Monday, December 6, 2010

Holy Communion: Prayer, Posture, and Provision

Yesterday was Holy Communion at my church. Being the closest thing our church has to an associate pastor, I assist our pastor during the service by passing out bread. And while I can say that this is a time of prayer and reverence, my mind does wander off sometimes to things like the difficulty of getting car and tractor grease off your hands the day before the Communion service. But I digress.

I don't know how you do Communion (aka. the Lord's Supper, Euchyrist). In the United Methodist Church (ours anyway), parishioners make their way to the aisles and come down front to kneel. As each person kneels, they hold their hands out, empty and waiting to be filled with God's grace. The pastor or assistant hands them a small piece of a very sweet Hawaiian bread. The juice is Welch's and is served in small glasses that are sitting in holders at the kneeling rail. The sweet bread, I assume (I could not find any reason for it's use), is to remind us of the sweetness of God's grace. After each person has received their bread, they spend a few moments in prayer, then partake of the elements. We also take up a special Communion offering for a different cause each month. Instead of being gathered in a collection plate, that money is brought to the Communion rail.

In the churches where I grew up, we did it differently. We sat in pews and the elements were passed. We used unleavened bread to remind us of the humility we were to have before God. Also, the bread used in the Passover Seder (the disciples were observing this when Jesus led them in what we know as the Last Supper) was unleavened. So unleavened bread is probably more biblical. A small tray with relatively bitter, tasteless, unleavened wafers would come by and you'd have to grab one and wait until everyone in the auditorium had one. Then the pastor would say a prayer, and everyone would eat it. So you had this chalky, pasty, tasteless cracker floating around in your mouth. You would swallow...and swallow again...then try to work up some more spit to get the last of it down. After all, it was probably going to be at least 5 minutes before the tray of juice would come by. Then the pastor would read about Jesus passing the cup and the juice would come by on another small tray that's reminiscent of a Chinese Checker-board with little juice cups in the holes. You would nervously grab your little sip of juice (you wouldn't want to be the person who spilled the whole tray, would you?), and then have to sit there and hold it until everyone had their juice. When all the juice had been passed out, the pastor would say a prayer and everyone would drink, in unison.

There are pros and cons to both ways. And while I think the way I grew up doing it is a little more quirky, I don't think the current way is all the way there, either. After all, my daughter often wants to buy "Communion bread" and grape juice at the grocery store. Isn't Communion supposed to remind us of Christ's suffering? But I do want to say some things I do like about the way we do communion.

1. Prayer-In our services, once the pastor reads the Communion liturgy, the rest of the time is spent in silence. The only thing you will hear is the pastor or assistant saying essentially "This is the body of Christ broken for you and this is the blood of Christ shed for you." The time is not interrupted by your neighbor passing a tray or separate prayers from the pastor for the bread and the cup.

2. Posture-There is something very humbling about getting up from your seat, walking down front, and kneeling at an altar with your empty hands held out. It reminds us that without God we are nothing. We come to the altar waiting to be "filled up" with God's grace. John Wesley called Holy Communion a "means of grace" meaning that we receive God's grace through partaking of the symbolic elements of the "meal". I have often interpreted that to mean it's an almost "magical" experience, with which I disagreed. But if one's heart is in the right place, it is a means of experiencing God's grace. Without the proper heart, though, it's just a sweet snack at the end of the service. We can just as easily "go through the motions" by coming down front as we can sitting in our pew waiting for the bread and juice. But there is something about getting out of your seat and coming down front that demands a response.

3. Provision-We didn't do The Lord's Supper very often in my churches growing up. Sometimes we even did it in the evening service rather than in the morning. I'm not really sure why. But I remember it was always done to remind us of Christ's suffering and death. Now in the United Methodist Church, we do it once a month. It is done as a "means of grace". In other words, this isn't an afterthought reminder of something, but this is an integral part of our worship of God through Jesus Christ. It does remind us of Christ's death, but it also reminds us that God's grace is continually reaching out to us. I like that part. I also like that we begin with an actual loaf of bread that is broken. Not only does this represent Christ's suffering, but it also reminds us that we are one body, the church. I mentioned earlier, that I think the sweet bread may not be a proper reminder of Christ's suffering, but it is a great reminder of God's grace.

So how does your church practice Holy Communion, Euchyrist, or the Lord's Supper? What do you like about it? What do you wish was different?

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