communion wine


DSC07464{Lent is coming to a close, and my forty day writing discipline of mug-oriented reflections is almost over as well. Today, Maundy Thursday, I skip the mug for a chalice.}

Vermont potter Margot Eastman had not made a chalice before. I more or less commissioned one though, and this lovely vessel is the result. It has been used for the Sacrament of Holy Communion only a handful of times. Churches, of course, have their own communion ware, usually silver, often ornate. But I have substituted my clay plate and chalice a couple of times. I like the simplicity of it.

Communion. It is a loaded word. With a lowercase ‘c’ it refers to a commonality, a sharing among peers. But with the capital letter ‘C’ it becomes the trademarked (not official) meal shared by followers of Jesus, a memorial meal initiated on the eve of Jesus’ execution. Celebrating the Passover together, eating and drinking the symbolic ritual elements and saying the right words in recounting the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt, Jesus added a new meaning to the meal. His words, as reported by the gospel writers are repeated today as Christians gather at tables and altars in churches: This bread is my body…this cup is my blood of the covenant…

Though the gospel writers do not include it, Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth adds this from Jesus, “Whenever you do this, remember me.” Was it a request? A hope? A command? However it was meant, we who keep communion with him, do indeed remember him, that table, those elements of bread and wine, and that covenant of unconditional love.

Tonight, members of our church family will celebrate that meal not in the sanctuary, but around tables in the fellowship hall. How appropriate! Since communion and fellowship have common meaning. We will hear the story again, refreshing our memory of that night, Jesus’ arrest, and his trial the next day. Then we will remember the wood, the nails, the cries. As if we could forget…

In the churches I served as pastor, as Lent ended, we participated in that meal three times in one week. When I was a kid in our Presbyterian church, we celebrated Communion only quarterly, that is, four times a year. Our more liturgical cousins would have Mass or Holy Communion every week, but I guess we Presbyterians thought that might take away from how special the occasion was. Or, maybe we just didn’t want to do the dishes that often. But we in the Reformed Tradition continued to reform and now many Presbyterians are moving toward John Calvin’s preference for weekly observance of the sacrament. At the very least, it is a monthly meal, and so that no one feels ambushed by the unexpected, somehow we have fallen into the liturgically bereft “first Sunday of the month” routine. I suppose that’s some progress, from four times a year to twelve.

But by the time I was a “solo pastor,” I encouraged the churches I served to share the Bread and Cup on every “high holy day” (i.e., the festival days of note, from Christmas to Palm Sunday, Easter to Pentecost, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, etc.), plus the now customary first Sunday of each month. Some parishioners thought it overkill (or over-eating?) when Holy Week arrived, and we would sit at table together three times in one week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Resurrection Day. So I used that week to remind my churches of the different personalities the sacrament could assume.

Palm Sunday: Holy Communion; Maundy Thursday: The Lord’s Supper; Easter: The Eucharist. On Palm Sunday, it was, pardon the expression, the standard, everyday service…bread and wine offered as nexus between joyful procession and moving toward Calvary. The Holy Thursday meal we called “The Lord’s Supper,” a commemoration of Jesus’ “last supper” with his friends. It was a more subdued meal, the somber tone suggested by loss, and sadness at the line, “On the night on which he was betrayed…” We would eat the bread, drink the cup (–“cup” — a less-than-clever way to avoid admitting that we drink grape juice instead of actual wine!) and then depart in silence as if we had just lost our best friend.

But on Easter Sunday, the sacrament was the “joyful feast of the people of God.” It was Eucharist: deep, stirring gratitude, with alleluias all around, sung, smiled, practically danced in thanksgiving for the sign of new life signaled by an empty tomb. [Forgive me here if I have violated the “putting away of alleluias for Lent.” Pretend you didn’t read it here, or just don’t read it aloud!] This Resurrection Day sacrament would be a foretaste of the “sitting at table in the Kingdom of God.” The new hymn “I Come with Joy” is a perfect song for people who smile at the fellowship of that theologically happy meal and practically dance their way there to the hymn’s delightful beat.

The variety of ways in which diverse followers gather round the global, even cosmic, table is remarkable, a sign that no matter the form the sacrament takes, the memory of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection keeps Good News alive and saints and sinners one in the Spirit.  Unleavened bread or rich, dark rye; Welches or rich, dark red? Move to the table or stand at the altar? Be served in pews with little chewy cubes and tiny cups of barely recognizable liquid? Or, break off a chunk of bread commensurate with how much grace one needs and gulp down a healthy portion of wine from a common chalice? Store front church with grimy windows covered by plastic sheets of pretend stained glass? Or, rural clapboard church with clear windows looking out on grazing cows?

And who sits at table with you? Oh, to be sure, some are the same comfortable clique you eat after-worship doughnuts with (while avoiding the eyes of those visitors over there by the coffee urn). But look who else! Liberal and conservative, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox, United Methodists and those not-so-united; Presbyterians and Baptists of all different stripes; your ultra-pious neighbor who thinks Jesus helps her park, and the Sunday School cynic who claims to enjoy playing devil’s advocate, but who is really hurting inside because his childhood faith never grew up.

“Remember me,” Jesus said. Here is something to eat, something to drink, and something to think about. It’s a meal like all the others he shared with the committed and the curious, along with untouchables, unlikables, and unlovables. Except this one, this one last supper, has some bread and wine set for us.

Take. Eat. Drink. Remember.

And love each other.

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“In the same way, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.'”

Tonight, as I lead the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or as my childhood home church called it, “The Meal with the Master,” I shall repeat those words about cup and covenant and blood, as I pour the wine. Truth be told, it won’t be wine, but grape juice, though if I had my way, it would be wine in all its fermented fruitiness!

Usually I refer to the drink that accompanies the sacramental bread as “the cup,” instead of pretending it is wine or naming it more honestly “juice.” There’s something that sounds odd if we were to say that this holy communion consists of “bread and juice.” That sounds more like a church preschool snack.

Wait. We could in all honesty call the drink “the fruit of the vine!” That would be true to the grape, right? But I go with “the cup.”36160007.jpg Simple. And scriptural.

If you have been following this blog for the past 37 days of Lent (2016), you are aware that each day I have chosen a photographic image from among the many thousands I’ve taken since I got my first camera as a child. The image today comes from the Iona Abbey Cloisters sandstone carvings, this one a depiction of a man receiving the cup. (I was surprised to learn that the carvings are relatively recent, having been commissioned in 1967 and completed in 1997.)

On this particular evening, when we remember Jesus and his disciples in the upper room, having their last supper together, we will break bread and share the cup. A seminary professor of mine John Leith (he was never a fan of my so-called theology) wrote that it was a “thrilling fact” that not a Sunday (or probably a day) had gone by in over 2000 years that Christians somewhere on the planet had not “gathered at the table of their Lord,” to break the bread and pour the wine.

Tonight, Maundy Thursday services may be more creative than usual. Some churches will host a Seder; the church Joan and I belong to will have a Tenebrae service around tables in the fellowship hall; and the church where I will “sub” tonight will have a simple service of quiet communion in a small chapel. We will not be drinking from a chalice as the stone carver has depicted at Iona. Probably grape juice in little cups.

I’ll not stress that. Instead I will emphasize that we share (symbolically) one cup. My understanding is that the meaning of sharing a cup is sharing in the life of all who drink from that cup.  When Christians drink from that cup, there is a unity, a bond, a communion in one another’s lives. I know the traditional understanding of the cup filled with red wine is that it is a reminder of Jesus’ shed blood, just as the bread reminds us of his broken body, but, Lord, let us be careful of our vocabulary here. From almost the very beginning of this sacramental meal, Christians have been accused of cannibalism, pretending to eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood.

“This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” God’s new deal for us. I don’t know what kind of grade the late Dr. Leith would have given me for this bit of personal theology, but I much prefer to think of this “cup” as sharing in the “lifeblood”of Christ, as in a blood connection to him and his family. We are of the same blood, sharing in his vitality, his mission, his sacrifice. As in our willingness to share his cup. Not drink his blood. Ick.

In Luke’s gospel, on the eve of his crucifixion Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives. And he pleads, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” Even Eugene Peterson’s relaxed (and very popular) paraphrase keeps the word “cup” there: “Father remove this cup from me.” Here the cup stands for the cross. When we share the cup in that communion meal, do we not also announce that we are willing to share his cross? His sacrifice? Sometimes, as we break bread and pour the wine, we speak of the “cup of salvation.” The profundity of that full chalice of rich wine is almost quashed when we, for the sake of mere convenience, fill plastic shot glasses with bland juice to sip, or worse, dip a tiny corner of a piece of bread into a chalice of juice and floating crumb debris. Cup of salvation-lite.

Please…I don’t argue for a particular form of authentically-holy Communion here. I do advocate, however, that we remember the solemn, heartfelt, and mysterious meaning of our sharing that cup together in communion with one another and with Christ himself. To quote Frederick Buechner one more time:

…when feeding at this implausible table, Christians believe that they are communing with the Holy One himself, his spirit enlivening their spirits, heating the blood and gladdening the heart, just the way wine, as spirits, can do.

Sharing that cup carries both blessing and risk. It means that we benefit from the grace of God, and that we pledge ourselves to take up our cross and follow Jesus as he, through us, his present body, feeds the hungry, comforts the afflicted, and welcomes the stranger. And that will take all the nourishment we can stand. Pass the wine, please.