Sloppy communion...

For most of my conscious life I have found Holy Communion frustrating when celebrated and served in most Protestant churches. I am equally frustrated at most Roman Catholic Eucharists, too but that is more about the excessively exclusive language (God is always He) and often un-singable music that doesn't take me to the heart of the feast. It seems that most Reformed communion liturgies confuse sloppiness for informality. We also tend to either overly dramatize the ancient Eucharistic language (rendering the feast into a performance) or treat the holy meal with such physical, theological and aesthetic casualness that all mystery and awe is erased. 

There are at least two reasons for this that I have discerned - and probably more. First, the Protestant tradition is all over the map when it comes to Eucharistic theology. We can't decide whether the meal is a sacrament, a memorial or something in-between. We aren't certain whether the Lord is fully present in the bread and wine, merely in our hearts and minds by memory or has actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus beyond our ability to discern him in the elements. 

What's more, I often experience an uncomfortable sense of superstition among both clergy and laity at many Protestant Eucharistic celebrations. Everyone has a hunch that something sacred is happening - you can tell because no matter the age or the history of the people, everyone becomes silent during sharing of communion - but nobody is clear what that sacred thing is in this ritual. They intuitively know that the holy words (and clumsy gestures) are supposed to evoke reverence, but because the ritual is served in such an sloppy manner, the people leave confused. They pretend that something special has happened
without knowing or experiencing the what, why or how of the celebration.

And with the risk of being too snarky, it would be generous to call most of what happens in these services a "celebration." Given our obsession with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Holy Communion is all about the death of Jesus for so many in the Reformed world.  It doesn't matter what liturgical season of the year it is - nor what the ancient tradition of Eucharist teaches - more often than not Holy Communion is about Christ's death. It is as if Easter never happened nor Pentecost (and let's not even think about Christmas or the Ascension!)

My understanding of Eucharist was enriched by three non-Reformed sources:

+ First, during our days working with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers there was a regular, weekly midweek Eucharist offered for all who wanted to gather in solidarity. It was often, but not always, celebrated by a Roman Catholic priest who made it clear that everyone was welcome. During the liturgy, both the Bible and our struggle for justice formed the core of the message so that by the time we heard about the brokenness of Christ, it was clear that we were rededicating ourselves to his way of justice-making. Whether we were on the streets or on a picket-line or someone's house, the table was always set intentionally with care and beauty. The wine was always robust and the bread hearty. And the passing of the peace became a visible sign of our spiritual commitments.

+ Second, my various trips to what was then Soviet Russia brought me into contact with Russian Orthodox worship. In fact, given our preparation one year with the National Council of Churches, I had 4 weeks at the American Orthodox Seminary outside of NYC. The icons were stunning. The daily sung Evening Prayer was stirring. And the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist - full and saturated with incense - took my breath away (no puns intended.) That I could not fully participate in this Eucharist - or any in Russia - was theologically sad but emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically irrelevant. After all, once the official feast was complete, everyone was allowed to break their fast by eating from the unconsecrated bread. This was the first time I saw the importance of how ritual and art worked together to lead people deeper into the sacrament.

+ And third, for nearly 10 years I often participated in the worship and teaching seminars of the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, PA. These charismatic Episcopalians were reclaiming the Rule of St. Benedict for the 20th century. They were also writing new, folk-based music for worship that was simple and beautiful to sing. And they celebrated Eucharist midweek in a way that brought everyone into the drama of the story.

Each of these groups helped me discover what was missing from my own
tradition. I'll never forget talking with a former Catholic monk about the simple Eucharistic theology that Henri Nouwen articulates in his book For the Beloved. He speaks of both the Eucharistic bread and the whole people of God as being those who are "taken, blessed, broken and shared" for the healing of the world. "This is basic stuff," my monkish friend said, "but so many Protestants react like Paul on the road to Damascus when they hear this!" When I told him that not only was this basic Eucharistic theology never taught in most of seminaries, he was perplexed. But when I added that we also never learned what some call liturgics - the movement and art of celebrating the liturgy - he was horrified. "That explains it..." he added sadly.

Yesterday morning, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote these words about the Eucharist that I find clarifying and helpful. Maybe you will, too.

At his Last Supper, which was really the Jewish Passover meal, Jesus gave us an action, a mime, a sacred ritual for a community that would summarize his core and lasting message for the world. After I leave, said Jesus, just keep repeating this until I come back again, and the deep message will slowly sink in until “the bride” is fully ready to meet “the bridegroom” and drink at the eternal wedding feast.

1. Take your whole life in your hands, as I am about to do tonight and tomorrow. In very physical and scandalous incarnational language, table bread is daringly called “my body” and alcoholic wine is called “my blood.” We are saying a radical “yes” to both the physical universe itself and the bloody suffering of our own lives and all the world.

2. Then thank God (eucharisteo), who is the origin of all life. Make a choice for gratitude, abundance, and appreciation beyond the self, which has the power to radically de-center you. Your life is pure gift, and it must be given away as gift—in an attitude of gratitude.
3. Break it, let your life be broken, give it away, and don’t protect it. The sharing of the small self will be the discovery of the True Self in God. “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24). The crushed grain becomes the broken bread, becomes the active “Body of Christ.”

4. Now chew on this mystery! “Take this,” “eat and drink this”—not alone, but together “until I return,” and you will have the heart of the message, a “new covenant” of indwelling love that is not grounded in worthiness in any form, but merely in a willingness to participate and trust. Your drinking and eating is your agreement to “do what I can to make up in my own body all that still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body the church” (Colossians 1:24). We should hold ourselves apart from this meal only if we are not really sure we are willing and ready to do this! (Which might mean that many of us should not participate!) It is an act of radical solidarity and responsibility much more than a “prize for the perfect” as Pope Francis says.


Judith said…
Yes I have been very disturbed by the Protestant treatment of the Eucharist and the incompleteness of the Roman tradition> I am very drawn to the Orthodox tradition but the of the reactionary thinking on social matters sends me scurrying out the door.
RJ said…
I understand your reservations on many levels re: the Orthodox tradition, too. What I have needed to do for myself, as pastor, is reclaim a high Eucharistic theology, relentless educate and train my congregation and keep trusting that God's grace is greater than our sloppiness. Plus a little time set aside in other worship spaces helps me find some balance, too. Thanks Judith. Be well.

Popular Posts