I have often wondered what the words of the Eucharist sound like to people who didn’t grow up in the church. It must be odd to come into a Christian worship service--something so sanitary in so many ways--and hear the pastor speaking the communion liturgy. “This is my body--take and eat,” Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 26. “This is my blood--take and drink.” Those words have become non-calamitous to me, having heard them my whole life, but how strange those cannibalistic words must sound to any who don’t adhere to Christian doctrines. And what is more, how strange they must have sounded to the disciples themselves, who did not know yet that Jesus was going to die, and had no idea how the church would be formed and what this sacrament would mean in the years and centuries to come.
My own relationship to communion has changed over the years. I grew up in a church that took communion once a month, and the first time I experienced it weekly was at my church in New York, when I was 24. It seemed odd to me, at first, to be joining each week in the meal, but I learned, slowly, from that church and from my subsequent two churches here in Boston, to cherish receiving it each week. It seems impossible for me, now, to consider being part of a church that does not include it as a weekly element of worship. As the preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:
I have often remarked on Lord’s-day evening, whatever the subject may have been, whether Sinai has thundered over our heads, or the plaintive notes of Calvary have pierced our hearts, it always seems equally appropriate to come to the breaking of bread. Shame on the Christian church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth of the death of Christ till he come. They who once know the sweetness of each Lord’s-day celebrating his Supper, will not be content, I am sure, to put it off to less frequent seasons.
I’m not sure I would put it quite as strongly as Spurgeon does, but I deeply resonate with his closing sentence--having known the sweetness of celebrating it every week, I would mourn to lose this element of gathering with other believers and worshiping together.
Yet what makes the Lord’s Supper so important--so sweet? Besides the fact that it was given and commanded to be a part of the Christian life, there are so many answers to this question. In middle school I wrote a paper about Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli’s disagreement over the “real presence of Christ in the Eucharist” (can you say homeschooled Presbyterian?), and there have been debates and disagreements over the correct administration of the Lord’s Supper, the purpose of it, what actually goes on during it (are the elements a symbol? The actual body and blood of Christ? The essence of the body and blood?) and so on.
For me, the true beauty of the Eucharist is the way it unites the spiritual with the physical, and the way it connects individuals to the body of Christ. Christianity has consistently pushed back against the claim that the body and the reality of our physical self is bad; the Old and New Testaments are littered with evidence of the fact that we are body and soul, inextricable, beloved and intentionally so. From Christ taking on a human body to the way God gave explicit details in the Torah about how women on their periods should be cared for, it’s clear that the body is not an afterthought--it is who we are. Some of the earliest Christian writers and thinkers uphold this; as Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons wrote in AD 183:
The blessed Paul declares in his letter to the Ephesians that "we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" [Eph. 5:30]. He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit does not have bones or flesh, but of that dispensation of an actual man, consisting of flesh, nerves, and bones—that same flesh which is nourished by the cup which is his blood and receives increase from the bread which is his body.
C.S. Lewis echoes this idea of being nourished by the bread and wine in his writings on the Eucharist:
Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation. Here [during the Eucharist] a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body. Here the prig, the don, the modern, in me have no privilege over the savage or the child. Here is big medicine and strong magic…the command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.
What these writers are getting at is what I feel instinctively in my bones when it comes time for communion: here is life, here is the body, both in an individual sense and a corporate one. When I stand and wait in line to receive the bread and wine, I stand in a line with believers before me and behind me, stretching symbolically through time and connecting me with the millions of others who have whispered “Amen,” and “Thanks be to God,” as I do when the server says to me, “This is Christ’s body, broken for you,” and “This is Christ’s blood, shed for you.” The reaction of my physical body to the good taste of the bread and the sharp tang of the wine grounds me again and again, each week, in the reality of my faith, and the fact that, as Lewis says above, there is no one who is greater or lesser in the body of Christ--we are all brought to the same table and instructed to eat and drink, for we cannot feed ourselves.
At my previous church, the bread used for communion always left a fine layer of flour on my fingers. At the time I was teaching 50 hours a week, living in the midst of the most challenging moment of my life to date. Each week I would come eagerly and thankfully to the table and rip off a big piece of bread. I would sit and eat it, crying in my seat while believers around me joined in singing and eating and drinking. I would rub my fingers and look at the flour stains, asking that God would let the substance sink straight down into my bloodstream and sustain me through the week ahead, until I could come again to the table.
The way the Lord’s Supper sustains is a profound thing. The bread and wine are symbols of the way we feed on and are given life by the Lord, but they are not just symbols, for God meets his children in a special way through the table. The Westminster Confession states that communion is a way in which God “[seals] all benefits thereof unto true believers,” and is “a bond and pledge of their communion with Him, and with each other, as members of His mystical body” (Chapter 29, article I.)
Contrary to what I thought as a child, coming to the communion table has nothing to do with how I feel about myself, whether good or bad. It is for the church in all seasons of life, but especially in those that drain us to our last drop. There is nothing that compares to the sweetness of simply coming with nothing and receiving, as we all do, week by week, and eating the bread of life that humbles and upholds us. This simple and profound act that uses and dignifies our physical selves is one to be mystified at and thankful for until we finally come face to face with the one who instituted it--who served the first loaf and poured the first cup with his own gracious hands.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele