Crumbs and Stains
Yesterday was World Communion Sunday, a day when all kinds of churches from all kinds of places celebrate the sacrifice of love that unites us rather than the myriad petty walls that we are so determined to erect between us. Walls like, oh I don’t know, who gets to participate in the Lord’s Supper? To pick one random example.
I grew up with monthly evening communion services that were open only to baptized “members” of our church. I remember being a bit puzzled by these services as a child. Were these like secret ceremonies for the super Christians? Was this some kind of elite, clandestine Jesus club that had special rituals that could only take place under the cloak of darkness?
When I finally got baptized as a teenager and starting participating in this rite, I remember regularly hearing all kinds of warnings in all kinds of contexts about the dangers of “partaking unworthily.” The Lord’s Supper was often a grim and somber affair. I always wondered if I had repented comprehensively enough to be allowed access to the body and blood of my Lord, if I was approaching the table with right combination of reverence, penitence, and gratitude, if I was sufficiently cognizant of the horror and brutality Jesus had to endure for my sin. I recall being grateful for a place at the table, but my overall impression growing up was that communion was for some and not others, and that it was a very serious business indeed.
The longer I’ve gone on this journey of faith, the more utterly absurd it has seemed to me that churches of all kinds build their little fences around this table, restricting it to those who believe correctly, who have been baptized correctly, who have confessed correctly, who observe the ritual correctly. How utterly absurd that our participation in this memorial of the one who laid down his life for his friends and his enemies could ever be something that we have to earn with all of our correctness. I try to imagine Jesus himself at the table, saying yes to some but not others, telling anyone that his body and blood are not for them. My imagination isn’t up to the task.
At any rate, I regularly find it to be a strange, beautiful, and sacred thing to “preside” (a misnomer, surely, and a highly inappropriate one, if ever there was one) at the Lord’s Supper. Most of our worship services are highly word focused, whether this be stories or sharing or prayers or sermons. I pour a lot of my professional energies into coming up with words that might point people toward/invite people into the story of God. So many words. Words that drift past drowsy ears, words that confuse or frustrate, words that have been spoken a thousand times before, words that, by the grace of God, sometimes touch down and resonate. Words, words, words.
But during the Lord’s Supper, the focus is not on words. We hold out bread and wine to each other. We come with hands open. And we receive. The couple walking the road of cancer, the sullen teenager who blew up at his parents that morning, the busy professional already mapping out the week ahead, the one at war with their brain in the early stages of dementia, the overwhelmed and the under-employed, the doubter, the one whose cup of faith runneth over, the bored and the listless, the expectant and the joyful, the heartbroken, the ecstatic. We come. All of us, to this same table for these same gifts. And we are fed by the body and blood of Jesus.
One holy moment for me yesterday came near the beginning. A dear couple approached the table, she in a wheelchair due to the effects of a stroke, he behind tenderly helping her along. Yesterday, we were practicing the mode of intinction—taking a piece of bread and dipping it in the cup. But we always set aside a small glass of juice for this dear lady. She gripped the cup with two trembling hands and drank it all, right down to the bottom. A few drops spilled on her shirt, despite her husband’s best efforts with the napkin. We touched hands, looked in each other’s eyes… The body of Christ… the blood of Christ… For you. For me.
What a holy and beautiful image for all of us. We grab on to this cup for dear life. We drain it to the bottom. We hungrily devour this little bit of bread. And when we’re done, when our rag-tag processional of sinners and saints finally makes its way past the table, there are crumbs and stains all over the place. Christ’s body and blood all over our clothes, all over the floor, all over our hearts and minds and memories, to remind us of the one we are marked by.
During our service yesterday, I read this beautiful World Communion Sunday blessing written Jan Richardson at The Painted Prayerbook.And the Table Will Be Wide And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in. And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough. And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine. And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear. And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight. And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast.
Thanks for this Ryan, thanks for sharing your holy moment, knowing the couple it really touched me this morning.
The Anglican church where I have my roots baptises infants, and it is becoming common in some Anglican churches now to allow children to begin receiving communion once they have been baptised. This places a whole different slant on the notion of whether one is “worthy” to receive. It can’t be about your mindset, or whether you are feeling appropriate remorseful for the week’s sins. I like to think of communion as the family meal that marks us as the body of Christ. And in the same way I included my children at the dinner table long before they could understand what family or community meant, It felt right to include them in the meal that brings us together as a Christian family. In both cases, my children learned how to “be at the table” by being at the table along with the adults. I appreciated your expression of your thoughts about the communion ritual, and resonated with your reflection about the inclusivity of Christ’s communion.
Yes, this resonates with me too. Our children started taking communion when they were old enough to understand what it means (8 or 9?). They aren’t baptized yet. It was interesting to first be faced with the “why can’t I?” question. They understood the symbolism, they loved Jesus and were trying to follow him, they wanted to come to the table. I couldn’t think of any good reason to say no (and, again, I certainly couldn’t imagine Jesus saying ‘no’ to them!). So they came. And they have been coming and learning how to be at the table ever since.
Indeed, one of the other truly holy moments from Sunday was looking my kids in the eye, watching them dip the bread in the juice, and saying, “the body of Christ… the blood of Christ… for you.”
My mom was talking about this yesterday. She goes to a United Church of Canada church, same one I grew up in. She grew up in a more evangelical and somewhat charismatic tradition, though, so she thinks primarily in terms of making a personal choice. The pastor there is also very evangelical and talks a lot about having to decide for yourself to follow Jesus or not. The United Church of Canada, as I’m sure you know, is not at all, which generally includes a wide open table – doesn’t matter your age, religion, or anything else.
Communion is one of those times when the tension is felt. My nephews were there and my mom – their grandmother – made it clear that she did not want them being brought out of Sunday School for it until they actually know what it means. One of the ladies of the church was very upset by this and tried to bring them up anyway. They didn’t come because they would rather be in Sunday School anyway, which probably saved the situation from getting very tense.
Sounds like a tough situation. I suppose these are the kinds of things that become possible, even likely, when the table isn’t fenced in the usual ways. You sort of have to trust that parents, grandparents, friends, etc are teaching kids about the meaning of the table in ways that are accurate and appropriate. You don’t want kids treating it like snack time.
At the end of the day, though, it’s hard for me to imagine Jesus being displeased even at the thought of a kid whose only motivation for coming to the table was to have a snack :). I can imagine Jesus seeing it as a good first step. I can imagine him laughing.
Your Communion service sounds very moving and edifying, Ryan.
Although I’m not permitted to partake,I love the intense mysticism surrounding the Catholic and Orthodox sacrament of Holy Communion. I find myself drawn to the admirable aspects of reverence and esteem with which they conduct the ritual,and although I can’t personally confirm by scripture the doctrine of the literal body and blood, I CAN see the powerful effect that such a belief would have on someone. Either way, Christ is exalted.
Yes, whatever one makes of the theology, there is truly beauty and mystery to be admired in these rituals as practiced in these traditions.
What a great way to put it.
jneufeldt, Janice… Thank you.
Ryan, what a fabulous word picture. “Christ’s body and blood all over our clothes, all over the floor, all over our hearts and minds and memories, to remind us of the one we are marked by.”
I’m grateful for the Evangelical Covenant Church’s choice to have an open communion table. We always allowed our children to take in communion whenever they wanted. (Two of them were brought into the discussion of communion through some classes and then had a ‘first communion’ but they all participated as soon as they were able and whenever they wanted.) And now our grandkids do as well.
It just never seemed okay to imply to my kids that the Lord’s table was exclusive, or just for older people or people who could formulate their beliefs in a way that the rest of the congregation approved. “I try to imagine Jesus himself at the table, saying yes to some but not others, telling anyone that his body and blood are not for them. My imagination isn’t up to the task.”
Wasn’t Judas Iscariot welcome to participate? And there’s a verse somewhere that says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Thanks for sharing this. Sounds like a wonderful approach by your church that led to life-giving experiences for you and your family!
Re: Judas, one pastor I admire once began his communion service by saying that the one we honour at this table laid down his life for his friends AND his enemies. He talked about Judas and about how at this table, Jesus gives himself away freely, again and again, to those who understand his sacrifice and to those who don’t, to those who are grateful and to those who aren’t, to those who love God and to those who don’t. It was a radically open communion! It’s also a service I’ve never forgotten.
This is amazing! Poignant and beautiful. I feel enriched without bread or wine in sight. Thanks.