The Mystery of Communion

There are few things I understand as little and love as much as the sacrament of Communion.

That’s something I’ve realized more in the past few years, since, as a lay leader in our church, I’m regularly asked to serve Communion. (A genuinely important example of that terribly overused cliche, “servant-leadership,” I think.) Depending on the Sunday, that can mean distributing cups of grape juice to early risers at the 8:30 service who walk down front to kneel at a prayer rail, passing trays down pews at the more heavily crowded traditional service at 9:50, or holding the cup as contemporary worshippers intinct their bread at 11:00.

The modes differ, but the elements and words are the same. Whether holding a cup or a tray, again and again, I murmur the reminder, “This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.”

Cranach the Younger, The Weimar Altarpiece
The central panel ("Redemption") of Lucas Cranach the Younger's Weimar Altarpiece, with Martin Luther making a cameo in the lower-right - German History in Documents and Images

Invariably, the moment arrives when my mind asks my mouth, “And do you know what you mean?”

And I have to admit that I don’t. (Which should make many of you hesitate to read on. To quote myself from elsewhere on this blog: “…the Church has no need for another amateur theologian spouting off.”) Of the classic Western Christian responses to the problem of what’s happening in the Eucharist, I understand and respect the scriptural and theological arguments for transubstantiation, real presence, and commemoration, but probably incline towards Luther’s consubstantiation simply because a paradox feels like the best explanation for Communion.

(Here embracing my Pietist heritage proves problematic. Pietists tended not to have a robust theology of the sacraments: both because they sought to avoid conflicts stemming from theological nitpicking, and because, in their contexts, the sacraments had become pillars of “dead orthodoxy.”)

But two other responses have always struck me as intriguing. First: that of Eastern Orthodox groups like the Orthodox Church in America, which calls the sacrament itself a “Mystery”:

One of the most unfortunate developments took place when men began to debate the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the eucharist. While some said that the eucharistic gifts of bread and wine were the real Body and Blood of Christ, others said that the gifts were not real, but merely the symbolic or mystical presence of the Body and Blood. The tragedy in both of these approaches is that what is real came to be opposed to what is symbolic or mystical.

The Orthodox Church denies the doctrine that the Body and the Blood of the eucharist are merely intellectual or psychological symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood. If this doctrine were true, when the liturgy is celebrated and holy communion is given, the people would be called merely to think about Jesus and to commune with him “in their hearts.” In this way, the eucharist would be reduced to a simple memorial meal of the Lord’s last supper, and the union with God through its reception would come only on the level of thought or psychological recollection.

On the other hand, however, the Orthodox tradition does use the term “symbols” for the eucharistic gifts. It calls, the service a “mystery” and the sacrifice of the liturgy a “spiritual and bloodless sacrifice.” These terms are used by the holy fathers and the liturgy itself.

The Orthodox Church uses such expressions because in Orthodoxy what is real is not opposed to what is symbolical or mystical or spiritual. On the contrary! In the Orthodox view, all of reality—the world and man himself—is real to the extent that it is symbolical and mystical, to the extent that reality itself must reveal and manifest God to us.

I don’t even know that I can fully share this view. (I know that, as when I worship in Roman Catholic churches, I can’t share the meal with my Orthodox “separated brethren,” a different kind of mystery that Frederica Mathewes-Green tries to explain in Facing East, pp. 123-25.) I just appreciate the willingness to embrace mystery — and to refuse to set it up in opposition to reality.

Garry WillsThen second: Catholic writer Garry Wills’ rumination on the Eucharist in his often frustrating but always thought-provoking book, What Jesus Meant. In the final chapter of that work, Wills celebrates the imagery of the heavenly banquet that appears in the Gospels (as elsewhere in the Old and New Testaments): e.g., “I promise you that many will come from the East and from the West to take their place at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in heaven’s reign” (Matt 8:11 — Wills’ own translation, p. 129). The description of the Promised Land as positively drenched with milk and honey, the overflowing cup in the 23rd Psalm, the miracle of the wine at the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the four thousand and of the five thousand, and the Last Supper itself… All this “ecstatic excess,” for Wills, points to heaven, and the work of Christ in “bringing God’s reign to fulfillment”:

Given all this rich imagery of the final banquet, given the foreshadowings of the Eucharist in the feedings of the four thousand and five thousand, it is clear that the Last Supper was the principal image of the afterlife, one confirmed when Jesus revealed himself to the couple at Emmaus in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24.30).

This was the meal that was to be repeated “to keep his memory until he comes” (1 Cor 11.25-26). The love meal (agape) was the home service by which the Christian gatherings expressed their unity in the mystical body of Christ. (p. 131)

I’m not sure that much of this is all that controversial (aside from the allusion to the theory that the disciples Jesus walked with on the road to Emmaus were a romantic pair). Certainly, many Christians of different traditions can agree that what happens in Communion is a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet. But then Wills takes one of his many shots at the current pope:

Why, in the richness of this banquet tradition, would Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, say that it was unworthy to treat the Catholic Mass as a meal? [Wills provides no citations here, so I do not know to which of Ratzinger’s writings or sermons he’s referring, or if it’s a general discontent with the pope’s enthusiasm for the Tridentine Mass] Why would he say that altars should not allow the priest to face his brothers and sisters in Christ as across a dinner table? Why would he say that the priest should turn his back on the congregation and commune only with his God? Why would he say that others should not share in this activity of the priest, who is alone responsible for what occurs? Did he think that Jesus, at the Last Supper, stopped in the course of the meal, stood up, crossed a barrier separating him from his followers, and muttered to God in a language (Latin) neither he nor they understood? (pp. 131-32)

Wills contends that Benedict is drawing on a different kind of tradition, that of priestly sacrifice, and so “like his predecessors, is returning to the religion Jesus renounced, with all its paraphernalia of priesthood, separation from the laity, consecration of places and things, distance from the ‘unclean’ life of those not privileged by consecration…. Religion is still trying to kill Jesus” (pp. 132-33).

St. Augustine
St. Augustine - The Lightner Museum

As a confirmed Protestant, I get the critique. But this section of the book mostly makes me lament that a meal meant to express Christian unity has so often yielded internecine warfare — of words, and worse.

And that’s all the more troubling given the next argument Wills makes. Or really, the argument he borrows from none other than St. Augustine: that one of the many mysteries of the Eucharist is that “it is the congregation that becomes Christ in the agape meal.” Quoting from Augustine’s Sermon 272:

If you want to know what is the body of Christ, hear what the Apostle [Paul] tells believers: “You are Christ’s body and his members” [1 Cor 12.27]. If, then, you are Christ’s body and his members, it is your symbol that lies on the Lord’s altar—what you receive is a symbol of yourselves. When you say “Amen” to what you are, your saying it affirms it. You hear “The body of Christ,” and you answer “Amen,” and you must be the body of Christ to make that “Amen” take effect. And why are you bread? Hear the Apostle again, speaking of this very symbol: “We, though many, are one bread, one body” [1 Cor 10.17].

I’m sure this one passage in one sermon does not reflect the fullness of Augustine’s theology of the Eucharist. But it’s a notion that’s always stuck with me — though perhaps for different reasons than for Wills (concerned as he is about Catholic theological debates). In that liturgical moment when our pastor breaks the wafer that represents (is?) Christ’s body, I’m fully aware that he stands directly beneath a wooden cross that hangs from the ceiling of our sanctuary — so that we’re reminded of the brokenness that Jesus experienced at crucifixion. But I also know that he’s looking out at a congregation, one small piece of the “body of Christ,” which also experiences brokenness.

Legros, The Communion
Detail of Alphonse Legros, The Communion - Wikimedia

And especially at that 9:50 service when I help pass the bread, I think frequently of that brokenness. For example, last month I watched the shaking hands of not one but two elderly parishioners drop the tray of wafers as they passed down the pew. I was reminded that members of “the body” come before God with bodies breaking under the ravages of disease and time. And if an ugly part of me reflexively wanted to judge them for failing their small role in the ceremony (here’s where I’m glad I’m not a convinced believer in transubstantiation), then I was also bound to recognize my own brokenness and wonder if I was about to eat and drink (and serve) the bread and cup “in an unworthy manner… without discerning the body of Christ…” (1 Cor 11:27,29).

But most of all, I was struck that when they dropped the trays, they were in the act of sharing those pieces of bread with others. And, as so often, I found myself rejoicing in one of the many miracles of Communion:

That what could strike non-believers as a ridiculous ritual — using the language of “ecstatic excess” to describe a meal built around two paltry courses! — mysteriously does feed and nourish us. Because, among many other things happening in that moment, it helps knit together the broken body of Christ — His Church — into a communion.

One thought on “The Mystery of Communion

  1. Hello Chris. It was a privilege to serve Holy Communion with you a couple of weeks ago. I too embrace the sacred mystery in the meal. It seems to me that–once we move beyond confining communion to an act of our own, human remembrance–and we enter into the realm of God’s participation in the meal, by definition we are in sacred territory. Surely,we must struggle with the fact the Jesus said, “This is my body.” Surely, we cannot fathom the depth of that statement. I so appreciate the Evangelical Covenant Church in that we honor our Lutheran heritage through the continuation of seeing Holy Communion as a sacrament and not just an ordinance.

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