contemporary culture has lulled us into. (That is, to be the means of grace for the very biblical purposes that Wesley lays out.) The least technological and most organic instrument we can imagine (a mutating virus) has yanked us into a recognition that so much that we have taken for granted has been suddenly stolen from us. And while that organic means is likely to be very temporary, it might point us to those other technological and mechanical means (of our own devising!) that have been slowly stealing the very same things from us for years and yet in a way we often, sadly, neither realize nor object to. So prodded from our slumber, we can now wait by the rivers of Babylon. And while we wait, we are called to a period of fasting that sharpens our eager hope and expectation that we will soon be allowed to return to join in that for which Christ calls us together.

To return to the time in which we find ourselves during this Season of Lent: What are we called to do on this upcoming Palm Sunday when we should be celebrating the Holy Eucharist in preparation for a most Holy Week leading up to the Easter day of Resurrection? We should do what Christians would have done in our same situation from the time of the early church. We should fast and pray, allowing our inability to receive the Lord’s Supper create a holy hunger inside of us that will make the celebration of Easter that much more beautiful.

And if we will do that, then our sacramental hunger will only build to Easter and beyond. It will build, and it will build, until our appetite for the body and blood of our Savior is insatiable. And then, finally, we will be able to come together once again as the one body in Christ. We will be together not only in Spirit, but in flesh as well. And when we are, on that first Sunday when we gather together again in the Temple of the Lord, we will cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And the one celebrating at the table will lead us to say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” And the bread will be broken, and the cup will be blessed. And because we are all there together, we will enjoy sweet communion, and we will receive the holy sacrament together. And all that we do, from this time to that, will serve to prepare us to resume once again the meal that Christ himself gave us when he said, “This is my body, and this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me.”

1 John Wesley, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VII,” ¶II.6.

2 See Articles 16 and 18 of the Articles of Religion, and Article 6 of the Confession of Faith, in ¶104 in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2016).

3 Wesley, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VII,” ¶IV.1.

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