While these emphases are positive impulses, Communion provides a necessary balance to both. Addressing rationalism, it gets us out of our heads and provides a tangible expression of God’s grace. This leads us, at the penultimate moment of our worship, toward interaction with the real, physical world. It is also the fulfillment of an emotional worship experience. As worshippers long for the nearness of their Creator, that longing is satisfied through receiving the very presence of Christ. How inconsistent with the Gospel it is to foster an atmosphere of desiring God’s presence, only to send worshippers away without being fed!
Honoring Christ through the sharing of a meal together has been an essential part of Christian worship since the very beginning. In my tradition the liturgy leading up to Communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. It includes four main parts:
1) Dialogue and Preface: Based on the classic language that has opened the liturgy for as far back as we have written record: “The Lord be with you (And also with you) Lift up your hearts (We lift them to the Lord) Let us give thanks to the Lord our God (It is right to give God thanks and praise).” Using this language emphasizes our communion with Christians of all times and places.
2) Sanctus: The preface, sung or spoken by the presider, builds to a song that emphasizes our communion with all of creation in magnifying God’s holiness and salvation, with these or similar words: “Holy, holy, holy Lord/God of power and might/Heaven and earth are full of your glory/Hosanna in the highest/Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord/Hosanna in the highest.”
3) Thanksgiving at the Table: This prayer, offered by the one presiding at Communion, rehearses and gives thanks for God’s salvation history, and asks for the presence of the Holy Spirit in this meal. It includes Jesus’ words instituting the sacrament (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 22, 1 Cor 11).
4) The Lord’s Prayer, spoken by the entire assembly.
I see four emphases that can be summed up in one sentence: Communion is a celebration with Christians of all times and places and with all of creation in glorifying God for God’s saving acts throughout history. But this leaves out one central element revealed by the words of institution: in communion we receive the very presence of Christ, given for you. You are specifically included in God’s promise of salvation, and God’s grace is mysteriously given to you through this eating and drinking. This leads to several observations about our current practice of Communion:
- Holy Communion is a celebration of the goodness of God! It does always not need to be a somber moment. Yes, we are remembering Jesus’ death, and at certain times (like Lent or Good Friday) our celebration might remain more subdued. But we are celebrating Jesus’ death in light of the victory of his resurrection! So we joyfully give thanks and praise to God for this and every saving act, in our lives today and throughout history.
- It is not an individual act of piety, but a practice of communal identity. We are the people who God has gathered to be the body of Christ, bringing hope to the world. If we are made individual consumers, able to come to a station and receive the elements “whenever we feel ready,” one of the central countercultural aspects of this practice is lost.
- I realize I risk crossing theological barriers here, so I will use very general language. It is essential that we emphasize that God is acting here and now through this sacrament. We are not only remembering, but we are actually receiving God’s grace.
How might this look in a modern, flexible, streamlined liturgy? In many contexts it has meant stripping away all the liturgical elements to just the words of institution (or less) and the actual taking of the bread and wine. In doing so I fear we risk reducing this grand mystery to the equivalent of taking a pill. I believe we cheat our communities if we don’t provide some context for this act of eating and drinking. In receiving the bread and wine we are taking our place in the majestic story of a God who loves and saves God’s creation. The pattern of our worship should reflect this.
Repetitive monotony is one reason given for why many churches do not use their denominational communion liturgy. This need not be so! If creative energies are poured into other parts of our worship, why not for this practice that has been so central for Christians throughout the centuries?
I see an opportunity here to incorporate an art form currently being used by few churches: the spoken word, or poetry. I would venture to guess that many of our congregations have individuals with creative talents as yet untapped by the faith community. At the core of the historic communion liturgy is a story – the story of a redeemed people and a God who saves. The inspirational impact of this story has unlimited potential.
Perhaps a pastor or other member might offer a prayer or creative spoken word, capturing the full meaning of the meal about to be shared. This prayer might build to a climax in which the entire assembly joins in song. Almost any song with a focus on God’s holiness could potentially work. A few of my favorites are “The Earth is Yours” by Gungor, “After All (Holy)” by David Crowder, and “Holy Is the Lord” by Chris Tomlin. Whatever song you use, it is usually most effective to begin right on the word “Holy,” or build up to it before long. Alternatively, perhaps especially during Advent or Lent, songs containing “Hosanna” (Come and save us) can work well, such as Brooke Fraser’s song by that name. See my song list by service element for more suggestions.
After this song the prayer or spoken word might be continued, or the pastor may speak the words of institution, reminding the assembly that this God who is holy and has acted throughout history now comes to you and is for you. And then we participate in an ancient ritual that fills us with the presence of Christ, God’s grace incarnate, and unifies us with his body in all times and places. May we be good stewards of this incredible gift!