Saturday, August 12, 2006

"We should take Communion more often...": On the Bad Words Christians Use

"Oh, we're having Communion"

"Well, we take Communion at least once a month at our church."

"I prefer taking Communion by intinction."

"Are we gonna put Communion before the sermon or after?"
How often have I heard these very verbs used in conjunction with communion in my own experiences with the church? I suppose "postmoderns" like me aren't supposed to get too hung up on language: one of the key characteristics of our "post-"age is often referred to as a "crisis of language," an inability to accept any longer, at least with any certitude, that words mean what they're meant to mean. But these words bother me, especially when juxtaposed with the words that we ought to be using when we talk about Communion, words like:

receive... celebrate... participate in... keep

You see, I believe firmly that the shape of our worship shapes us. Therefore, I believe the words, gestures and postures we adopt makes a profound difference to our understanding of what we are doing when we worship, and why.

I think our fatal flaw is this tendency to view Communion as something we do, rather than something God does and indeed is doing, and in which we are invited (or better, con-voked: called-together) to participate. We are told to keep the feast; we are invited to step out, come forward, kneel humbly and receive the body and blood; we are gathered together (ecclesia = assembly) to celebrate the story of our salvation, for how often we forget that every Sunday is a celebration of Easter.

This in no way exhausts the symbolic significance of the Communion meal; this is not even the tip of the iceberg. But I hope it exposes the characteristically impoverished nature of our standard ritual of the Lord's Supper. This poverty, it seems to me, is directly related to the words we use and the gestures and postures we assume in our ritual enactment. For example: are we really acknowledging the fact that we are invited to come (Jesus said: "Whoever comes to me will never hunger or thirst") when the elements are brought to us, requiring no real effort on our part, not even any change to our physical posture? We don't get out of our seats most of the time, much less kneel. So it's no wonder, perhaps, that we use the word "take" so often: we do, in fact, take Communion...the tray is passed down our row and we take the cup, we take the wafer. We'll feed ourselves, thank you very much. The problem is, this "taking" makes the Eucharist into a commodity, placing it within the realm of value or a market economy of sorts; this can never be the case if sacraments are truly "means of grace," and if grace is truly free, lavish, gratuitous.

How different, then, is our coming forward and kneeling before a sacrificial altar which is also a banqueting table and extending empty open hands to be graced with the bread that is his Body, this bread that, in receiving, makes us his Body? Or even, as is standard practice in some traditions, coming forward so helplessly that all we can do is open our mouths to have the bread placed on our tongue, or to be spoon-fed the bread co-mingled with the wine, like little babies who can't even feed themselves?

You see, I'm afraid we're much too adult for all of that; much too sure of ourselves and of what this ritual is all about, to be bothered with such symbolism, such inconvenient pageantry. For if the meal is all about remembrance or memorial, in the rather one-dimensional sense of simply meditating upon a memory, like flicking through an old photo album, then why should we bother worrying about such questions of form? However, surely the next question then becomes: If the significance of communion is only what takes place in my (individual) head and heart, then why bother with a cup and a wafer at all? Surely we could all simply sit in silence with closed eyes and ponder upon images of the crucifixion, or, better yet, project such images (perhaps from a popular film) on a screen so that we may call them to mind more readily?

But no: we are given bread and wine. We hold it in our hands. We gaze at its texture, its materiality: a thin, porous wafer, so easily snapped in two; a thimble-ful of deep red liquid, which reflects and refracts the light so beautifully. We place it to our lips. We chew, we swish, we swallow. We tongue the crevices in our teeth to free those stuck bits of the wafer that didn't go down. We shove a grubby finger into our mouths to pick it free from our teeth, and suck that finger clean and swallow again. This is bodily, material, human. Eating, digestion, is messy business. This is God's way of telling us that matter matters... that God indeed in-dwells the very stuff of our lives, the stuff that keeps us alive: food, drink, relationships... communion with one another and with Almighty God.

This is anything but a mere mental exercise. This re-member-ance is what puts us back together again: puts the pieces of our individual lives together and makes us into whole persons; puts us as individuals back together into a Body that is worthy of the name Church. This memorial re-collects a mess of busted-up fragments into a community that, as the Body of Christ, participates in the eternal communion of a Triune God. In this sense, there is only one Eucharist, only one Communion meal, one that is on-going, and one to which even the least-of-these are always welcome. Every once in awhile, we accept this invitation. We eat and drink, in the words of one liturgy, "to our soul's comfort."

The thing is, then: if this communion meal is always going on, and if we're always already invited to the celebration - why in Heaven's name would we ever want to be anywhere else, doing anything else?

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