Monday, October 22, 2007

Holy Communion – Part I

I recently wrote several posts on worship, and how important it is. I would now like to focus on one particular act of worship given to Christians by Jesus Christ himself. It is, of course, the sacrament of Holy Communion. For more on worship in general, see my two earlier posts on the subject.

The sacrament of Holy Communion is a mystery to most people, even lifelong Christians. Let me mention a few things about Communion that you might find helpful. This is a very simple overview, so for more information, do an Internet search for “This Holy Mystery”, a study of the sacrament done by the United Methodist Church.

Holy Communion has its origins in both the Jewish Passover Seder and in the Last Supper (which was itself a Seder meal). As a sacrament, Communion is the “outward and visible means of our inward and spiritual grace.” We know this holy meal by a number of different names.

Different Names

Some churches refer to it as the “Lord’s Supper,” recognizing that it was Jesus who presided at his last meal with the disciples. For many it is called “Holy Communion”: “Holy,” meaning of God, or sacred; and “Communion,” meaning sharing or coming together in Christian fellowship. Holy Communion literally is a “Sacred Fellowship” as we gather together with Christians all over the world, with the saints in glory, and with God.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches generally refer to it as the “Divine Liturgy,” with the word “divine” indicating its sacred and holy nature. The term “liturgy” refers to its prescribed pattern in words set forth by people and priest as “the work of the people.” In the Roman Catholic tradition, the high point and whole purpose of the Mass is the consecration of the elements and the receiving of Holy Communion. You can not have a Mass without Communion, and the Mass is often referred to as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, because of the belief that it is in some way a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross (a concept, by the way, that the Reformers found repugnant).

In all churches, the sacrament is often referred to as the Eucharist. Eucharist means giving thanks to God, not just for the gifts and mercies received, but for the gift of salvation in Christ. The sacrament of the Eucharist both unites and divides Christians.

It unites Christians because all Christian churches celebrate the sacrament in some form or another. Most churches believe that communion is an important act of worship. Many churches use a similar liturgy that would be familiar to other Christians.

Different Qualifications

Unfortunately, Communion divides because every church has its own view of it, and who is able to receive the sacrament in their church. Some churches, such as the Roman Catholic Church, exclude those who don’t view communion as they do. Some churches limit communion to baptized Christians, or to professing members of that church or denomination, or to those who have had their First Holy Communion, or to those who have been confirmed.

Still other churches, like the United Methodist Church, open their communion to anybody, with no restrictions other than what it says in the invitation at the beginning of our communion liturgy: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.”

The United Methodist communion is open to unbelievers, young children, the mentally handicapped, and any others who may not really understand what it is all about. The reasoning is that God’s grace is not limited in any way by us, but God can and will act despite our limitations. This is the same reasoning behind infant baptism.

Different Elements

Less of a divisive issue, but still a difference among church, is the form the elements take. Some churches use small round wafers, others bread cubes, others pita bread, others matzo, and others some sort of regular bread. Some use altar wine, others unfermented grape juice. Some offer the cup to sip, others dip the bread into the cup (called intinction), and some put the wine or juice in small plastic cups. The small cups started being used for sanitary purposes when churches went from wine to unfermented juice because of the temperance movement in the 1800s.

In a future post we will look at the history of the sacrament.

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