Some Lutherans have picked up the Roman language of “Eucharistic fasting” recently, applying it to not being able to receive the Lord’s Supper because many public church services are not being held. There are several problems with it, though it might be appealing at first glance.
Fasting is biblical, but only in the sense that it is mentioned in the Bible. It is not particularly Christian, since many religions, notably Islam, also engage in some form of it. It is not wrong to be sure, but the idea that it pleases God is unscriptural. The Jews showed it was easy to fast in unbelief, while living a sinful lifestyle (Is. 58). The whole fasting idea—as a religious work—has much baggage—as if God is pleased when we eat less or more. He is not a dietitian giving detailed rules and calorie guidelines to His children.
Fasting, eating less or nothing for a time, of course, does not make one holy. Neither does starving yourself so that you are too weak to help anyone else. No amount or degree of fasting atones for any sin—Christ already did that by His death on the cross. So Christ warns that those who choose to fast must not do it in a selfish, hypocritical, or showy way (Mt. 6:17-19).
Fasting has no real spiritual component—whereas the sacrament is divine. Fasting is simply “outward preparation,” as Luther instructs in the Catechism. Outward works without the Spirit condemn. But in freedom and faith, one may personally chose to fast, or do without some earthly luxuries—not as a way to get closer to God, but as a restraint for the flesh. This is “fine,” but has no spiritual dimension in itself—since the “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). The Spirit does not come through our works, but through the Gospel. The truest fasting God wants and commands is to fast from sin—a tall task for sinners.
In the Roman church, Eucharistic fasting is connected to not having food before receiving the Lord’s Supper (called “the Eucharist” after the Greek word for “thanksgiving”). In Rome’s canon law it says that “one who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion” (Canon 919). As with all arbitrary rules (6 feet of social distancing is good, 5.75 feet is deadly), it easily devolves into legalism and sinful showmanship. Of course, fasting from food can be done in a godly way, but to command it is to speak falsely for God. This rule of Rome has no divine authority from Scripture, God’s very Word.
But some Lutherans have taken this language used of plain, earthly food and reapplied it to the Supper itself. For example: “This Eucharistic fast is not a voluntary one, such as the practice of some to “give up” something such as coffee or chocolate for Lent. This is more in the way of Orthodox Christians, who view fasting not as a sacrifice but as a discipline” (William M. Cwirla, htlcms.org/2020/04/eucharistic-fasting/). This sounds very spiritual, but it has a number of flaws.
First, is it a divinely-mandated fast we are currently enduring? Plenty of pastors in states with total restrictions are still conducting services and communing sinners hungering for Christ’s righteousness—against the government’s orders, but not against God’s will. But Cwirla continues: this Eucharistic fast “also includ[es] our shut-ins who commune as an extension of the gathered congregation. We are receiving this as the loving discipline of our God for our repentance and faith.” It sounds good, but why should shut-ins suffer—because those who are new to being stuck at home can’t go out. Shut-ins suffer for much longer, and often without the ability to go back to total freedom of movement in the future. This pandemic should make us consider their situation with greater sympathy. Some live for years in this trying condition.
But why deny shutins—some of the weakest among us—the Gospel, the very forgiveness of Christ in Communion? That is not God’s discipline, but man’s. A pastor’s main responsibility—His call from Christ—is to give out the Word and sacraments. To not do that and call it of God, trying to make it vaguely spiritual, is quite perverted. Avoiding the Word and sacraments does not give a spiritual benefit. Outward discipline is to be employed to prepare us for receiving the Gospel, by denying fleshly distractions, not socially distancing us from Christ’s forgiving Word.
To call not communing discipline from God, when it is really self-chosen is alarming. Are the pastors holding services against government advice and ordinances sinning against Jesus? Are they supposed to be fasting, and thereby sinning in having two or three gathered in Jesus’ name? It is ever wrong to preach the Word and administer Communion publicly according to Christ’s scriptural mandate? No, not in Scripture.
Overreach of the state is not divine discipline—or else the state is God. Nothing is physically preventing most people from gathering together—people are trying to prevent possible transmission of an unseen virus—that may or may not be present in a public place or with your neighbor. There is risk, to be sure, in attending a church service at this time, but this new viral risk does not make the proclaimed Word and offering the Holy Supper wrong in God’s eyes.
The biggest problem with the liturgical designation of “Eucharistic fating” for not communing in public services is that fasting is self-chosen, outward discipline. Discipline, by definition is law—in this case it is not God’s—but of man. A person with the virus would be duty-bound to be quarantined. Such a one would be separated from the assembly of believers against his will, but not those who are well. They (or their pastors) are choosing to stay home—so it is not necessarily “divine.” Of course, five states in the U.S. have had no stay at home orders at all, and have been free to have church and Communion legally, though with some minor restrictions. It is odd to say that on one side of a state line, there is a fast from the Supper mandated by God, but across the border where Communion is being administered with approval from government authorities there is no fast. The issue is not God micromanaging so-called “fasts” at the state level, but governments reacting differently and possibly without constitutional authority.
The biggest problem with calling the absence of the Supper positive discipline is that the Communion is not law or discipline in any sense. The Supper is pure Gospel, since it is Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. To spiritualize staying away from Christ is not biblical, nor Christian. Is one who avoids Communion for self-disciplinary reasons or circumstances, thereby closer to Christ? Not if we listen to Christ: “Do this,” He said, not “avoid this,” for the forgiveness of sins. Without forgiveness all the fasting in the world—even to temporal death—does nothing beneficial. Avoiding the publicly distributed Gospel is not godly discipline at all. It may be done for a time out of love for the neighbor and in faith, but it has nothing to do with bringing us closer to God, as His fatherly discipline does. His discipline does not separate us from the forgiveness of Christ, but gently nudges us to it, by exposing our sin.
The novel concept of “Eucharist fasting” mixes law with Gospel. Thankfully, forgiveness is not only in the Supper, it is also in our baptismal promise and the Word itself. None of these things should be fasted from, at any time, by the faithful Christian. Whoever tells us avoiding the Gospel gifts Christ gave is not speaking for Christ, but merely giving their own fleshly opinions.
Luther did not spout any nonsense about the benefit of refraining from the Supper—by calling it a fancy name. The Supper is one place Christ expressly ordained for us to go to receive eternal salvation and rescue from Satan and death. Consider Luther’s advice when dealing with one of the deadliest plagues the world has ever known: “everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight. He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God. …we cannot set up a private pulpit and altar daily at their bedside simply because they have despised the public pulpit and altar to which God has summoned and called them” (“Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague,” LW 43). —ed.