Week 11, Day 1: Communion
[Communion] is the center of existence for me;
all the rest of life is expendable.
- Flannery O’Connor
The first time I participated in the sacrament, or practice, of communion, I was a teenager, newly baptized. The way our church served communion was by passing from pew to pew a metal plate filled with tiny square bread wafers — and by ‘tiny,’ I mean you felt like if you accidentally dropped one, you might lose it. When everyone had their bread wafer, we would all eat together. After that, trays full of tiny cups of grape juice would go around and each of us would take a cup. When everyone had their mini-cup, we would all down our grape juice together. It was a practice we only participated in on the first Sunday of the month, but I remember always being intrigued by it — and excited for it, not least because it was something different from the rest of Sunday’s routine.
Over twenty years have passed since the first time I took communion, and my understanding of it and my appreciation for it have only deepened. As with many of the practices that the church has practiced over the centuries, there is a depth and mystery to taking communion that draws me in, that humbles me, that reminds me that I am at the same time a unique individual for whom Christ died, for whom Jesus’ body was broken and his blood was shed, and also a member of a vast family — that is, the church — and part of an infinite reality — that is, the Trinity itself.
Two of the ways the sacrament of communion, also called the Eucharist (from the Greek eucharistia, meaning ‘thanksgiving’) or the Lord’s Supper, has meaning for us is in helping us looking back and looking forward.
A key event in the Old Testament was the Passover, when God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God, through Moses, proclaimed his judgment against the oppressive Pharaoh for not freeing the Israelite slaves; and he instructed the people of Israel to paint lamb’s blood on their doorposts so that God’s judgment would not fall on their firstborn sons. He said, “The blood will be your sign on the houses where you live. Whenever I see the blood, I’ll pass over you. No plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). Every year, they were to commemorate the Passover with a special meal to remember how God had delivered them. In the days before his death and crucifixion, Jesus was preparing to celebrate the Passover meal with his disciples.
READ: LUKE 22:14-20
Jesus’ intention was to connect the most significant ceremony of the Old Testament, Passover, with his own death. Both symbolize the death of a firstborn, the power of sacrificial blood, and the rescue and salvation of God’s people. Thus, one of the purposes of communion is to help us remember Jesus, his body that was broken and his blood that was shed for our rescue. In 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” When we take communion, we remember that Jesus loves us, that Jesus died for us, that Jesus is present with us, and that Jesus invites us into life with him.
Communion is also a sign that points forward to God’s coming kingdom, to the heavenly reality. Nowadays, meals are primarily functional, a means for nourishment. But in Jesus’ day, meals were defining events, connoting friendship and intimacy — the term for this was “table fellowship.” To eat with someone was to communicate acceptance of them. There were social expectations and norms that one would only eat with those considered respectable by society. This is part of the reason Jesus’ indiscriminate table fellowship was so controversial. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, with Pharisees and community leaders, with large crowds and with his inner circle. Jesus refused to close his circle of acceptance; for this reason, Franciscan priest Robert Karris once wrote, “Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.”
When we take communion, we are also committing ourselves to Jesus and to the church, his Body, even as we take of the bread, which represents his broken physical body. As we take communion, we symbolically take Jesus — his life, his peace, his love, his joy, his Spirit — into ourselves, committing ourselves to be his Body, living as he did, serving as he did, loving as he did. In a purely physical sense, communion is simply the sharing of a meal, a very ordinary act. But this is how sacraments work: they take very plain, everyday things, and make them much, much more.
Ever since [Jesus celebrated communion with his disciples], the bread has been broken, the wine poured out, in commemoration of his death.
Some come, not so many any more but always some, always enough,
and the Lord knows why they do, why we do.
Probably for the same reason that for century after century men
[and women] have always come — because although there is much
that we cannot understand, much that we cannot believe,
the inexorable life in him draws us to him the way
a glimmer of light draws a man who has lost his way in the dark.
Because we are hungry for more than bread.
Because we are thirsty for more than wine.
That is the reason you have for coming to such a table,
the reason I have for coming, and that is the only reason
we need to have, thank God.
- Frederick Buechner
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: When was the first time you remember taking communion?
Heart: What are some practices in your life now that remind you of God and his reality?
Hands: Invite someone or a few folks that you know but aren’t particularly close with to a meal. You can think of it as getting out of your comfort zone and trying to open your table to others as Jesus opened his to us. (If it feels weird or awkward, you can even frame it as an assignment that your small group is participating in together.)
Thank Jesus for his sacrifice, and reflect on what it means for you.
Communion helps us look back
and look forward