Monday, February 8, 2016

In which I Daydream About the Perfect Communion Experience


We all do it (well, if you consider yourself a Christian and attend worship on any sort of regular basis). But we don't all do it the same way.

I grew up with Communion plates being passed, the so-called "shots" of grape juice and cubes of bread. It was normal for me, and I clearly remember during my Confirmation Class thinking how neat the symbolism was of eating the bread as it was passed as a symbol of our individual relationship with Christ, but holding the juice to take together as a symbol of our unity in Christ. I've heard stories of Presbyterians complaining that intinction (dipping a piece of bread into a common cup) doesn't feel like Communion--indeed, the accusation has even been leveled that it ISN'T "real" Communion.

Before I came to FPC Boise, however, I spent two years serving at an Episcopal church, where they served communion in a POLAR OPPOSITE method. I was used to grape juice; they used port (wine). I liked leavened bread; they used wafers. I looked for the elements to be passed to me in my seat; they had the congregation come forward to drink from a common cup (some by intinction, some drinking straight from the chalice). I expected Communion once a month; they shared the Eucharist every Sunday. Fortunately, I had already been through seminary in a diverse city with students from many theological backgrounds, so I was far from scandalized, but it presented me with a unique opportunity to examine my preexisting assumptions about this meal that we all share.

The following is my own personal preferences for Communion and my theological rationale--Contrary to the title of this post, I don't actually view my opinion here as "right" or "better" than others, but I have put a bit of thought into this, so I invite you to use this as an opportunity to do the same.

-THE BREAD: With the exception of certain logistical necessities (like chaplaincies, homebound visits, etc.), I always prefer one loaf to be used in Communion. It doesn't necessarily have to be a big fluffy loaf of white bread; I've used pitas before to wonderful effect. For me, there's something about the physical tearing--ripping--breaking--of the bread when I hear about Christ's broken body that speaks to me in a way that an isolated, separated piece of bread or wafer just does not.

I've grown a bit theologically since those Confirmation days, too, and while the individual relationship with Christ is still important, I've come to understand our collective relationship with one another through Christ as far more central to Christianity than I used to. Christ's love isn't for you and you and you and's for US. It's not dispersed in small, neat little personal-sized packages; it's an overwhelming wave that covers us all in the exact same grace. So the idea of us all dining from the same loaf--and that even with just one, there is more than enough--conveys the way Christ works in our lives far more clearly to me than the "my personal grace" method.

-THE CUP: An interesting conversation during my time at the Episcopal Church. Even though I never expressed any discomfort whatsoever with the use of fermented wine in Communion, the Rector and lay leadership used my presence among them as an opportunity to examine their own traditions. They recognized that the use of alcohol in the sacrament can be prohibitive for some, and that even though their theology allows people to take part in Communion without consuming the wine, it can still make individuals feel excluded from the table, which is meant to be welcoming to all. In other words, it wasn't just a theological concern, it was a pastoral concern.

The solution they arrived at was that they began serving grape juice in a crystal chalice (in contrast to their normal silver chalice) alongside the wine at every Eucharist. Folks were able to choose whichever they preferred without needing to draw attention to their choice or abstain from Communion. Personally, I admire this commitment to inclusivity and compassion for those in varying life situations, as well as their respect and reverence to tradition.

This Presbyterian has come to deeply appreciate the use of wine in Communion--as with the bread, it lends itself to a much more sensory experience, and is arguably more authentic to Jesus' last meal with his disciples--but if I had to choose one or the other, I would still choose the grape juice, because I believe that Jesus would want everyone to feel safe and comfortable coming to dine with him.

-METHOD OF RECEIVING: Although I've long preferred coming up to receive Communion rather than having it passed in the pews, it was only recently that I've begun to be able to articulate why I feel this way. When we have the elements passed to us in our seats, we are being taught that our faith is passive. God's grace is free, certainly (and according to Calvinist theology, there's nothing we can do about it), but that doesn't mean that it requires nothing of us. Being a Christian doesn't mean sitting in church, being told that God loves us, and then going about our normal lives as if nothing has changed. Being a Christian is about hearing the Good News, and then RESPONDING to God's magnificent and abundant love--because we can't help but respond. One way that we do that is through our bodies--using them to worship (we don't stand up and sit down on Sunday mornings just to get the blood flowing!), using them to help our fellow human beings, and physically choosing to draw nearer to God through the Eucharist. This aspect is completely absent when Communion is passed through the pews, and I think we miss out on the joyful experience that it's supposed to be when we're not asked to participate.

Also (and this is arguably a minor point) I love the reminder that "This is Christ's body/blood, broken/poured out for you" at the moment that I take Communion, and as a server, I love being able to look into people's eyes as I remind them of Christ's incomprehensible love for them. That's something that is taken from me when we pass the plates.

-SERVERS: I love the people serving one another in the name of Christ. I understand the desire to have clergy preside, especially out of a desire to do all things "decently and in order" (and, to be honest, it's still a surreally humbling experience to realize that I am uniquely ordained to this task) but, as Jesus himself said, "Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there" (Matthew 18:20). He notably didn't say, "Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there, provided that at least one of those two are properly credentialed and say the magic words." Certainly, we want to preserve the authenticity of the Eucharist (although, as I think I've made clear, the definition of "authentic Communion" is open to interpretation) and we want to make sure that it doesn't devolve into snack time (Paul himself had to contend with this concern--1 Corinthians 11:20-22), but we should never let it get to the point where we're excluding anyone who wants to serve his or her fellow human being in this holy Sacrament.

-FREQUENCY: To be honest, I can't come down on one side or the other of this issue. Having grown up with Communion once a month, I do think there's something to be said about the sacrament being a "special occasion," especially since we aren't in a particularly sacramental tradition. But on the other hand, we don't get the opportunity to internalize the significance of taking Communion when we do it once in ten minutes and then forget about it for another 30 days. From a presider's standpoint, it's difficult for me to get a sense of the flow of Communion in a new community, even though it's my own native tradition, because it's so hard to sense the patterns and the connections with the rest of worship, whereas I picked up the (entirely foreign to me) Episcopalian liturgy quickly, and began to find comfort and connection in its consistency. So I guess if I had my way, I'd share communion more often than once a month.

What do you think? Does your community share Communion in a way that I've never experienced? Do you disagree with my perspective? Do you think I'm onto something?

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