The celebration of Easter on April 12 is almost here. An Easter memory of mine is the congregation singing out “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” or “The Day of Resurrection.” If we sing these hymns this year it looks like we will be singing them together but apart.
Given this reality, being reminded of why we call Sunday “The Lord’s Day” is helpful. Consider this from our Directory for Worship, W-3.0101: We gather to worship God on the Lord's Day (Sunday) because the gospels testify that Jesus rose from the dead early on the first day of the week. The Lord's Day is also called the "eighth day" of creation, a sign of the new creation that has begun with Christ's resurrection. While we may worship God on any day and at any time, the Sunday service in particular is a celebration of Christ's resurrection and an anticipation of the fullness of God's coming reign.
This year, let us plan at least two celebrations of Easter and the resurrection – one on April 12, and the other on that Sunday when we are back together in our sanctuaries. That latter celebration will certainly bring new meaning to the power of the resurrection in our midst. But let us not lose sight that any Sunday is an Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate the resurrection.
If there is one area where our Presbyterian DNA of “doing things decently and in order” comes to the surface, it is in the celebration of the Sacraments. We call our pastors “Ministers of the Word and Sacrament” and, with the ruling elders on the session, charge them with the responsibility for assuring that the Sacraments are celebrated appropriately.
We establish policies for how the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is to be prepared and served, including extending the Sacrament to those who cannot be present in the sanctuary due to reasons of health. One of the churches I served was so detailed in its policy that it specified what brand of bread to purchase and how to cut it into servings. I am reminded of the church I grew up in, which served bread that was more like a thin piece of pound cake, with powdered sugar dusted on top. After celebrating communion there once with my family, our sons asked why we couldn’t have bread like that at the church I served.
Our current practice of social distancing leading to virtual worship – livestreamed, prerecorded, or via liturgies emailed/mailed to members – has challenged the comfortable patterns of celebrating communion that we have followed. In some circles, it has raised questions about what is appropriate in providing the elements. Should the congregation be providing the elements or can people simply gather what they have available in the house and use that? I participated in a session’s worship committee meeting recently where that question was being discussed, and it was jokingly suggested that Snickers bars be used for bread.
Our Directory for Worship reminds us that we use bread and wine/grape juice because that is what Jesus used in the Last Supper. Additionally, the bread of the Lord's Supper links us with the bread of Passover and the gift of manna in the wilderness and reminders of God’s gifts to God’s people in times of need (see W-3.0409). Ideally the congregation is to use “one loaf and one cup express[ing] the unity of the body of Christ and the communal nature of the Sacrament” (W-3.0413). In our current situation, sharing from one loaf and one cup is not only not practical, but potentially unhealthy for all.
As Presbyterians, we view the bread and cup as signs and seals of God’s covenant of grace. By prayer we set the signs of bread and juice apart from their common use to the special use and mystery conveyed by the Sacrament. They are signs to us of the deeper, spiritual realities of our unity with Christ and the promise of the covenant repeated often in Scripture: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Corinthians 6:16). As such, the importance is less on the form of the signs as it is on the significance they convey which is sealed in our hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
As the Lord’s Supper is celebrated virtually while we gather apart for however long these days continue, some of our members are likely to have some form of bread available, but may not have grape juice or wine. It certainly will not be of the same loaf or cup. [It may be some other liquid; I’m thinking orange juice may fit the bill for people from Florida.] For me, the importance is not so much in the form of the sign, but in the prayers which set them apart to function as signs and seals for us. It may not fit with our confessional heritage, but the important thing is the significance which they outward signs convey, especially in this time when we need to have our spiritual reserves strengthened so that we can go forth from the Lord’s table “to love and serve God, one another, and our neighbors in the world” (G-3.0409).
For more information on virtual communion, see the recent General Assembly Advisory Opinion and Constitutional Musing. God’s blessings be with you as we persevere during this time of challenge.