There are unique freedoms to being an independent spiritual community out from under the watchful eye of the institutional church. For example, we can now think about things that we didn’t really give much thought to before… like the sacraments of communion and baptism. What a concept… right?
Even when I was a United Methodist pastor, I revised the rituals to move beyond some of the archaic language and theology. What the institutional church didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. But my thinking is expanding even further now to the very basic questions of whether we continue them just because they’ve always been done? Do these sacraments still hold meaning for us today, and if so, what?
Over the centuries both communion and baptism have had so much rhetoric, pomp and circumstance, doctrine and dogma heaped upon them so as to all but obscure the grace imparted in each. For the past few weeks I’ve been striving to strip down each ritual, to get past the junk the church has heaped upon them – how they have to be done, who can do them, who can receive, what has to be said – to find their core meaning and purpose. What I’ve found is truly simple and beautiful, and it saddens me to realize how deeply that beauty has been buried.
We forget that our communion celebration grew out of a few changes Jesus made to the traditional Jewish Passover meal shared with his disciples the night before he was killed. He took a meal that remembered and celebrated the history of Israel escaping from slavery in Egypt and traveling to the promised land, and wove himself into the story. Unleavened bread, the matzah, is typically broken and shared as part of the Passover meal, as a remembrance of the bread that sustained them as they left Egypt and as a remembrance of their unity. In addition, four glasses of wine were traditionally blessed and drunk at the beginning, middle and end of the meal.
Matzah was their sustenance on the journey, but now Jesus, his teachings, ministry and love would be sustenance on the journey. Broken though his body would soon be, they were to remember him – his teachings – just as they remembered the rest of their history.
Wine was the symbol of blessing, abundance, life, and celebration. Blood – the same color as the wine – was also the symbol of life. Each time they celebrated the Passover (not communion or eucharist) they were to remember the new covenant (love God and love your neighbor as yourself) and his life poured out in that love.
I’ve personally never liked the “body and blood” language of communion, even as a metaphor. But I believe this is Jesus saying, “I want you to take everything that I am, and everything that I stand for, and everything that I’ve taught you deep into yourself… let it fill you and sustain you… let it bring you life in a way that nothing else can bring you life.” It’s this simple for me.
It hurts me when I hear the stories of how this gift of grace, this desire of Jesus to share love, has been denied to people because they aren’t the right religion, or they weren’t married in the church, or they were divorced, or they aren’t heterosexual, or they didn’t confess how horrible they were first. I think they missed the point. This is a remembrance of how much we are loved and a hope that in re-membering we will be reconnected with that love. So despite all of the ways communion has been abused and misused, I find the symbolism and the purpose to hold great meaning.
In Celtic Spirituality there is the concept of a thin place. For me, the ritual of communion is a thin place where, by our intention, the space between this world (or dimension) and the next becomes permeable. The energy changes as we share a common meal, recognize the love that is given in it, and open ourselves to the experience of oneness with God and oneness with each other. These are moments when I don’t know where I end and others begin, where the music ends and my words begin, where we end and God begins. And this feeds my soul in a way that is unique.
Tune in next week for my exploration of the sacrament of baptism.