279. thoughts on communion
The act of taking communion (aka the eucharist) is supposed to be way up there when it comes to the sacred rites of the church. Indeed, in some denominations, the act of taking communion is considered the high point of the service. The rite is observed in a variety of ways – I’ve experienced everything from very formalized, liturgical services to very informal ones where the elements were placed on a table at the front of the church and people were invited to partake as they felt led (taking a piece of bread and dipping it in the grape juice/wine). There was even one service I attended where the ushers passed out tiny covered plastic cups filled with grape juice. At first I couldn’t figure out where the body/bread part of communion was until I noticed that the “lid” of the cup had two layers to it. Under the clear top layer was a tiny wafer that symbolized the bread and below that was the actual cover for the juice. You were supposed to peel back the top layer to get the wafer and then peel back the second layer to get at the juice. Surreal, to say the least.
It’s still rather embarrassing to admit this but until a couple years ago, I had only the vaguest notion of what it was I was doing while taking communion. I mean I understood that we were remembering Jesus and obeying his command to “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), and that the wine and the bread symbolized Jesus’ blood and body, and while I suppose those are the nuts and bolts of what’s happening, it just didn’t feel all that meaningful for me. I did my best to participate with a sincere heart. I tried to think of Jesus dying on the cross for my sins, I tried to confess my sins before partaking so I could receive the elements cleansed, but I still didn’t get it. I mean, it just felt like going through the motions.
Before moving to Seattle, I was a part of a house church back in Hawaii. We took turns teaching on Sundays and although I can’t remember how it happened, I got picked (or maybe I volunteered) to share a message about communion. Actually, now that I think about it, I do remember a bit of how this teaching opportunity came about.
We had been meeting as a house church for a few months when someone observed that we had never had communion. We all felt bad about this and so the next week we brought bread and wine and decided to give it a go. One of the features of our house church was that it was very open and discussion oriented. Before we shared the communion meal, someone asked the simple question, “what are we doing this for?” And then one by one we began to admit that beyond rote Sunday school answers, we didn’t really know. Despite our ignorance, we broke bread anyway but we also said one of us should do some research and share what they learned. And then I got picked…or maybe I volunteered, I still can’t remember that part.
I put nose to grindstone. I read the accounts of the Lord’s supper in the Gospels and the bit in 1 Corinthians 11 and 12, but I had heard these portions of scripture so often that they didn’t help much. So I consulted the all-knowing Wikipedia, but that just gave me a raft of doctrinal history which was about as useful to me understanding communion as learning how to operate a printing press would be in learning how to read. I knew what I needed was to get in the heads of the disciples as they sat around the table with Jesus in the upper room – what were they thinking as they heard Jesus tell them to eat his body and drink his blood?
That’s when I found N.T. Wright’s book, The Meal Jesus Gave Us. An excellent book and while there are brief bits where he picks at some obscure doctrinal nits, it really helped me reach a deeper, fuller understanding of communion. Much of what follows came about with help from Mr. Wright’s book. (I’ve put my own slant on it so if you disagree on my take on communion, don’t slight his book, it’s probably my mistake.)
In order to get a fuller understanding of communion, we need to take a trip in the way back machine – way back to 1500 BC, to Moses and the Exodus. I won’t rehash the entire story but the salient points are these. The Israelites were held in captivity and made slaves of the Pharaoh until God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, instructing him to free his people and take them to a land that God had chosen for them – the promised land, flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:7-10). Ten nasty plagues ensued, culminating in the death of all the first-born children in Egypt. However, this plague passed over the Israelites. To this day, the Passover holiday is celebrated by Jews around the world as commanded by God. It’s a time when they remember both their ancestors’ suffering under slavery and the work God did to free them.
More significant for this discussion on communion, it’s this Passover ceremony that Jesus shared with his disciples where he poured wine and broke bread and told us to do likewise (Matthew 26:17-19). As with everything else in Jesus’ life, this is no coincidence – it’s a date with deep, beautiful, nuanced meaning.
As I understand it, the Exodus is central to the identity of the Jewish people. Had God not led them out of Egypt through Moses, they say that they would still be living as slaves. In the same way, one of the central tenants of the christian faith is the idea that through the death of Jesus on the cross, those who believe and follow Christ are freed from being slaves to sin (Romans 6:6-7).
But the Passover story doesn’t end with freedom. Once freed from Egypt, the Jews wandered the desert for forty years before being led to the land promised to them. And just as times of adversity build character, it was through this time of wandering that the “character” of the Jewish people was developed. Lauren F. Winner puts it this way in her excellent book, Girl Meets God:
“In The Star of Redemption, [Franz] Rosenzweig discusses [Jewish] time and calendars and holidays. About Pesach, he writes, ‘The welding of people into a people takes place in its deliverance.’ And that, it seems to me, is what both passover and Maundy Thursday are about – making a people. In the Exodus, the Jews are transformed from people into a people and at the Eucharist, instituted there at the Last Supper, we Christians are transformed into a people, too.” (Winner 173)
I happen to believe that christians today are like those Jews wandering, stumbling, complaining towards the promised land. They were working their way to what would become Israel. We are working our way to the Kingdom of God – the time when Christ will come again to finish the work of redeeming this fallen world. For me, seeing the Eucharist in this way transforms what was once a staid, Sunday school answer – “we take communion to remember Christ’s death on the cross” – into a vibrant reminder that we are all on a journey, that as bleak as the world seems, there is a promised land ahead of us. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that when Jesus instructed us
to “do this in remembrance of me,” he meant for us to remember both what he did on the cross as well as what he will do when he comes again.
[warning: unorthodox view ahead, please don’t stone me]
To be honest, there are still times, while taking communion, that I find it difficult to remember what I’m supposed to be remembering. And I wonder.
As many churches do, my church celebrates communion every Sunday. Other churches I’ve attended took communion on a monthly or quarterly schedule. But for Jews, the Passover meal is a yearly event and as such, it’s a big deal. The ceremony literally lasts all night and it’s full of discussion on what the different foods symbolize. In taking communion every week, I have to fight the temptation to think of it as just that thing we do every Sunday.
I wonder if it would be better to take communion just once a year and to make it a really big deal. I think it’d be great to devote one service every year to a fuller discussion of the Last Supper and how Jesus was reworking the Passover celebration. Can you imagine how deep and meaningful drinking the wine and eating the bread would be on a Sunday like that?
Now I know some christians get together on Passover week to celebrate a christian Seder, but this is seen as kind of a fringe thing done only by hardcore christians. And I understand that devoting a Sunday service during Passover week to focus on communion would interfere with Easter Sunday but how about the week before or the week after or maybe some other date entirely?
I would love to see a Sunday where the whole church gets together and celebrates a Seder meal together…but that’s just me and my two cents.