January 2013


My previous post told of my “history” with Holy Communion, experienced in the church in which I grew up. It was a somber meal of bread cubes and shot glasses of grape juice, offered to worshippers four times a year. But it was treated, as one might expect, as a spiritual meal with Jesus present in spirit, and in the context of both corporate worship and personal devotion. I do not pretend that the way we did it back then was the only right way, of course. It was just that, in my tradition, it was the only way I knew and experienced.

I took it seriously as a kid. Except for the Sunday David Cook and I got the giggles as we thought of the pastor’s wife stomping the grapes. Where that idea came from, I don’t know; but it may be the only time I’d ever been shushed in church.

Our Presbyterian church wasn’t the least bit creative when it came to experiencing this sacrament. There was only one way to distribute the meal back then. Silver trays of bread and juice were delivered by Elders who took them from the pastor’s hands at the Communion table, and then, probably following a well-worn pattern, took them to the ends of pews, to be passed from one person to the next.

In college, I found that there were more informal ways to share the meal, including standing around the Communion table in small groups, literally breaking bread and passing the juice cups to one’s neighbor. (I don’t recall an instance of “common cup” there, but my memory of that time is fading.) It was in seminary, as one might expect, that the meal was offered/served in a variety of ways. In fact, at my first Communion service in the seminary chapel, I tasted my first wine. The aroma filled the room as the trays were uncovered, and I was taken aback ever-so-slightly as I discovered the bitterness of fermented grapes. (My parents had not been big on alcohol as I grew up, and peer pressure didn’t affect my beverage choices when I was a teen. Plus the college I attended had a strict no alcohol policy, and a Bible professor who insisted that when Jesus turned water into wine, it wasn’t fermented wine. Also, the college was located in a dry county! That’s why it was such an event, that first seminary service with real wine in the trays.)

Later, as an ecumenical Christian, in my years of ministry I had experienced a broad array of ways to eat the bread and drink the cup. I’ll need to share a couple of stories in a later post, but here I want to get to my point about how times have changed when it comes to this sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. For one thing, we in the Presbyterian church are sharing the Meal far more frequently. I wouldn’t mind having Communion every week. But most of the churches in our denomination have gotten into a monthly cycle, striking a compromise among those who liked it better four times a year (making it more “special”) and those who prefer it more often. In the churches I served most recently, we did go with the monthly offering of Communion, but we also celebrated (more rightly, I’d say) the “high holy days” in the liturgical calendar by sharing the Meal. Transfiguration, Reign of Christ, Pentecost, Easter — as well as the other special Sundays —  these were marked by gathering at the table. If there were complaints, they were few. But there was an issue. That means, of course, a problem.

It all has to do with the practicality of two elements: serving and cleaning up. When Communion was offered only four times a year, finding Elders willing to serve and “do the dishes” afterward wasn’t a big deal. But with Communion served more often, my goodness! At one church, at every Session meeting (that’s the local governing board for Presby-types) I’d pass a sign-up sheet around the room, hoping Elders would remember that serving the meal is both a holy privilege and a deep responsibility for ordained leaders such as themselves. But when the sign-up sheet came back to me, I’d see we were seriously short of volunteers, so I’d send it around again. And a third time.

There were a couple of issues. 1) Even the called/chosen/ and ordained Elders didn’t want to commit to being at worship on a given Sunday. 2) There may have been some anxiety about “getting it right” as they moved about the sanctuary with the trays. 3) There was the extra time and effort required for clean-up after church. One newer church member solved that last issue by declaring that her mother had considered cleaning the Communion ware to be a kind of sacred service, an act of devotion. She would take the job and labor at it with a song in her heart as had her beloved mother. And she did…for a few months. Then she realized that washing all those little cups was a genuine pain. She complained subtly at first. And then not so subtly.

Thus it is that we have now come to my own complaint. How disappointing that we cannot recruit enough servers. And that some pesky practical issues have changed even the foundational theology of the Meal. To the point where we now have one Elder and the pastor standing beside the table, holding chalices of juice (or wine in many churches), and the bread, what we symbolically call “The Body of Christ” filling two plates simply laid on the table. As lines of parishioners move to the table, we pick our piece of bread from the plate (self-service, if you will), and dip that morsel into the chalice, with “The Cup of the New Covenant” wicking its way into the bread. Pop it in your mouth and head back to your seat. I call it (not with any sense of originality) “fast food communion.”

When the meal is over, cleaning up is comparatively easy too. And also, when the meal is over (notice I am not capitalizing “meal” anymore), one may have contracted not only a more holy feeling, but the flu or a cold, thanks to the dipping of not only bread but also fingers into the juice, fingers that have…well, no need to go into detail here.

This method of serving Communion is called “intinction,” such an odd word that 1) spell check doesn’t recognize it as a real word, and 2) parishioners often call it intincture, a word that doesn’t even exist, but which may as well, if one’s fingers wind up tinted by red grape juice. Intinction does have some roots in tradition, but tradition is not why the process is gaining popularity. It is its practicality. And that is my complaint. Some details of which will be in my next rant. Er, entry.

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I’ve been thinking about the sacrament of holy communion.

For Jesus-followers, it is what my home church used to call “a meal with the Master.” It is ancient ritual, holy mystery, and an ever-evolving practice that reminds the genuinely pious that “we are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.”  Apparently, it is also quite a bother these days.

Now, I’m a Presbyterian. And I have shared that bit of bread and sip of wine (or grape juice) with a variety of Christian sisters and brothers in many holy spaces, and in many different ways. I want to write about some of those experiences after this introduction.

As I grew up, Communion (or what we call “The Lord’s Supper”) was served and shared about four times a year. Though our “patron saint” John Calvin had preferred that the Reformed Church follow the example of the Apostles by celebrating Word and Sacrament every Lord’s Day, most Presbyterian churches chose to follow the lead of the old Geneva City Council which had ignored Calvin’s advice. The council set a quarterly schedule for the meal instead. Calvin, according to historian Peter Bauer, called that a “defect.”

But there we were, as I grew up, adding Communion to our Sunday service four times a year. The sacrament was of such import that a Wednesday evening service of “preparation” was a traditional offering of many churches, including mine. It wasn’t required, but the assumption was that if one took the meal seriously, one would do well to meditate on the meaning of sharing the symbolic body and blood of Christ prior to the Sunday service. Just as Roman Catholics were expected to go to confession before Mass, so Presbyterians were encouraged to gather for prayer and scripture readings before sharing in the Lord’s Supper.

Back then (and I guess I should come clean about when “back then” was — for me, it was the mid-1950s), we Presbyterians received the elements one by one, on trays passed pew to pew by church Elders. After the pastor’s reading the traditional “Words of Institution” drawn from the scriptures, and with the accompaniment of rather somber organ music in the background, Elders would take trays from the Communion Table (never an “altar” in the Presbyterian churches) and serve little cubes of white bread, wordlessly. After the bread had been served, they’d go back for round trays of tiny glasses (think “shot glasses”) of grape juice, and again without words or even facial expression, the Elders gave the tray to the person on the end of the pew and the tray would pass from person to person to the other end of the pew.

[Perhaps this ritual is overly familiar to you and it is needless to go into this detail. But I assume someone might land here whose tradition is quite different. Thus, the description.]

Now, again, this was generally a quarterly practice, rarely linked to any liturgical occasion. In fact, back then, most Presbyterians wouldn’t have known what a “liturgical occasion” was. Except Maundy Thursday. We may not have had a clue about Advent or Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday, but we knew Lent, and we knew Holy Week. And on Maundy Thursday, we’d remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his Friday crucifixion.

But the other occasions for Holy Communion were dictated by the marking of the year’s “quarters.” I read recently that one well-known contemporary preacher has remarked that if Holy Communion is indeed a meal with (or in the spiritual presence of) Jesus, why in heaven’s name would you not want to commune with him every week? As do the Christians of many other traditions, such as Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and, today, even some Presbyterians. Ah, Calvin is smiling.

But I am moved to write all this, not prompted by the frequency of the sacrament, but by the transition that has taken place, due mainly (I assume) to practical matters. My mediation on the meal comes out of my most recent experience at the church where I now worship. In fact, that church is the church of my childhood, the church to which I have returned after many years serving in ministry elsewhere. And the experience? I skipped the sacrament entirely. Thoughtfully, though. Even prayerfully. I just watched everyone else eat and drink.

In my next post, I’ll tell you why. It has something to do with “fast food.”