I have avoided blogging about my current experience of Holy Communion for at least a week.
I wanted to weigh in when Internet Monk posted his thoughts on weekly Communion. I even started a draft of a post, but then I decided to hold off. Then David Koysis reminded me of his excellent article on frequency of the Lord’s Supper in the teachings of Calvin and even had the temerity to highlight a Presbyterian Church in Michigan that had taken Calvin’s teachings to heart and began celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday. No, I thought, anything I wrote would sound like a rant, and I try to keep my ranting here to a minimum. I exercised great control when Proclaiming Softly recounted her concerns about finding a church in a strange city where she could receive Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday and her eventual realization that they were unfounded.
Well, the fire shut up in my belly is finally starting to give me heartburn, so please indulge me a bit.
At this month’s church business meeting, it was announced that our church would begin displaying the American flag in the sanctuary on four Sundays every year: the Sundays closest to the main American patriotic holidays. I’m fine with this policy, especially since it provides a middle ground between those of us who would prefer the flag in the sanctuary every Sunday and those of us (like me) who think it never has any business there. Both positions are well represented in our congregation, so some kind of compromise position was probably inevitable.
I’m not upset about the flag. I’m upset that my church celebrates Holy Communion about every other month, with some of those observances in the evening service, which my family does not usually attend.
I’m upset that the symbol of my country is now going to have a place of honor in the sanctuary roughly as often as is the symbol of my Savior.
I used to be an American Baptist pastor. Most American Baptist churches, mine included, celebrate Communion monthly. In fact, I was nudging my last church toward even more frequent Communion before I left. Shifting from Communion twelve to fifteen times a year to only once a quarter has left me feeling like I’m on a starvation diet.
Baptists like to argue that if you observe the Lord’s Supper too frequently “it loses something.” I have never met anyone from a tradition that celebrates frequently who agreed, but I have met many former Disciples and Church of Christ folk who have confided in me that the one thing they miss about their old church was the frequency of Communion. I have also never met a Baptist who applies the same liturgical logic to other things that might “lose something” because they are frequently—or universally—a part of our worship services:
“Our pastor only preaches a sermon every other month. That makes it special.”
“You should visit our church when the choir sings an anthem. I think the next time is going to be Easter Sunday. (After all, you don’t want to have choral music too often.)”
C’mon, honey. We don’t want to be late for church. Remember: we’re singing hymns this Sunday!”
Maybe I’m unique, at least in Baptistland, but I feel a need for frequent Communion. Words can’t carry the burden alone apart from gestures, images, and other non-verbal elements. I’m not a Gnostic, and my faith can’t be contained within my head. I need symbols in my religion. I need the symbols of my religion. I need the Table.
Much Christian worship could well be characterized has having too many words. I make a living by words; I’m good with them, if I may dare to say so. Maybe because of that, I know that words are not always enough.
Words are important, and sometimes I get compulsive about wanting them to be precise. But words alone can leave you dry. That is why symbols are so important. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
In one of my earliest posts about the Lord’s Supper, I wrote,
A couple years ago William de Arteaga wrote Forgotten Power, a historical survey of the place of the Lord’s Supper in early American revival movements. Although you would never guess it by observing the contemporary behavior of most evangelical Protestants, Holy Communion held a prominent place both in theory and practice, all the way back to the British roots of American revivalism.
Even a very cursory study of ancient Christian worship indicates that the Eucharist lay at its very heart. The weekly gathering of Christians was primarily a fellowship meal with deep spiritual significance. Not only did they read the Scriptures and pray; they celebrated God’s saving deeds in Christ as they re-enacted them at the Lord’s Table.
On the other hand, for most of my church upbringing, the attitude seems to have been “the less, the better.” And that is a shame. Baptists historically have said that the communion elements are “symbols” of the body and blood of Christ. I don’t believe them. If in fact they believed that the bread and the cup were symbols, we would handle them with quite a bit more reverence than we do.
And we would handle them more often.
Or do we really believe we can maintain strong relationships through words alone without frequent symbolic gestures? I love having long talks with my wife and my daughter, but I also like holding their hands. I enjoy snuggling close to Rebecca before I tuck her in and tell her good night, and one of her artistic masterpieces to hang in my office is worth at least a dozen “I love you’s.” When Connie has had a rough day, my first impulse is not to give her a lecture but a hug. I can’ stand for even a day to go by without physical contact with these two precious people who mean the world to me!
When I shop for cards for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, etc., I resist cards with “too many words.” I naturally gravitate away from the cards with the long, flowery poems. (And don’t get me started on long, wordy liturgies!)
I’m usually able to find the “perfect” stopping place for a sermon—several minutes before where the preacher put it! You don’t have to say everything. Give me something to ponder on the way home.
And give me something to chew on. Literally.
Because right now I feel excommunicated.
Or maybe my whole church has been excommunicated, but I’m the only one who has noticed.
Landmarks, Lutherans, and the Liturgy
Food and Meals in the Bible
The Convergence Movement: The Sacramental Stream