Monday, September 10, 2007

Thoughts on communion and "Jesus as bread"

This post is directly in response to Bobbie's post about "Jesus as bread" over at emerging sideways. So it would help you if you read her post, and the follow-up post she did, listing some comments...

Sister Bobbie, I wrote a half-epistle on communion topics back here, more than 2 years ago. Maybe some of it will apply, maybe not...

I'm also very, very curious about whether you have read Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sarah Miles. The image of sharing Jesus as bread drives her to do mighty things on behalf of God's kids - if you don't like it, I will buy it from you. Promise. It's that good, in my humble opinion.

It's strange - in my Catholic upbringing, all the emphasis was put on the "THIS IS..." portion of the Words of Institution (whereas much of the Protestant practice is centered on the "DO THIS..." portion - "do this in remembrance of me"). From my Catholic youth, I understood that they believed THIS IS the body, THIS IS the blood, and the emphasis was on "the elements," the bread and wine, and reverently protecting their holiness and purity. This affected even the architecture - the elaborate structures built over the Tabernacle were designed in part to protect the elements from dust, dirt, bird droppings, you name it.

In the olden days, if someone dropped a host, the priest had to eat it (don't know if that's still the case). The congregation never got the wine back then, but even now, the practice in Catholic churches I have visited was that a certain amount of wine was consecrated, and if more people showed up than that, they just didn't get the wine, because you couldn't redo exactly pour the Blood of Christ back in the bottle with the wine... In short, it seemed to be all about an enhanced reverence for "the stuff" - because it was really, really, really the body and blood of Christ.

The Lutheran take on Jesus as bread seemed more reasonable - because the "elements" only became the "real presence of Christ" (a) in the presence of the community of faith, (b) when the Gospel had been spoken, (c) when the Words of Institution and the epiklesis - the calling down of the Spirit of God on the elements - had been spoken, and (d) the elements were given as Eucharist.

Otherwise, they were just bread and wine. That's why the same fresh bread which had been on the Altar as the body of Christ at Communion could be taken to hospitals and nursing homes by un-ordained lay-people and given as Eucharist (because (a), (b), (c), and (d) were still in effect), while the rest could be used in a brunch after the services. Outside of that setting and that specific space, there was no transformation. The "real presence of God" was "in, with, and under" the elements (if I remember my Lutheran dogma correctly) - but the elements themselves remained unchanged.

While I don't know what their "Eucharistic theology" is, I know that the distribution of communion is a big,big deal in the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). When I've attended there, I find a dozen "stations" for communion, and each person who "comes to the table" is prayed for, and communicated with, in a very reverent and personal way.

The MCC, by comparison, didn't seem to focus so much on the "stuff," but on the interpersonal transaction - the "come to the table" invitation. When I knelt to receive the elements at the MCC service, it flat did not matter that the person handing the elements was actually a cross-dressing man (if an extremely attractive, "gee, would you have guessed" one). It didn't matter what "she" was wearing, who else was receiving the elements or who happened to be holding hands with them at the time - things that would have absolutely scandalized folks in other denominations.

But when I knelt down, this person (a "Magdalen," if ever there was one) put her hand on my shoulder, leaned down, and spoke to me as though I was the only person who was receiving communion that day. I don't remember the exact words she said, but she made sure that I knew
- that a loving God was glad that I was there
- that this "table" belonged to Christ, and that I was welcome at it
- that this was the body, and the blood, of Jesus Christ, and
- it was given for me, as a free gift of grace, for everlasting life.
It was a moment frozen in time, pressed-down-and-overflowing with meaning. And I think I can safely say that, with the exception of the outdoor Communion services we had in Kansas with the Holden Evening Prayer service, it was probably the single most powerful Eucharist I've ever received.

It didn't matter whether the bread was leavened, or whether it was made of wheat or rice or cardboard. It didn't matter whether it was wine or grape juice. It didn't matter whether it was a woman or a man saying the Words of Institution, or that it was a cross-dressing gay man giving me the elements. Despite everything, I knew what "this" was, I knew in Whose name that they "did this"...

And you'll have a real hard time telling me that Someone didn't say, "And it was good..."


Christian said...

Steve - sorry to leave an unrelated comment here (eg. not pertaining to this post), but I finally responded to your response over on SLD (Out of the Closet and Into the Church) and I just wanted to let you know, because a) I lost your email address, but b) I'd still love to hear your thoughts.

Hope all is well my friend.

BentonQuest said...

Steve, I found the Eucharist at MCC to be unlike anything I ever experienced. The act of being part of the table and prayed for in a special was at once uncomfortable, but also very healing. Something I think more congregations should consider.

Now, on a sacreligious note: How many wafers do you need to eat before you have consumed an entire saviour?

bobbie said...

*tears* - thank you so much steve for sharing that intimate story of real communion. i am so moved. i hadn't read it until just now because i knew i needed to give it the time it deserved as you pour so much of yourself into your posts. and i didn't want to 'read and run' like time had only allowed until now.

this brings so much to my own story. thank you. i'm trying to tie all of the thoughts together but the emotion is overwhelming. please know i will cherish this image and story and hold it as sacred. thank you.

bobbie said...

oh, and i forgot, no i haven't read "take this bread" yet - i need to order it, i'm on the waiting list at the library, but haven't gotten it yet. thanks for the 'it's worth buying' encouragement. i'll see if the book store across the river has a copy or get it off of amazon.

Ed G. said...

I was raised in the Catholic faith and was taught and believed in transubstantiation. And I remember that receiving the host was a truly holy experience... one that brought me closer to God.

Fast foward... after drifting away, six years ago we became part of a non-denominational Christian church (without big words like transubstantiation)... and communion is much more of a time of rememberance and introspection... taking time to understand what Christ did on the cross and the resurection... and what that means in our life today.

I still go to Catholic mass when I visit my mom, and hadn't thought about this topic until today... but when I take the bread at a Catholic mass, I feel better about myself. But when we share communion at my current church, I think I become more Christ-like.

Net/net -- I think we can all agree that He is the Bread of Life. Your experiences at MCC certainly attest to that... thank you for sharing.

Bear Me Out said...

It's not so much THIS IS MY BODY, as this is my Body given for you. All together. when we remember, he re-members us, the Body.

When Christ breaks bread, and bids us share
each proud division ends.
That Love that made us, makes us one;
and strangers now are friends.

hymn text by Brian Wren. good stuff.