Mass, Eucharist, Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper. Pieces of bread or little wafers. Red Wine White Wine or Grape Juice. Weekly, monthly, or hardly ever. Communion is celebrated in Christian churches around the world, but it’s celebrated so many different ways? Is this a problem?
What we are learning as we follow Church guidance about bread and wine and the Coronavirus is that sometimes things change for reasons other than belief and tradition. And this is an important message for the church to take to heart. Because the truth is when we look at photos of our buildings from the past. When we read notes about how services have changed in timing, in structure, in wording … we see the same process has happened again and again throughout time and space. Change because of necessity and not because of doctrine or revelation. Is this a problem?
Is there something we can learn through the current concerns which remind us of the living nature of tradition when we consider the breadth and depth of how the bread and wine are received?
As early as Acts 2, early Christians are recorded “breaking bread” with one another. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul gives specific directives for celebrating what he calls “The Lord’s Supper.” Communion, then, was not a ritual produced by later Christians, but something instituted immediately. It has been celebrated ever since. And we do not have time here to trace the manner in which this ‘Lord’s Supper has been celebrated over time and across the world since then. But consider the diversity of the Church here in the West in the current era.
To receive Mass (from the Latin to send) , in the Roman Catholic Church, one must be in a “state of grace,” meaning one has not committed any “mortal sins” since last confessing. This requirement is drawn from an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-28 to not partake in an unworthy manner.
A person must then believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is the Roman Catholic belief that the bread and wine are “transformed into the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, and only the appearances of bread and wine remain.” This comes from the interpretation that when Jesus said, “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” He meant it literally.
A person must not have eaten or drank anything besides water (with the exception of medicine) for an hour before partaking. Finally, they must be in good standing with the Catholic Church. Only Catholic believers may partake.
The Orthodox Church also calls for fasting before communion but often for 24 hours, making the partaker “hungry for God.” It also calls for confession of sins to God, so as not to partake in an unworthy manner. Great care is given to honor the sacred nature of the elements, as shown in this excerpt from the Greek Orthodox Canons:
“When we come before the priest for Holy Communion, our hands should not be in our pockets, but at our sides. We make the sign of the cross, tell the priest our baptismal name, hold the Communion cloth carefully under our chin, and open our mouth wide. We do not slurp from the spoon, nor should our teeth scrape on the spoon. After receiving Communion we wipe our lips carefully with the Communion cloth and make the sign of the cross.
We are always careful that we do not allow Communion to fall from the communion spoon or from our lips onto our clothing or to the floor. For this reason we move very slowly toward the chalice and the communion spoon, and we do not pull our head away quickly after receiving. We are careful not to bump the chalice or the hand of the priest. After receiving Communion, we do not chew gum (or spit), because when we dispose of our gum it may contain particles of Holy Communion.”
It is no longer easy to state what even a majority of Protestant practices. Though the above can’t necessarily be true of all Roman Catholics or all Orthodox believers, the structured and liturgical nature of these churches makes it more uniform. Not so much for the myriad denominations of Protestants.
Some traditional Anglicans usually use actual wine and communal cups, like Catholic and Orthodox believers. All liturgical churches like the Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran congregations tend to receive communion from church leaders, perhaps kneeling at the altar. Whilst others like Baptists, Methodists and nondenominational churches might stick to grape juice and often tend to pass around a tray of the elements or allow congregation members to approach tables and self-serve. This stems from a greater focus on an individual’s direct interaction with God, rather than a person approaching the communion through the mediation of a priest or pastor. Most, though not all, Protestant congregations practice “open communion,” in which anyone who is a believer may partake in communion.
SO .. tradition is different .. is this a problem? Well let us consider that Jesus did not give the disciples directions on how to celebrate this Supper but rather a sense of the intention behind it .. He gave an object lesson to His disciples: See how this bread and drink are necessary to bring you life? In the same way, I will give you life. With this mind is it possible that we are all celebrating the same Life of devotion and Love and seeking pure hearts in different contexts and according to different needs?
Consider this .. that the Orthodox Church gives extreme care to honoring the physical elements in order to honor Christ .. is this not what most Protestants are doing when they focus on directing internal thoughts and prayers to God even though they see the elements as more of a metaphor.
What about the Catholic Church focus on coming to the Lord’s Supper pure of sins having confessed and fasted .. are not the Protestant congregations calling for similar confession and repentance through communion rather than before it?
We are sharing the same intention through different traditions … and these differences are often simply about context and need and events and practicalities. As we are called to celebrate slightly differently due to current needs let us use this as an opportunity to see that across the traditions of the Christian faith we grasp the same intent through different expressions .. and that this is not a problem it is a wonderful inclusive manifestation of the breadth and depth of God’s saving work!