What makes Holy Communion a sacrament?
Faithful Christians look to certain acts with great importance. These sacraments are seen as special ways in which the saving grace and presence of God come to us in material things, something you can directly taste, see, touch, or hear (like bread, wine, word, or baptismal water), and can touch you back. There has to be a Scriptural command to do it and a Scriptural promise from God that comes with doing it in faith. Putting that grace and presence into the stuff of earth and daily experience gives us a way to connect with or link to it. Without a contact point, we lose touch with the spirit-ness of it. We could more easily pretend that we don't know where Christ is.
'Sacrament' is a Roman Christian term, but the idea behind it is no stranger to the Jewish Scriptures. Whether it be circumcision for Abraham and his descendents, or when Jews recount the Passover through a meal, there is something that can be touched, felt, tasted, or seen, something reenacted, with a promise of something special from God that went with it. God's promises don't just dangle there, floating above our lives beyond our reach. They show themselves through earthly things.
Sacraments are not about the ritual ceremony itself. The power and new life are in the promise of Jesus' presence. The miracle starts in that promise, not in the bread or wine or priest or blessing or ceremony. Sacraments work not because they are performed, but because the promise is believed. You come to do it because you trust God and God's promises, due to the Spirit's work in you to grow that trust. Of course, over the course of 2000 years, the churches have done some odd things to this sacrament. If Christ wasn't there as promised, then wouldn't you be rather silly to go through all that fuss of singing strange-sounding songs, unloading a $20, and listening to a long speech, just to get a single shot glass of watered-down wine and a cardboard-tasting cracker?
The Christian way of viewing the faith and the world is 'incarnational' (God's divine presence and activity is found in earthly stuff, such as a Jewish nation or a person Jesus) and 'sacramental' (God's saving work, as promised, is borne through earthly stuff, such as Jesus Himself, and what He said would bear His presence).
Where there is no faith, it's not that holy communion doesn't do its thing, but that the person didn't receive it right. If someone takes a gift and throws it in the trash bin, they get no gain from what was given, no matter how good or effective it is.
The name 'Communion' comes from it being something done with others. It's done with Christ. It's done with other believers. In sharing the meal, 'I' becomes 'us'. The same stuff, physical and spiritual, food and Christ, goes into each of those who are there. Yes, with those present, but just as important, with all of those who have ever shared the meal in faith. Every martyr, every laborer, babushka, apostle, farmer, e-worker, king, knight, peasant, slave, male, female, adult and teen, from eras past or present or future, every place and all sorts of denominations, factions, and orders. Everyone who shares, had shared, or will share the meal in faith. Can even the Internet claim such breadth?
The unity found in holy communion has many facets, like a well-cut jewel. But the key one is that if each of us is united in Christ, then each of us is united with each other. If B is connected to A, and C is connected to A, then B is connected to C through A. Christ is A. And if the risen Christ rules over time and space, then B might be a serf working a farm in Gaul in the 800s, and C might live in a space station 100 years from now. Since the Spirit has brought Christ to both B and C in holy communion, they are both joined to a common history and a common future, and they both have a common call to follow Christ in their time and place.
Communion links us to the future, not only by making us one in Christ with future believers, but by our trusting in the Lord of the Last Days, the One who's in charge when time itself ends. Or, to put it as an ancient creed puts it, "we look for the resurrection of the dead / and the life of the world to come".
It's For You
How does Jesus cut through everything else? "This is my body given for you." From Him. For you.
Not through someone else, if they feel like it or if you do them favors. From Jesus. Not for someone else who fits the rules or whom a fickle God kinda likes.
For you. And why is it for you? "For the forgiveness of sins". The ancient Nicene Creed also speaks of what Jesus did as "for us" and "for our sake". And the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer refers to the 'holy mysteries' of communion "as pledges of his love .... to our great and endless comfort". We meet what we eat.
Sometimes, our lives and those around us can go wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. "Happily ever after" is where children's stories go, but not so real life. The broken communion bread is a reminder that Jesus was broken. We are reminded of the "failed" Jesus, the abandoned Jesus. As it is with us, it was even more so for God. God knows. But with Jesus, the brokenness, suffering, and failure are not the last words. There is action that speaks: an empty tomb, and a group of followers, the start of a community of people unlike any other. And this was promised to you, too, for sharing in His death, for communing with His "failure".
What is Communion?
Christians call it by many names:
- 'Holy Communion',
- 'Bread & Wine' (also called 'the Elements'),
- 'Body & Blood',
- 'the Meal',
- 'the Lord's Supper',
- 'the Eucharist' (or translated from the Greek, 'the Great Thanksgiving')
- the 'Sacrament of the Table', (or just 'the Table')
- the 'Sacrament of the Altar'.
All of these say about something important about it. For instance, 'Altar' and 'Body and Blood' refer to Jesus as the sacrificial cost for our sins. 'Table', 'meal', 'Bread and Wine', and 'Lord's Supper' refer to our being together with God and each other in having dinner together, like Jesus did with his disciples that last time.
But how do we unpack this today, when :
- we don't share meals as often as they did back then.
- people of today don't think that offering a killed animal could undo or repay for sin -- it makes no logical sense and is not a part of the life we live.
- doing something to recall or remember (and thus bring alive) something that already happened is something done mostly by 'religious' people. (Or so they think...)
Why does it matter?
This leaves us with a question : why is this meal different than any other meal?
People who take Communion usually have some sense of where they are at (or not at) with God. They want to be where Jesus is. Maybe it's because they know they need Jesus, or because they just love Jesus, or because they want to follow Jesus. When they come for communion, they've come to the right place. That's where Jesus is.
He's Really There!
When ministers get to talking about Holy Communion, they talk about the 'presence' (or, for Lutherans, the 'real presence') of Christ.
It's not about magic or superstition or priestly blessings or chanted verse or bells. Christians argue about how much it's about bread and wine.
It is most centrally about Jesus himself, and how the gathered believers, together and as persons, take on the character and holiness of the One they love and worship. Jesus invited us to this dinner.
The Spirit transforms us to bring us into union with Christ.
The task that is ours to do is to obey Christ enough to 'take and eat'. That's not hard to do. Most of us eat bread daily and drink wine regularly. What matters most, though, is not what we do, but what Jesus did. Jesus sacrificed himself one time 2000 years ago, and the forgiveness that comes from that has nothing to do with what we do. When we do as He instructed, Jesus promised he would be there. A Christian is one who trusts that and acts accordingly.
How can we take bread and wine to be Body and Blood? By faith. Faith is not some sort of hocus pocus that makes food into something un-earthly. It is done trusting that our identity with Christ is not merely a mind game, that through the Spirit and the food, our bodies are taking on something of this identity with Christ. It's like the way that the proteins and vitamins and other good things in food get taken up by your body and spread all over it so it becomes what you're made of. In communion, Jesus is doing the same thing.
When you eat it, God looks at you, but sees Christ.
The Eucharist is not a place for superstition. Even once it has been set aside and blessed for this use, the bread and wine have no special powers and do no magic. Those that believe that they do, believe a lie that takes the attention away from what really matters : sharing in Jesus. They are important precisely because they are everyday material -- the kind of thing God uses to convey grace to you. If they bear any powers, they wouldn't be doing their job.
Communion is not a mere symbol. Scripture says Jesus said otherwise : "This, my body", and that is what Christians are to go by. So why do most bible literalists consider it to be just a symbolic act, and rarely do it?
Communion is not merely or just a symbol, but it is a symbol in many ways. A symbol is something that reminds us of something else that is much more important than the symbol itself. In communion, eating has a symbolic meaning. So does coming forward to do it, and kneeling to receive it. The bread and the wine have symbolic meanings. So does the fact that it's not a B.Y.O.B. (bring your own bread) affair, but the food is provided.
Eat His Death
The very earliest accounts (such as 1 Corinthians 11:20-25 and Luke 22:19) have Jesus saying 'do this in remembrance of me', and referring to the bread and wine as his body and blood. What was to be remembered was that he died and why he died. Not just Jesus' life and resurrection and coming return, but more than anything else Jesus' death. Somehow, in many churches, talk about Jesus' death has either become so routine it doesn't faze us, or it becomes so unsettling we avoid thinking about it. But Jesus wants it re-called, to bring it back before us. This death happened to Jesus because of us. It happened to Jesus because of me.
As you're waiting for this food, you may hear a voice saying "Don't look now, but you're in this thing pretty deep. You could end up as a corpse, as dead as Jesus." Indeed. History says that real faith could kill you, just like it did Jesus at Golgotha, and countless martyrs. So? Answer the voice: "Hey, that'd be great! To be as dead as Jesus ! He's not dead -- he lives!"
How old is communion?
The first written account of communion was in Paul's letters (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and he does it in a way that suggests his readers already knew what he meant by it. Paul also is the first to call it 'the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20). Acts reports on a time earlier than Paul's letters, and in Acts 20:7 it was already said to be Christian custom to 'break bread' the first day of the week (Sunday). Unless they meant something special by 'break bread', something more than just dining together (which was a custom in Mediterranean cultures), it would not have been worth writing about. Almost all of the writers of the early church mention or refer to this supper. Thus, it is the earliest and best-attested activity of the Christian church when they met together, as ancient as singing worship songs (which was also done at the last supper).
What's Our Part?
Communion is the most central common act that Christians do together.
- We remember. When Jews celebrate Passover, and they are asked what it means, they are to retell the Exodus story. Christians do the same in Communion.
- We take part. It's not a show put on by the priests. The people do something here; in fact, they do the most important thing.
- We do it together. Trusting God that Christ is in us as we bring ourselves back to Christ's death. The Christ that is in me is the Christ that is in the others. The need is the same in each. And we know that Christ wants us to stand together.
- We receive. We don't give, and we didn't buy it by way of the offerings. We simply receive. We don't have to, you know. God's not going to zap you as you leave the room. But we do it anyway. And we do it for all the times in life we refused to receive what God has given us.
- We thank God. God has done a wonder: the Lord has given life to those who are hell-bent on death. We have a new start, and it is Christ.
"I forewarn, and testify, and proclaim this with a voice that all may hear! 'Let no one who has an enemy draw near the sacred Table, or receive the Lord's Body! Let no one who draws near have an enemy! Do you have an enemy? Do not approach! Do you wish to draw near? Be reconciled, and then draw near, and only then touch the Holy Gifts!"
--- St. John Chrysostom, Homily 20
Holy Communion In Worship Services
In liturgical traditions, the Eucharist is properly the central act of the worship service, above hymns, chants, readings, offerings, and sermons. (You'd never know it at some parishes.) The rest of it is praise to God; the Eucharist is for taking in God's presence.
The act itself is easy to separate out; if rightly done, it can stand on its own as a full and proper act of worship.
- the Great Thanksgiving, w. words of institution
- the Lord's Prayer
- (some have a time of reflection)
- Agnus Dei
- (sometimes chants or song are sung during communion)
- Hymn of Thanks (Canticle)
- closing prayer
- blessing and dismissal
The service is called 'Eucharistic' because we come in thanks, we take actions together in thanks, and we leave in thanks, especially for what Christ has done.
Most churches are sensitive about the way people behave or act when taking communion. Some churches are very strict about who can and can't eat it. If you're a believer and you visit a congregation other than your own, ask how it is done and who is allowed. If they say you can't do it with them, the best way is to accept that ann not have communion there.
For example, some pastors are really into reverencing the bread and wine, since Christ is in it and they must respect the awesome God who uses these foods. However, it's often forgotten that in the original Last Supper, it is likely there were crumbs when Jesus broke the bread, and spilled or dribbled wine from the cup as the disciples drank. Exactly like what happens today when we eat our other meals. That would drive these neater-than-Him ministers into a panic. But in that original supper, Jesus was too busy thinking about something else to think of the mess.
Different congregations have different rules about the age children start having Communion. The rules usually stem from the church's belief about when the child knows enough to make a real choice of their own about their faith. I wonder, though, what really is 'enough'? "Enough" for a baptized child is probably when that child is aware enough of Jesus Christ's love, and of what 'for you' means in holy Communion, to want to receive it. In my own case, I was very aware of such matters at age six at the latest, and probably earlier. I'm certainly not alone in that. Yet, there are many children who are just reflecting what their parents want them to do, or they want to have it because their older brother or sister does it. It's best to guide the child in the faith until they meet your congregation's rules. It may be that the best rule is almost no rule at all. Let the child sort it out until they ask. Then, a few quick questions (were you baptized, what does 'for you' mean), to show their grasp of Christ's love. That child would be much more ready than many of the adults are.
- Lift Up Your Hearts worship resources, from Canadian Lutherans
- Universalis' online helps for the Liturgy of the Hours, which is prayed throughout the day as a worship discipline by priests and those in Catholic orders.
the Body of Christ
the Body of Christ: Firstly, it refers to the body Christ had when He walked the earth. From that, over the years, believers have turned to this term to describe what his followers are, taken together, and what they do:
(A) The Church, a social organism (Colossians 1:18-24). Hence also "member", originally meaning a body part (that use continues today in the word 'dismember'). Thus, to say you are a 'church member' is to say you are a Body part.
The description cuts two ways :
- the body as an organism with parts that each make it possible for the whole to live (1 Corinthians 12:12-25). We can live without having all our body parts working or even present, but it is difficult, because each body part has a function, without which the body is not as healthy or functional. The same is true of the church without you.
- the 'marital oneness' of that organism with Christ as being Christ's Bride (Revelation 21. The same imagery is also used of Israel by the prophet Ezekiel and, through allegory, the Song of Songs).
For those who fling (A) around carelessly, please remember what happened to the physical body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Chosen One : it was flogged, beaten, stripped, nailed to an instrument of execution, and killed. To say that you are part of the Body of Christ means you are part of this death -- and a living witness that this death was not the end.
(B) The term also refers to something the church eats together, the bread in the Eucharist or Communion. This goes back to Matthew's description of Jesus' last meal before his execution, where he said, "Take, eat; this is my body".
Thus, holy communion is the living Body of Christ on earth eating the Body of Christ executed for all, with each member of Body (A) having the Body (B) coursing through their small-b bodily systems.
- The bread of Jesus' last meal before his execution, and thus one of the two menu items of the Eucharist or Holy Communion. See also what John reports about how Jesus used the term, and how this is linked to the manna in the wilderness of the Exodus.
- Also, bread was, and still is, the main food of the human species, a gift from God. Not only are Christians out to feed the spiritual hunger of those who do not draw their spiritual nutrition from Jesus the Bread , but also the material hunger of those who lack material bread (that is, proper physical nourishment). Thus, there has been and continues to be a strong thrust among Christians to end starvation and malnutrition and the poverty, greed, ineptitude, and prejudices that cause it. Many Christians believe that hunger can be ended as a widespread problem, because God wants it to end and has granted us both the land and the technology to do it. But all of us humans just won't allow it.
Wine, the: the drink used in the sacrament of Eucharist or communion. The word is used even when (as with many Methodists and Baptists) the wine is really grape juice, and even when it is watered down. (Watering down the wine is an ancient practice, dating back to Justin Martyr, but the reasons for it strike me as very weak.) Unused consecrated (ceremonially set apart) communion wine is traditionally to be drunk by the presiding minister, which some of those ministers got to really love doing. Hopefully there has been some changes in practice. The phrase "the Bread and the Wine" hearkens back to why Christians use bread and wine in holy communion, namely, the body and blood of the executed Jesus, which was linked with bread and wine at the Last Supper by Jesus.