Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Eucharist

A few months ago, I was attending the morning service at my church on communion Sunday. As the pastor read from one of the standard passages and prayed over the elements, a little girl behind me started asking her mother: "Mommy, what are we doing?"  After some hushed conversation, presumably in a failed attempt to answer the daughter's questions quickly, I heard the mother finally say in muted exasperation: "We're just pretending."

I fought the urge to turn around and make a scene. This little girl's first lesson on the Holy Eucharist was that it was a game of make-believe, along the lines of playing house. I tried to remind myself that the answer was perfectly understandable -- after all, how would I explain communion to a young child?  But I still felt like the mother's response was profoundly wrong, as though it were a blasphemy against the Church and the people of God.

I grew up accepting the common Protestant definition of communion as an ordinance, a memorial done in remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. But I had grown increasingly discontented with this answer as I grew older and wrestled with other theological traditions.

The Psalmist's words that "the heavens declare the glory of God" began to strike me as something more than mere poetry -- they hearkened at a reality, that Creation itself was imprinted with the fingerprints of God.  In Aristotelian terms, the final cause of Nature as a thing created is to magnify and glorify its Creator. Once you accept this view of reality -- once you realize that the world is invested with more meaning that subsumes and transcends the level of the senses -- it is almost impossible to think differently. The world is too colorful to think in hues of gray; the melody of nature is too sweet to ever compare to cold monotone. 

When Christ spoke the words over the bread and wine, that "this is my body" and "this is my blood," He changed those elements into something almost infinitely more.  Even if the words were purely metaphorical, we can see that the words would magnify and glorify the elements, because He allowed them to represent and reflect Him. Similarly, by choosing to represent Himself and His relation to the Church through the imagery of marriage, God transformed the nature of marriage into a profound testament to His love. Thus, even by the loosest standard of Protestant interpretation, the act of communion must be seen as a sacrament: a vessel of God's holiness.

God is present when we celebrate communion. The rest is semantics -- theologically profound semantics, but considerably less valuable than this foundational understanding.  Just as the mode of baptism ("sprinkle, dip or dunk") matters considerably less than the condition of the heart that receives it, the question of whether God is present locally within the elements (as in the Catholic and Orthodox understandings of transubstantiation, and the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation), or present generally in the ritual or the act itself, is of comparatively little importance.

But the sacred aspect of the Eucharist goes further.  For, when He spoke those words, He did not merely make the elements reflect His divine nature.  The blood of Christ is the blood of atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the essential act of atonement operating by the grace of God for the redemption of the individual soul and of a fallen Creation. And how can we forget that the bread does not merely reflect the body of Christ broken on the cross, but also the resurrected body, emanating glory, as well as the Body to which we all now belong? For the Church is the mystical Body of Christ.

Therefore, by partaking of the Eucharist, we do not merely participate in a memorial to His work, and we do not merely eat of glorified elements that reflect His nature.  We partake of the blood by which we are forgiven, and the body by which we are made whole.  We partake of our individual salvation and our corporate identity as the Church. Indeed, the Eucharist is how we are known as the Church -- for the sacrament of baptism is done for individuals, but communion defines us as a Body.

Since I was 18 months old, I've been diagnosed with severe anaphylaxis (allergy) to peanuts. Whenever I see that communion will be administered on a Sunday service, my first reaction is to get up, find an usher, and make sure that there are no peanut contaminants in the bread so I can participate.  Even if it's in the middle of the worship time, this takes first priority.  Communion is probably one of the most important elements of my Christian walk, and certainly one of the most sacred rituals in which I participate as a believer.

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