Home Communion

Spiritual nourishment for the shut-in

We gathered around the kitchen table in the old farmhouse. The oilcloth with pictures of yellow pears and red strawberries was still on the table from lunchtime. So were the napkins and a few stray bread crumbs. There were four of us: the eighty-two-year-old widow who had lived in the house since her marriage sixty years ago, two elders, and myself.

The elders had prepared the communion elements at the kitchen counter, and we were ready to start. I read from the black service book: "You are to consider that, in instituting this holy supper, our Lord Jesus Christ gave us a sure remembrance and pledge of his hearty love and faithfulness toward us." We passed the bread to each other. "Take eat, remember and believe…The bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ." And the juice— "The cup of blessing which we bless is the communion of the blood of Christ." The widow took one of the napkins to wipe her tears.

We talked for quite a while afterward—about the snow last night, about Bart's death ("already seven years ago, but it seems like yesterday"), about the grandchildren, about missing the church services, about Christ's daily comfort. And then we left. "Thank you, boys, for coming. It was a real blessing."

Historical Footnotes

As weighty liturgical issues go, the practice of communion for the sick and shut-ins is probably not a heavy one. Home communion probably won't be discussed at the next international eucharist conference, and if s unlikely that synods and general assemblies will be making pronouncements on this subject.

Still, it's an issue worthy of the church's attention—especially in a time when some churches are discontinuing the practice.

Although books on worship may not contain major chapters on home communion, the footnotes of church history at least pay attention to the question. Justin Martyr (c. 155), for example, relates how the deacons went to the homes of the sick after the celebration in church.

By Reformation times the practice had in many ways become corrupted. The Reformers only knew of the Roman home communion in the context of veneration, in which the bread was transported from cathedral to home with a superstitious adoration of the elements. And the Roman viaticum— communion for the dying— often smacked of a magical rite, devoid of any emphasis on Christian confession and life.

Luther, therefore, had reservations about the Roman abuses of celebrating communion with the sick. He was afraid of people requesting communion for magical forgiveness, without true confession: "Whoever wants to live as a pagan or a dog, without showing remorse—we do not want to give him the sacrament. Let him die as he lived." But he still considered the practice appropriate and necessary, as long as it was shorn of superstition.

Just before Calvin came to Strassburg, the Reformed church there had issued a liturgy for visiting the sick which also contained provision for administering the Lord's Supper to those with long-term illnesses, for their "spiritual strengthening." Calvin shared Luther's reservations about "private communion," but he also favored administering communion to the sick. "That the communion is not directed to the sick also displeases me, and it is not on my account that this consolation has not been accorded to those who are quitting this life." If possible, said Calvin, family and friends should join in the supper.

Calvin's recommendation about bringing the sacrament to the sick was not supported by all Reformed Christians, however. A later Dutch synod (Middelburg, 1581) forbade communion for the sick. And some Presbyterians maintained (and still maintain) that the Westminster Confession's stricture that "private masses… are contrary to the nature of this sacrament" (xxxi, 4) forbids the practice of home communion. They believed (and believe) that communion may be conducted only when the full congregation is present for official worship. Four people around a kitchen table are neither full nor official.

Consolation and Nourishment

One word in Calvin's reasoning is telling: consolation. And if one combines that word with nourishing, another word from a Reformation document, we have very solid pastoral reasons for communion with the sick. The Belgic Confession, in a marvelous section on the Lord's Supper, keeps stressing the major reason for communion: it is for the nourishing of our spiritual lives (Art. 35).

Consolation and spiritual nourishment—how necessary they are for all of us, but especially for the aged. The aged, the sick, and the shut-ins are often deprived of visits and companionship, and sometimes their lives are lonely and grim. They are also deprived of preaching (other than radio and TV sermons or taped sermons from their home church), of communion with the church fellowship, and of communion at the Lord's table. The administration of the Lord's Supper in their homes or nursing home is one way to lighten their isolation and to bring them comfort and nurture with this means of grace.

Each church will have to decide how to regulate these communion services. The frequency of the visits, the number of elders present, use of liturgical forms—these will be governed by denominational and local practices. But the services should be conducted as meaningfully as possible.

I have found that many (elderly) members of a congregation regularly visit nursing home residents; one way to enlarge the sense of congregation is to invite such members (and family members) to participate in the service.

"Pacing" is also important. Given the rush of our lives and the busy schedules of pastors, the tendency is to abbreviate the service greatly. Some abbreviation is, of course, necessary, since we do not try to duplicate the church service, but we must  avoid a hurried pace. A sense of reverence and quiet joy must characterize the service.

The focus and theme of the home services may differ from time to time, but one frequent accent should be the anticipatory one. We celebrate the Lord's Supper "till he comes." Or, as one communion form has it: "We come in hope, believing that this bread and this cup are a pledge and foretaste of the feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come, when with unveiled face we shall behold him, made like unto him in his glory." Those who are old and infirm are often eager to behold Christ face to face, and this accent of the Supper will be a special nurture and comfort.

The Lord's Supper around the hospital bed or around the kitchen table is a venerable practice and worth keeping.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.