Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is Communion for?

Charles Clark, who apparently grew up in church not unlike mine, tells us what he's learned about Communion from other traditions:
Growing up, my church observed “Lord’s Supper” once a quarter. Every three months, an extra line would appear in the bulletin’s Order of Service between “Message” and “Special Music.” After spending a silent minute “examining our hearts,” trays bearing a species of super-dense oyster crackers and tiny plastic cups of grape juice would be passed along the pews, offering plate-style. In a tradition that generally deprecated ritual, this practice was clearly an anachronism, a holdover that would have been mildly embarrassing if not insulated from inspection by a thick coat of cognitive dissonance. What it all meant I couldn’t have told you, other than that it had something to do with “remembering Jesus.” ....
Before engaging with the sacraments, I thought about grace almost exclusively in terms of the forgiveness of sins. The accompanying images were of removal: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” ...[A]n exclusive focus on grace as forgiveness implies that except for our assorted wrongdoings, we are basically whole and healthy. On the one hand, I understood that was inaccurate: the phrase “spiritual growth” was in my religious vocabulary. But I lacked a vision for how grace operated not merely to cleanse but also to edify.
The act of eating, as appropriated by the Communion rite, makes this other aspect of grace unmistakeable. As C.S. Lewis puts it, God “uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.” This correctly pictures our incompleteness, our brokenness and hunger, our need for God that exists apart from our need for forgiveness. Grace builds us up in addition to washing us off. In receiving grace as sustenance, we are called into a more substantial life; like the narrator in The Great Divorce, we are becoming more solid as we draw near to God. ....
Of course, the tradition I grew up in was not entirely without additive spiritual practices. The study of Scripture was commonly discussed in quasi-sacramental terms. .... We naturally understand that filling our heads with holy writ could tend to give us the mind of Christ. But that by filling our stomachs with bread and wine we partake in the divine life comes as something of a surprise. It reminds us of our need for God to act on us and for us, that grace is an intervention. It cures us of our native Pelagianism.
I fully understand that, for many traditions, the mechanics behind the transmission of grace through the sacraments are of great importance. While I don’t particularly share that concern, I respect that opinions differ. My hope is that this is one of many areas in which a thicker Christian practice will develop across denominational lines. .... [more]
What I’ve Learned from Communion
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