The sun was streaming through the stained-glass window, coloring the bulletin as I read what was coming up in the service that day. What I saw amid the dancing rainbow caused me to sigh with an inward groan.
As a kid, Communion Sunday was never my favorite, even though my mom tried to involve me by giving me a peppermint to put in my mouth while she simultaneously placed a piece of bread in hers. I hated those quarterly Sundays when we would pull out our thick grey hymnals. I dreaded turning to the back pages, full of small, dense type. I quickly became bored listening to the monotonous voices describe elements that my young mind perceived to have little importance for me.
Even after I was admitted to the table as a young adult, I carried the solemn lethargy of the table with me. Yes, we only celebrated four times per year. Yet when I opened that bulletin and saw the events that would add thirty more dull minutes to our already lengthy service, I slumped in the pew a little as I thought to myself, “Communion, again?”
With this information in hand you may be surprised to hear me advocate for weekly Communion celebrations.
Weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not typical within Reformed circles. We are a people who have inherited a tradition that has divided our worship into two parts: the Word and the Sacraments. We identify with the Word, we use it to define our weekly gatherings through scripture, song, prayer. The sermon is a weekly habit we cannot do without and the Sacraments have become elements that we insert once in a while. I understand why. Our neglect of this second aspect of our liturgical heritage evolved into a practice that has taught us Communion was for somber, “special” occasions. What this leaves us with are practices that seem onerous and out of place.
Horace Allen tries to correct this imbalance, suggesting that we have misunderstood the role of the Lord’s Supper. Pointing to the Lord’s Day as a weekly celebration of the resurrection, he reasons that Communion finds its place in worship because it contains our identity as a Resurrection people. Because of this, he argues that authentic worship requires a Table celebration.[i]
But frequency is not our only problem. If we are truly to find our Christian identity within the Table, we have to work at reunifying the Word and Sacrament within our worship. As Tom Long describes it, we have to bring the Lord’s Supper back from “exile” and “restore the dramatic shape of the Word-Sacrament service.”[ii] This almost certainly will require some teaching because it is necessary to break us out of the single aspect of the Sacrament we have come to narrow in on: the remembrance of the crucifixion.
The Table is like a diamond, each facet having the ability to cast a rainbow of color. By focusing on one, the table becomes a single dimension, carrying the tenors we associate with it as the only aspect of our participation. When we fixate upon the crucifixion alone, of course we begin to think of the table only in somber tones. This does not mean the colors we witness here are painted with an incorrect brushstroke, but we miss the gift of the larger picture that Christ has given us by instituting this Sacrament.
To bring the Sacrament back into unity with the word in our full worship, as Long suggests, we need to reclaim the different facets of this meal.[iii] The Table should inspire a deep thanksgiving, shouted with praise, considering all that God has done from creation to the second coming. We can remember Christ not only in the crucifixion and resurrection, but where Christ is working today, how we are united with Him, and what we can look forward to when He returns. Communion provides us a place to experience the power of the Holy Spirit which connects us not only to Christ, but to one another.
The table allows us to physically experience the reality of our Christian identity.
We can grieve.
We can celebrate.
We can question.
We can trust.
We can remember.
The truth that we find in the Word CAN be found in the Sacrament. The Table is weighty and can bear up all that we hear about and experience in the Word. Why wouldn’t we respond in Communion every week?
My young self saw Communion as a tedious exercise that felt the same each time it appeared in our order of worship. What moved me beyond this relationship was a growing understanding of what the Sacrament offered. This was not done in a catechism classroom but was something I experienced in the moment.
I remember the first time I truly considered what it meant to be unified as a body of believers at the table. We were sitting in the round as the liturgist held up a large loaf of bread and said the words, “…as many grains from many fields are gathered into one loaf…” and I felt the diversity of all those faces around the table finding a common identity in Christ.
I remember the first time I truly understood the weight of Christ’s sacrifice. I had just learned about the cup of wrath in Jeremiah 15 and as I brought the wine-soaked bread up to my lips, I tasted its deep bitterness and realized the weight of the cup that Christ drank that night.
I remember the first time I truly felt the eschatological tenors of the table. My husband and I had joined a church for just a short interim year and were happy to find out they had weekly communion celebrations. So, each week we moved through the habit of gathering around the table in the front to serve one another communion and those exterior to the innermost circle sang over us until it was their turn. I remember chewing in that bright, sun-lit sanctuary, looking around at smiling faces, as waves of music washed over us, creating arcs of sound that carried us away with their notes. In that moment I felt deep Shalom and knew that I was experiencing a thin place where heaven met earth as the Holy Spirit lifted me up in hope.
Not every worship service is like this. Communion is not some magic trick that provides you with an instant emotional experience or a deep insight. But, as with the sermon, we faithfully return to be nourished by the Sacrament, knowing that God speaks God’s multifaceted truth here in very tangible ways that nourish our resurrection identity.
Louis-Marie Chauvet has written a strong chapter on the relationship between the Word and the Sacrament in his book Symbol and Sacrament. He concludes it with this idea: “Faith is chewing, slowly ruminating over the scandal of the Messiah crucified for the life of the world… The thoughtful chewing of the Eucharist is precisely the central symbolic experience where we encounter this bitter scandal of the faith until it passes through our bodies and becomes assimilated into our everyday actions.”[iv] Chauvet offers us a fantastic image here. Communion provides us a space to deeply meditate what we have just heard in the Word proclaimed. We chew on the deep, scandalous truths in such a way that they become a part of us.
The Sacrament needs the Word to delve into its different facets and provide a backdrop for our spiritual consideration. However, the Word also needs the Sacrament to provide a tangible space for the body to chew on their faith and ruminate on the truth. When we break open the truth surrounding the Table and explore its different facets in light of the Word proclaimed, the elements of our worship are authentically united and we can move from “Communion, again?” to “Communion again!”
[i] Horace Allen, “Lord’s Day—Lord’s Supper,” Reformed Liturgy & Music 18, no. 4 (Fall, 1984), 162-166.
[ii] Thomas G. Long, “Reclaiming the Unity of Word and Sacrament in Presbyterian and Reformed Worship,” Reformed Liturgy & Music 16, no. 1 (Winter, 1982), 15.
[iii] Ibid, 16.
[iv] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Madigan, Patrick and Beaumont, Madeleine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 225. Italics true to the text.