Monday, July 18, 2016
Yesterday, my eldest daughter, Haley (8), celebrated her first communion. It was not a planned event, or a celebration that was taken up with much fanfare or preparation. There were no communicants classes beforehand, or elementary school "communion curriculum". It happened in an art studio (Sessions @ the Loft), where Mission Street Church is currently meeting for our afternoon worship service in Camarillo. The congregation was a smaller crowd because of summer vacation. Uncharacteristically, I was standing next to my daughter, rather than sitting up front, on a dias or a stage. As our row got up to walk to the front to take communion, Haley looked at me like, "Can I go too?" "Do you want to take communion?" I asked, "You can!" Sheepishly, Haley ripped off a big chunk of bread from the common loaf, and gingerly she dipped it into the cup of grape juice. "Congratulations," I said to Haley, "this is a special moment!"
All the way home from church, Haley asked me deep questions about her maiden communion experience. "So, why did Jesus have to die?" "Did it hurt?" "So, when you take communion, you actually eat the body and the blood of Jesus?" "No, not actually," I explained, "It's just a symbol, a sign of that. It's a memory of what Jesus did for us on the cross, by dying for us." Silence and contemplation ensued all the rest of the way home. I was contemplating communion even more deeply too!
Communion, or Communio (from "communis" - common) - from the Latin - "with oneness" and "with coming together", is a deeply mysterious and inexplicable experience. Even though Christians around the world celebrate communion every weekend, and some people take communion every single day (when I visited Poland as an exchange student in college, I remember some Poles taking communion three times a day), it still defies explanation or total and true understanding. In short, communion really the closest connection that Christ followers have, in physical and spiritual form, to Christ, this side of heaven: "He who abides in me and I in him, will bear much fruit. But cut off from me, and you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
If you look up the dictionary definition of "communion" there are three main answers: (1) the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level, (2) common participation in a mental or emotional experience, (3) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared. All three definitions connote a very close coming together, unity, and intimacy. If some of the disciples were a little bit abashed to wash Jesus' feet at the invitation to do so, because it seemed "out of place", then celebrating the first communion with Jesus on the Passover before Jesus' death must have felt extra jarring and strange.
The Roman community that lived around the early Christians thought that this new "Christ-following" group were a kind of death-cult because they, "ate the flesh and drank the blood of their God". Early Christians, for fear of reprisals and shunning by their neighbors celebrated communion in secret places, often beneath the cities where they lived, in catacombs and burial caves. This association with the dead further stigmatized the practice of communion. When Christians tried to counteract the outside perceptions about communion by calling it a, "Love feast", further confusion and disambiguation occurred. "What is really going on with these Chrsitians?"
I was recently told a very touching story about the celebration of communion in Scotland. Most of the churches (or kirks) in Scotland are accompanied by grave yards which flank the perimeter of the church. On Sundays where communion is celebrated, and as a way of commemorating the "Communion of Saints", after the meal is served in church during the worship service, the extra wine and bread are spread upon the gravestones outside the church, as a way of including past loved ones in the feast.
One of the tendencies of North American Protestant Christians is the desire to explain away every mystery and conundrum of the faith. Every aspect of faith, it is thought, can be logically and critically understood (the Trinity, Baptism, Prayer, Healing) - and this includes holy communion. But I have always found that the mystery of the experience is why it is also powerful. As the Christian thinker (and novelist) Dorothy Sayers said, "The magic is the mystery" and the "dogma is the drama".
And so, with my eight year old daughter who just celebrated her first communion, I, after my 1,000th communion, am sometimes left after the celebration of it with more questions than answers. And yet at the deepest level, after communion, I am also left more complete, more satiated, more whole. "So, you are eating Jesus?" asked my dumbfounded daughter. "No, not really...but...sort of..." "Then why did they say that it was the blood and body of Jesus?" "I know," I said, "It's confusing isn't it...."
All For Now,