One of those tensions planted deeply in my spiritual development relates to the eucharist. It is a tension of “holy/special” with “common/ordinary.” When I was growing up, my congregation celebrated (if that can be the word) holy communion four times a year. The services were in the evening; only confirmed members received – and not nearly all of them; the pastor eschewed the surplice and wore only cassock and stole; the lighting was subdued; the hymnody dour and slow. It was a daunting experience – no trace of joy; lots of talk of fear and trembling – as though the setting didn’t obviate the need for talking about them. And all of this was perceived to be a way of keeping the communion “special.” The great danger, I remember hearing in Sunday School and confirmation, was rendering the Lord’s Supper as something “common” or “ordinary.” As was later opined in the great debates about celebrating communion more frequently (and this was before the push for every-Sunday eucharists), celebrating more frequently or with less sobriety would rob the sacrament of its specialness, its power, its “meaning,” its effect. (That theology was wrong on so many points, but it held sway for decades.)
Well, we live in a new era – and I generally say, thanks be to God. My own congregation, as I have noted ad nauseum, celebrates the holy eucharist every Sunday and on significant feasts, too. We decry “close(d)” communion – i.e., communion only for those who meet certain standards of orthodoxy, as we measure it. We commune “continuously” – i.e., we do not commune by tables, but rather “on the run” – so as to emphasize eating and drinking by the entire assembly as one. (This is not uncontroversial even at
But, curmudgeon that I am, I wonder whether even we at Mount Olive are at risk of dissolving the ellipse of the eucharist – that of the tension between “common” and “special.” Now, I believe that the eucharist is meant to be common – it is the most ordinary thing that Christians do, as ordinary as breathing, eating with family and friends, carrying on daily conversation. When my daughter was about four and already communing, she spotted the big red button on the side of my head and, adept at pushing all my buttons, proclaimed just as we were to go forward to receive, “I don’t want to commune today.” Well, for once I had my wits about me (perhaps it was the proximity of the Holy Spirit at the moment) and I said to her, “Of course you will.” “But I don’t want to.” “That doesn’t matter; you will commune.” “Why?” “Because that’s what Christians do.” And that settled the matter for her. Never again have we fought over whether to commune. (I have temporarily lost the battle over communing by the common cup; she prefers the intinction cup, as do most of her friends. But I am confident that I’ll eventually win this war, too.)
My point was and is that communing regularly – as we said of voting in
Now, in the church, the sense of communion as “ordinary” – at least in the sense of being something that should be done as regularly as prayer and Bible reading – has won out. But at what cost, I wonder.
As with so much of church life, the pendulum just can’t seem to stop at the via media; it has to continue past center to the opposite extreme. And I wonder whether communion has become too “common.” Far from close(d) communion, we practice virtually no eucharistic discipline at all: Oh, we may put in our bulletins (as we do at Mount Olive) that we welcome to communion anyone baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but in no sense do we check credentials of any “stranger” presenting himself or herself. (And, truth to tell, I wouldn’t want us to.)
My wish has been granted (to call it a prayer might stretch matters): Eucharist has become a common expectation and practice. But for many, I suspect, it has – as predicted – ceased to be special. With the American inability to live with paradox, most of us have resolved the tension in favor of ordinary. And it shows in the manner that many commune: There is a distinct lack of reverence toward the body and blood themselves, which are tossed around like so much old gravy. (In my in-laws’ congregation, after communing, the communicants discard their little plastic individual glass into a waste basket, without regard for whether there’s wine still in it or not. Needless to say, I almost faint – especially when that is combined with happy-clappy songs projected on the side screens.) Communion is seen as “due” to anyone who wants it, irrespective of any commitment to or involvement with the congregation that gives flesh and blood to the body and blood of the eucharist. It’s a picnic to which all and sundry (perhaps even including the ants) are welcome.
And superstition has replaced reverence. I was recently at a confirmation in a large church. This congregation almost never offers congregation communion services; the pressing need for religious services on-the-hour doesn’t allow for it in a 45-minute service. So for the confirmation (which looked and sounded more like a graduation – unfortunate connotations, there – replete with little diploma folders), communion was something of an open question. The church’s solution: Have the confirmands stand, throw out the words of institution (with NONE of the versicles, canticles, or anything else that give the Eucharistic liturgy its substance), and commune just the confirmands, while the soloist sang a medley of Bible camp standards. (Side note: And we wonder why we won’t see most of those kids in church again?) Let the congregation witness the event – after all, it’s a spectator sport, anyway (well, except for the offering). Sanctify the event with a little communion thrown in; don’t worry about the absolute nonsense it makes of whatever meaning the confirmation rite has (and I argue that it has very little). Give it out along with a Bible and a diploma. No need to dim the lights (that only happened for the sermon!). It was almost surreal – and that would have been interesting, if the entire event hadn’t been so damned sad!
Obviously extreme examples prove very little, but they can open our eyes to deeper realities. Reverence is a dying art in Lutheran worship; it has become all too common – almost indistinguishable from the other entertainment venues we frequent. (I’m not sure, frankly, that I would object to a Starbucks outlet at
Back to paradox; re-stress the tensions. Forget Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis; the Gospel is not synthetic and neither should be our theology. Recapture “dialectic”: It means more than “with words.” Bring back “the holy” aspect of Church life. Take off your shoes, as Moses was told; this is holy ground. We could stand lessons in how to stand on holy ground without losing our sense of terra firma.