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Experiencing Eucharist

2010 November 16

as written for the Christian Century Blog

I grew up attending Bible and Baptist churches; now I generally identify with the emerging church. So I’ve had quite a learning curve at the Episcopal seminary where I’m studying. Between balancing prayer books and hymnals and crash courses in chanting, I’ve frequently felt like a stranger in a strange land.

I am open to learning this new rhythm of worship, however foreign it feels at times. But I am discovering that I struggle with the observance of the Eucharist. My issue isn’t theology but method: as I pray the same words each time I partake, I feel constrained and long for something more. I’m not bored or looking to be entertained, I just feel the need for our remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice to reflect the infinite diversity of the body of Christ.

I didn’t grow up with diversity in eucharistic practice. On the first Sunday of the month we were instructed to search our hearts, confess our sins and then grab an oyster cracker and a plastic shot glass full of juice (always juice). Only in the last few years has the act of taking the bread and cup moved me to accept the call to live eucharistically in the world. This happened only when I saw the Eucharist set free from its traditional rituals.

In the house church I helped lead for a time, we closed with the Eucharist every week. In that small setting, the way we transitioned into sharing the bread and juice (yes, still juice) depended on the day’s lesson. If we had explored the stories of Jesus’ healings, our breaking of the bread would point us to how we could share our resources to help heal the body of Christ. In weeks where we talked about community, we would sit at a table and together mix the dough to bake our own bread.

We were the body of Christ, and the act of Eucharist became the vehicle through which we understood our role in that body. Breaking the bread and sharing the cup changed week to week–it assumed the role of shaping us into who we were called to be.

The church I attend now similarly re-imagines what it means to take and eat in remembrance of Jesus. In discussing Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on the beach before the ascension, we partook of a communion of fish tacos–pushing us to reflect on the disciples’ experience. In a recent new leaders’ meeting, we were charged to humbly accept our call to serve the church through an invitation to partake in a humble communion of pretzel snack packs and juice boxes.

A recent worship gathering focused on us all being members of the body who have something to give. We were invited to an empty table. There the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 was told, with the interpretation that the miracle was that after seeing the boy’s gift of bread and fish, the people shared what they had brought until they all had resources in abundance. So we were asked to share whatever we had with us–gum, granola bars, soft drinks, Goldfish, Altoids. The table overflowed with abundance, which we served to each other.

Eucharist pulls me into these moments of remembering what it means to be a disciple. It is ever evolving as it speaks to a church that is always advancing the kingdom of God. I know the stories I’ve told here may be offensive to some, and I respect the traditions that find meaning in engaging Eucharist in one set way. But I’ve seen a world of meaning open up when the Eucharist is allowed to be as dynamic and diverse as our creative and infinite God–the God I respond to in remembrance when I take and eat.

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. November 16, 2010

    I love this reflection on what it means to really experience the Eucharist. I not only grew up in a Catholic church, but have taken a significant number of graduate level (Catholic) theology classes. The Catholic celebration of the Eucharist is one of the things that played strongly in my decision to leave the Catholic church and worship elsewhere. I could never reconcile the Church’s elitist view on receiving the Eucharist with the Biblical concept of celebrating life together.

  2. November 16, 2010

    I don’t mean to be contrary but I think this is somewhat misguided. It’s easy to think that it’s boring and therefore uninspiring when you first begin to pray a liturgy–and when I say “when you first begin” I mean for the first three or four or five years. The easy inspiration that comes right away is, in my experience, far less profound than the kind of transformation that comes from persistent practice. Faithful continuance in doing the same thing again and again has borne significant fruit for men and women across the whole of church history. There’s a reason for that. It does feel constraining to pray this way but that’s because the rite is shaping you rather than the reverse.

    Like I said, I don’t mean to be contrary but I think it’s far too soon to make these sorts of conclusions about a way of praying you’ve only begun to experience. The impact wasn’t clear to me until I had prayed the same liturgy in the same rhythm of the church year for many years.

  3. November 16, 2010

    Annie – I understand that it takes time to learn a new language, and I am not rejecting that process outright. What this post emerged from was that in experiencing the strangeness of something new I was able to more clearly understand what it is that I appreciate about the tradition I am a part of. Different forms can be beautiful in different ways. I think the emerging path often gets rejected because its exploration of meaning is assumed to be novelty-seeking. I wanted to express why that isn’t the case and where the deeper meaning that connect me not just to the body but to the richness of tradition comes from. But then again I am one of those that is content to have my liturgy while other people have theirs (which doesn’t go over well with people who insist that their liturgy is the one true liturgy (not that that’s you, just my experience in this conversation)).

  4. November 16, 2010

    Thanks for your thoughts on the Eucharist! I appreciated the variety of rituals and ideas for ways to celebrate communion and make it meaningful.

    Before making the Eucharist meaningful, I think we should first understand why it is important and central as a ritual of our faith. I recently preached a sermon called “Consumerism, Industrial Food and the Eucharist” that explores some of my thoughts. I think many of your rituals hint at deeper meanings of the Eucharist, but we need a deeper understanding.

    I’ve worked in an episcopal church and appreciated having the Eucharist weekly. I’ve weaved through Baptist churches and now am Mennonite. Many of our protestant brothers and sisters, baptists in particular, have devalued the Eucharist to the point of almost meaninglessness. A shallow theology can be as detrimental to the power of a ritual as the repetition of traditions.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. November 16, 2010

    There is one major problem with all this diversity of practice. The Gospels are clear about what Jesus did, what he did it with and why he instituted it for the church until he comes. We Christians do differ a lot about a great deal here but bread and wine are not incidental “customs” given the way the church has understood and treated this celebration of the eucharist for 2,000 years. Both tradition, theology and missiology all come to bear on much of what you say and I have no issue with changing a great deal of the way we commune but the revealed wisdom here is about Jesus and the Jewish context not me making up something new.

    The issue is not shallow ritual vs. non-traditional new ways. This is the body and blood of Christ in some way even if we disagree about what way, which we do and thus we will not solve our differences in the immediate future. What we can do is take bread and wine as Jesus passed this on to us through the Holy Apostle Paul and do as he did. I have experienced an almost unbelievable transformation by moving away from the shallowness of the same kind of early experience that you describe in your journey. God bless!

  6. November 16, 2010

    The issue is not shallow ritual vs. non-traditional new ways.

    I don’t think anyone was suggesting that was the issue. I think what Julie was pointing to was whether the Eucharistic experience can be allowed to connect to multiple aspects of our Christian experience, and take on many diverse shades of meaning, or if it can only ever be done in one way and only ever mean one thing. The issue isn’t about whether ritual is shallow. The issue is whether only one form of ritual can ever be allowed to express the depth of meaning to be found in the Eucharist.

    • November 17, 2010

      To say the issue is whether only one form of ritual can ever be allowed (allowed?) to express the depth of meaning of the Eucharist is a false premise. For many of us, the ritual already connects to the multiple aspects of Christian experience and the diverse shades of meaning.

      To put the question in a more dialogical manner, perhaps the issue is:
      Can the one ritual have infinite meanings or must the one ritual, by definition, have finite, limited meanings?

      • November 17, 2010

        Can the one ritual have infinite meanings or must the one ritual, by definition, have finite, limited meanings?

        Yes, the ritual has all sorts of meanings. But no, that was not the issue at hand. We already agree with you that “the ritual already connects to the multiple aspects of Christian experience and the diverse shades of meaning.” (Isn’t that exactly what I said?) The question was not whether it does, but why, if there are infinite meanings, we should only ever use one, single ritual to express those meanings? Why not let the forms be as diverse as the meanings?

        • November 18, 2010

          Actually, that revision is better, but it is not what you originally said, which was that “it can only ever be done in one way and only ever mean one thing.” What I am saying is that the premise that the one form of ritual implies that it can only ever mean one thing and that all celebrations of it are the same is a false one.

          If a single form of the ritual expresses all those meanings (for many, many people who use that ritual), what is the need to change it in a way that attempts to address meanings already addressed with what is in place? For many people the one form of the ritual does indeed have infinite meanings with all the diverse shadings of meanings because the ritual is not about simply what is said, but about how it is engaged and its place within the rest of the liturgy and within a particular parish’s life. It is why the celebration of the Eucharist is a different experience in different parishes, dioceses, cultures and contexts. If we want to excise the Eucharist from the rest of what informs it and makes it meaningful, then yes, it certainly seems confining, but then, anything that is withdrawn from its context will seem that way.

          Now, if someone wants to use the BCP and tinker with it in a church not connected with the Anglican communion, that’s fine. If someone wants to do the Eucharist however they want to do it, I’m fine with that. But there’s no reason to set up the straw man of the “one form of the ritual” vs. the many, diverse forms when in truth, for the people practicing each, the same ethic is embraced. What I hear you saying is that people who live within rhythms of the BCP are limiting themselves and not experiencing the diversity offered by changing the form of the Eucharist.

          The post creates a dialectic, not a dialogical discussion of Eucharistic practices, and it is difficult to read it as “these are just my personal experiences.” It seems to me to attempt to offer a corrective (“our remembrance of Christ”) to the liturgical form, and what I am saying is that when I read what Julie is after in the diverse forms is something many of us already experience. So, when I read this, I feel like I want something more from a criticism of the liturgy (and there’s plenty to criticize), but this one rings hollow against the experience of many liturgical Christians and turns a deaf ear to our experiences as well. It offers a corrective to which there isn’t a problem for many of us.

          Perhaps it would have been better not to offer criticism here and just say, “Hey, my experience is different.” But I don’t see how we learn from each other with that mentality.

  7. November 16, 2010

    Thank you for writing a very personal and moving description of the various ways that you have experienced Eucharist. I really wish that people of faith would share their thoughts/feelings/fears/etc… more often. I am a strong advocate for dialogue (much less so for debate).

    I learned something from your sharing and for that I am grateful.

    Peace.

  8. November 17, 2010

    My goal, although I seldom allow it to happen, is to allow the Eucharist to bring me into a closer, more intimate relationship with Him — actually to bring me to the foot of the Cross. Only occasionally, do I allow the elements to draw me in deep enough to leave another piece of my old self beneath the memory of my dying Savior and allow Him to breathe into me a New Creation. The few times I HAVE allowed that to happen, I have left the table weaping — and in awe.

    In John’s gospel (chapter 6) when quoting Jesus about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, John switches from the Greek “esthio” (plain eating) to “trogo”. Trogo means “to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits (as nuts, almonds)”. “Gnaw on me” he says. Take a good hunk of me and crunch down hard. Tough image, isn’t it?

    As I reflect on your post, Julie, I am thinking that being drawn into this deeper, humbling, renewing relationship with Christ can happen just as easily with herb bread I just pulled from the oven and a full-bodied Merlot in fine glassware as it can with a Cheeto and Mountain Dew in a paper cup. It is just as easy … and will always be just as hard.

  9. Herb Lynskey permalink
    November 17, 2010

    Julie, I want to thank you for your insightful and spirit provoking writing about the Eucharist. And while I am a part of a tradition that celebrates the Eucharist each week, it is the call in your writing that we are not only to participate in the breaking and taking of the bread, and the blessing and drinking of the wine each Sabbath, it is your invitation to leave our places of worship and to live in a “Eucharistic way” that spoke to me most deeply.

  10. November 17, 2010

    I remember my first alternative Eucharist. Well, it turned out to be no Eucahrist at all (or not). It was in 1975. My wife Karen and I were in NW Minnesota on a Thanksgiving Weekend, an annual conference of about 250 of us, mostly young adult refugees from Young Life, along with some people who still worked with the ministry at that time. Many of us were in house churches as were we. We had all had the most splendid time together, listening, singing, learning, being challenged and our last day was to be capped off with a worship service and communion.

    Then the word got back to leadership that one whole group from NW Iowa, from a certain small denomination had gone home the year before with great stories of this wonderful, radical conference and the coolest communion service…

    Communion Service?! You people took communion outside of “the church?” O, dear, oh dear…

    So, we decided to grab a bunch of the (driest)towels that had been turned in to the confernce center’s laundry that morning and hold a foot-washing service instead.

    I had never experienced anything so intimate, so Body-of-Christ-like. There were cries a the “seat of the scornful” of “biblicism!” but we tuned them out. I have had my feet washed once or twice since as an introduction to service of one kind or another and I have washed a few feet in such settings as well. However, that first experience of, as leadership, taking the role of the basest servant and then passing that job on to others until all had been ushered into life-ministry-life-ministry back wherever we were going… wow.

    John’s gospel alone describes the foot-washing right where the synoptic gospelers write of the Eucharist. It was amazing to discover the same power there. We stooped down in response to the cries of those who were afraid, we were all-together nourished by another sort of feast and by the end we were all feelin’ ready to travel on.

    Eu-charis-t. GOOD-GRACE-THE ONE. I rejoice still. Sacrament has been described as “the visible expression of an invisible but empowering reality.” The visible expression can, apparently, be almost anything. Sometimes one does not even need a juicebox.

    Thanks for sharing, Julie. You keep opening me up!!! God bless. (They will not be caging you sister-daughter, not any time soon!)

  11. November 17, 2010

    J–

    I was in church Sunday–St. David’s Episcopal, Austin–after a run of feeding other people in speaking and teaching, and I was worn out. Maybe I didn’t even realize how tired and sad I was. But during the course of the morning service–songs, readings, sermon, confession, prayers, eucharist–I found new strength and new hope and knew that it was exactly what I had needed.

    Whatever eucharist looks like for someone–and as long as it’s acknowledged to have real power, I don’t care it it’s wine, juice, or Sprite–I pray that they experience the touch of God because of it. Thanks so much for asking good questions, and offering good reflections–

    Greg

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