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.” 

Advertisements