Me and the Eucharist: a brief history

Tomorrow–maybe today, by the time I get this posted–is the day that my church calls Maundy Thursday, some other churches call Holy Thursday, and pretty much all churches commemorate the Last Supper Jesus shared with his closest followers before he was arrested. So here’s how I came to think what I think about the Lord’s Supper–or Communion, or the Eucharist, or whatever you might call the thing with the bread and wine (or grape juice or whatever).

I grew up in a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church that served Communion on the first Sunday of every month and invited all baptized Christians, regardless of their denominational background. There was a brief liturgy, including prayers and responsive readings, and then the congregation stayed in the pews while the servers brought around plates piled with small cubes of white bread followed by plates filled with small plastic shot glasses of grape juice, each of which elements we’d consume immediately.

Then my family moved and we began attending a local United Methodist church. Communion was also the first Sunday of the month there, again open to all baptized Christians, and again we’d have a brief liturgy of prayers and readings, but we’d receive the elements by going forward to kneel at the altar rail, where the servers would give us cubes of white bread and shot glasses of grape juice.

A few years later I attended my first Roman Catholic service: a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass with a friend’s family. My friend advised me that, since I wasn’t Catholic, when the time came to go forward for Communion I should remain seated. That was my introduction to the concept of closed Communion, which is when a church doesn’t serve Communion to people who aren’t of its denomination, and also to the practice of giving the congregation only the bread and not the wine.

That closed Communion experience followed me to an Anglican church I visited with some friends when I was in college. The service felt similar enough to the one at my other friends’ Catholic church that I assumed the same rules applied. When the time came for the Eucharist to be served, I went forward but crossed my arms over my chest, and the priest prayed a blessing over me. After the service, though, he asked if I was a believer and if I’d been baptized; when I said yes to both questions, he assured me that I could indeed receive Communion there–which, on subsequent visits, I happily did.

But during college I also attended a few other churches on occasion, including some non-denominational evangelical churches. The contrast between the way these churches did Communion and the way the Anglicans did it could hardly have been starker. Where the Anglicans had a complex, thorough, and well-ordered liturgy, these other churches had a Scripture reading and a brief extemporaneous prayer, and where the Anglicans made a point of serving Communion every week, these other churches served it once a month and in some cases only a few times a year. And I found that, where I left the Anglican service feeling like I had partaken of a sacrament infused with meaning and sacredness, I left these other churches feeling like I’d just eaten a crumb of bread and drunk a shot of grape juice and that was it.

Now, I’m not saying there wasn’t any spiritual significance in the way these other churches served Communion; I expect there was for most people in the congregation. And probably some folks would have found the Anglican liturgy impenetrable, restrictive, or otherwise off-putting. I’m just telling you how I felt about the services after I attended them. Your mileage is perfectly welcome to vary.

Anyway, after college I moved again and started attending another Presbyterian church (PCUSA again), but this one did Communion differently from the church of my childhood. Twice as often, for one thing: the first and third Sundays of the month, and a few years later they began serving Communion every week. For another thing, the congregation went up front to receive the elements, we’d tear pieces off a large loaf of bread–or break off a piece of matzo–rather than picking up pre-cut cubes, and we’d dunk the bread in goblets of grape juice rather than sipping the juice from individual shot glasses. On the whole they were a much more liturgical lot.

Then I moved again and started attending an Anglican church plant. The only thing that made their Communion feel any less meaningful than my earlier Anglican experience was that instead of the usual wafers they had us tear off pieces of pita, but for some reason the pita they used was made with a grain that sent big cough-inducing chunks down our throats.

Another move saw me again make my church home at an Anglican church–though this one uses the wafers, so there aren’t any grain particles. Also, you have the option of sipping wine from the chalice or dunking your wafer. (I usually sip, unless I’m sick.)

But one of the things I’ve found, after going to Anglican churches regularly for the last few years, is that, at least for me, weekly Communion doesn’t dilute the meaning or sacredness of the sacrament the way you might assume. (More than likely, that very assumption is precisely what drives some churches’ decision to serve communion only a few times a year: the less frequently Communion happens, the more it will probably mean to people when it does.) No, for me it’s quite the opposite. Weekly Communion becomes almost a form of sustenance, a frequent reminder of my dependence on a grace that I can’t earn but am still given and must still come forward to receive.

And tomorrow, on Maundy Thursday, I’ll go forward again.

Peace to you, whatever your faith, tradition, theology, or lack thereof, and whatever you’ll be doing on Thursday.


One comment on “Me and the Eucharist: a brief history

  1. Tim says:

    Having grown up in a Lutheran church where we had Communion bi-weekly or weekly, I greatly miss having that as a regular encounter with God now that I attend other churches that have communion only once a quarter. I also miss the reverent, prayerful nature of communion kneeling at a rail and sipping from a cup… (sigh)

    Although I fully respect that different people build their traditions out of different convictions and some people want Communion to be a special occasion, I think it’s a little funny that we can hold it to such different standards than our other encounters with God. Imagine: “Oh, if I read the Bible more than once a month it would dilute the experience for me.” “Uncle Joe is able to truly appreciate the value of worship since he only goes to church on Christmas and Easter.”

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