Thursday, January 19, 2006

Why is this meal different from other meals?

One Sunday when I was 13, I happened to be in church when communion was being served. I had never seen an evangelical communion before and was given no preparation for it, apart from the pastor in the front reading a passage from Corinthians. It was a story I had heard many times before but never seen, smelt or tasted. When he finished reading the praise team played some insipid music while the elders of the church passed around silver trays with broken matzoh crackers and shot-glasses full of grape juice. Everyone took their shard and shot of Jesus as the tray was passed. We stood and sang a final song. Then we left as we always did. This was the first time I ever took communion.

Of course, it is misleading to say that this was the first time I had experienced communion. As I reflected on the anticlimax of the event, my “first communion”, I remembered attending mass as a young child with neighbours. Communion at Our Lady of Perpetual Help was not a particularly “high” event and it wasn’t called communion. The Eucharist was the centrepiece of the service though, that toward which everything else pointed. As the church prepared, the priest would re-enact the story, holding the bread high above his head and breaking it with a resounding crack at just the right moment. Bells were rung and many people crossed themselves as the bread became the Body. Likewise, the priest would take the cup, a gold shining goblet that looked like something from a movie and hold it high above his head, declaring that Jesus blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Again the bells rang as the wine became Blood. Wisps of incense wrapped around the alter and clung to the dark beams in the ceiling. People went forward, knelt, and held out their hands, waiting in the traditional posture of begging, for Christ. I didn’t understand the theological nuances of transubstantiation but I knew that the people were doing something that had to do with Jesus and his death, and I wanted to be a part of that. Years later, when I finally was, it was disappointing.

Passover is one of the most important of Jewish holidays, and the centre of that feast is the Seder dinner. On the table are three matzohs, recalling the hurried flight from Egypt to freedom, one of which is taken and broken in half before the meal beings. During the meal 4 glasses of wine are poured, symbolising freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release. Prayers are said throughout the meal and a liturgy of questions and answers recalls, for all present, the meaning of each aspect of the meal. The purpose of the Seder is to remember God’s salvation from the slavery of Egypt and the freedom he secured for his people. The Seder is a divine drama that is re-enacted every year to teach the children the story of their people and to remind God’s people of their story with him. It was while celebrating this ceremonial meal that Christ took two of these ancient symbols and invested them with new meaning.

“On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread. When he had given thanks he broke it and said, “Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” The matzoh was broken, as it is at the beginning of the meal, but now it is more than our flight from slavery; it is the Passover sacrifice for us, the body of Jesus broken on the cross for us. Later the symbolism of the cup, which already signified freedom, deliverance, redemption and release, is fulfilled with the amazing and hard words, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” The freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release prefigured in the Seder cup are completed in the communion cup.

This is a sacred meal, a Divine drama being enacted to remind us, to allow us to participate in his death. It is a way in which we teach our children the mystery of faith and sustain our own. We know nothing apart from our senses and this is a sensual meal. We taste and smell the bread and wine, feel the texture of the bread and the sweet burning of the wine in our mouth; we hear the words repeated over the centuries, and we hear our own voices joining the chorus in response; we see the bread held high and torn in two, just as our Lord was raised high upon the cross and his body was torn for us, his blood running down his side; we see the gleaming cup and know the light and love it contains. This is a meal we are meant to “dress up” in, to live in regularly so that the death of Christ becomes a tangible part of our lives.

And yet, we seldom share this meal. And when we do, it seldom recalls this ancient and mysterious drama of an ancient and mysterious God who condescended and became one of us for the sole purpose of suffering for our freedom, deliverance, redemption, and release from sin and death. Through this neglect, we not only fail to “do this in remembrance of me” but we also fail to teach our children the drama and beauty of our faith. And we ourselves, those currently entrusted with carrying God’s message of redemption to the world, fail to enjoy the depth, complexity and passion of this divine drama in which we have been lovingly cast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I learnt a lot!

I think the obvious point to make here - is that it is not the meal that is the important thing - it is what the meal points to [ie remembering Christ's death].

I think many Churches can get so caught up in the requirement and method which they believed Jesus prescribed - that they are missing the point - that Jesus was speaking to Jewish Christians and he is reinterpreting their passover meal - which was something they already celebrated annually.

There is no indication in the New Testament that gentile Christians celebrated a passover style meal regularly. Jesus seems to be saying that instead of remembering the 'pass-over' and the blood on the door from Old Testament times, now when you meet together remember his death - for this is what the original Passover was pointing to anyway.

Jesus is not saying "do this in remembrance of me" - as if to say "I am inventing a new way for you all to remember me - make sure you don't forget to do it regularly"

Jesus seems to be saying that the Jews can still keep meeting together annually for the Passover meal - but instead of remembering the Passover, remember him instead.

The emphasis of the line "do this in remembrance of me" seems to be on the "me" rather than the "this" - which I reckon is the cause of a lot of confusion in the differing understandings of the Lord's Supper.

Also - as a side point - I don't think that Jesus is trying to be mysterious when he is sharing the last supper, he is rather being explicit and clear - he is using bread and wine as a vivid way of explaining what is going to happen to him.

I do think we can tend to over mystify God - and want him to be mysterious. But God does not want to be mysterious - he wants to be known by the world - that is why he sent is Son into the world.

Sure - we will never know him entirely - because God is much, much bigger than us. But from my reading of the Old & New Testaments God is more on about making himself known to this world, than he is about being mysterious.

When we celebrate the Lord's Supper we should be fully and wholeheartedly (remembering what Christ did on the Cross [and not that we are eating bread and drinking wine]. Which in my opinion - in a 21st Century context [when we are not even sharing a meal together any more ] - the bread and wine can be more distracting than it is helpful in remembering Christ's death.

With regard to "the death of Christ being a tangible part of our lives" - the thrust of the New Testament seems to be saying that obedience to Christ's teaching, bearing the fruits of the spirit, loving God, our enemies and God's people - is the tangible way that Christ's death is part of our lives - I don't think Paul would agree that 'dressing up' in participation of the Lord's Supper is the or even a chief way that Christ's death becomes a tangible part of our lives.

I do find it interesting that you say 'we seldom share this meal'. Correct me if i am wrong, but wasn't the Passover meal only shared once a year - is there any indication that Jesus is suggesting to the disciples to be doing it more regularly than they already are?

Please forgive my ramblings - I do not wish to sound aggressive in anyway, but this is something I have been thinking a lot about recently [like yourself I assume]. I would appreciate your comments. It is an issue I am also - quite passionate about, partly because of the unhelpful emphasis I believe is placed on celebrating the Lord's Supper.