Growing up in a Baptist church, I didn’t hear much about mystery. Sermons were deep, but also highly logical, focusing often on analyzing a short text, which was great, and I learned a lot, but each tradition in Christ’s Body has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, hence our need for each other. Some traditions probably focus too much on mystery or use it as an excuse to not think, while others, like the one in which I grew up, tend to be safely cerebral, to the unintentional exclusion of mystery.
One of the few mysteries I experienced was communion. We didn’t have “The Lord’s Supper” every week or even every month. It was a definite at Easter and Christmas, but I remember about only four communion services a year. I’m not sure why some traditions partake of communion more or less than others, and I’m not sure it matters—there are probably pros and cons to both. In spite of the rareness of the sacrament (or maybe because of it), I knew communion was a special time and a serious one as well. Before the deacons passed around the silver plates bearing tiny square crackers or miniature glasses of grape juice, the pastor preached primarily from 1 Corinthians with references to the gospels. The focus was Christ, with an admonition to make sure you were “right with God” before partaking.
But to be honest, my young, perfectionistic mind was always so preoccupied with “taking communion in an unworthy manner,” that I couldn’t enjoy or appreciate it rightly until I was around twenty. It didn’t help that a well-meaning Sunday school teacher had told me worry was a sin, because after trying to think of everything I could possibly confess, I would find myself worrying about sinning while sitting in the pew, and even while eating the bread and drinking the wine, so I would start praying, “God please don’t let me sin.”
My parents didn’t have this experience with the pre-communion messages and invitations, one of the few times of the year when the congregation focused primarily on confession. It wasn’t until I visited a few other churches that I learned that many traditions have a regular time set aside in the worship service for confession and reconciliation with God, and they also have weekly communion. I don’t blame the pastor or church for my lack of understanding that lead to legalism. It’s just as likely that someone of my temperament in a more, say, liturgical tradition would experience the same weight—only once a week instead of quarterly. I had to learn for myself about this very intimate, very mysterious interaction with God.
I remember the first time communion brought joy. I was in my early twenties, and after a time of confession, instead of having the elements passed to us like an offering plate, we had to inefficiently get up and walk to the front to receive the bread, dip it in the cup, and hear the words, “This is the blood and body of Christ broken and poured out for you.” Music was playing, but that didn’t really make so much a difference as the words and faces of the people around me. There was something of thanksgiving and praise, of worship, in this communion service. I was reminded of a story I read as a teenager about a girl in Scotland weeping in the middle of a communion service, and one of the men told her, “Take it, Lassie. It is for sinners.”
Over the years, I’ve tried to make communion less about myself and my sin, because that’s what my focus was for so long. Confession is necessary, even commanded, but Jesus didn’t say, “Do this in remembrance of your depravity.” He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”
It occurred to me one Sunday about a year ago that communion, the elements meant for Christ’s body and blood, the things He associates Himself with for us to remember Him, are very, very ordinary. He didn’t pick roast lamb or vegetables, or cheese, or herbs, or figs, or whatever dessert may have been on the table. He picked bread. An everyday staple. Something both rich and poor could say that they’d eaten. Even the wine, while also for celebrations, was fairly common. Not the way I would think to do things.
The act of eating itself isn’t flamboyant. The way for us to remember Him, the way for us to commune with Him, one of the most intimate moments between God and a believer, involves eating. Another daily, ordinary event. Some have the privilege of eating more than others, true, but all people can and do eat. It isn’t limited, like sex, to married couples, or like pregnancy, to fertile women, though both of those are intimate and would seem more sacred than something like eating.
And then the thought of eating and drinking Jesus seems, well, irreverent, whether you view it as the literal body and blood of Christ or not. Taking Him into your body, ingesting Him, He is broken and processed inside you, for you—for the most basic functioning of your body. Eating can be pleasurable, but it’s also essential. You derive life from it. And we are so dependent on Him for moment by moment sustenance, not the good things He may do for us or the bad things He may prevent (which sometimes really means what we like and don’t like), but we depend on Christ for what He humbly gives: He Himself.