In his recent book Virtual Faith, Tom Beaudoin reduces the religious quest of our current popular culture to a single, intimate, fundamental question: "Will you be there for me?" (Beaudoin, 1998, pg. 140). He goes on to say that "we ask this of our selves, bodies, parents, friends, partners, society, religions, leaders, nation, and even God. The frailty that that we perceive threatening all of these relationships continually provokes us to ask this question." In a society where the institutional church is increasingly marginalized and relegated to insignificance, we need to ask ourselves what we have to offer in response to the searching behind this heartfelt question. It may be that one answer to this modern yearning lies in one of the most ancient rites of the church – the eucharist. Can a better understanding of the eucharist enable us to answer that cry for someone to "be there" for us? If so, how can we seek to put our theology into practice in ways that best communicate that understanding, particularly to those who are asking such questions? Here we will take a brief look at the meaning behind the eucharist and discuss how our celebration of it can best reveal that meaning.
The New Testament and the early church witness to a number of ideas within the celebration of the eucharist. White outlines five themes for the eucharist as represented in these sources: thanksgiving, communion fellowship, commemoration or historical, sacrifice, and mystery or presence (White, 1990). (He also adds the work of the Holy Spirit and eschatological event, but we will neglect these purely in the interest of space.) These are echoed by Catholic theologian John Lane when he speaks of the eucharist as meal, sacrament, sacrifice, and presence (Lane, 1993). Even the different names we have for the event signify to some extent the breadth of meaning it contains: the eucharist (thanksgiving), Holy Communion (Holy because it is with God, yet also communion with each other, fellowship), the Lord's Supper (remembrance). In the following sections we will use White's categories to examine the sources and development of each of these themes and attempt to see how they can apply to the celebration of the eucharist within our own congregations today.
The eucharist, like much of what has become Christian worship, traces it's roots back into Judaism, with ritual meals often shared among family members. "For Jews, every meal was a sacred event, a time when the family would give thanks" (Lane, 1993). Lane outlines three specific types of Jewish meals which were of great importance: the kiddush meal, which opened the celebration of the Sabbath, the chaburah meal, which was celebrated at important events such as weddings and funerals, and the pesach (Passover/ceder) meal (Lane, 1993). Jesus most likely shared all of these ritual meals with his disciples, as well as many other people, including some of questionable character. These ritual meals were of such importance to the Jews, as a sign of community (and to the Pharisees, an exclusive, holy community) that one of the most frequent charges leveled against Jesus was that he was a man who ate "with tax collectors and sinners" (Matthew 9:11). "It precisely Jesus' consistent and unapologetic choice of dining companions that gets him into trouble with those who would protect God's interests and control the table" (Henrich, 1995). It is this concept of the importance of a meal, and not our own 20th century disregard for any function beyond putting food in our bellies, from which we must approach our topic of the eucharist.
The church in the years following Jesus' resurrection most likely continued this eating of meals as a sign of community and fellowship. Paul certainly was concerned with this meaning, as he wrote to the Corinthians that "because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body; for it is one loaf of which we all partake" (I Cor. 10:17). Our earliest records about the church show that gathering for the meal was central to their worship life. Today, our culture of fast food makes it difficult for us to appreciate the unity of table fellowship, but this is all the more reason we need to embrace the communion we have when we gather at the table of our Lord. One answer to our question of "will you be there for me?" is an affirmation given by the community gathered at the Lord's table. Through the eucharist God brings the many together, and binds us in service and love to one another.
Commemoration or remembering is also a very important part of the eucharist. Jesus' own instructions in Luke are to "do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The word used by both Luke and Paul is anamneis, which is more than just remembering, but means "to remember, to recall, to know again, and experience anew" (White, 1990). This was a concept very familiar to the Jews, who celebrated the Passover (the very meal Jesus was celebrating with his disciples) in anamneis of God's saving acts in freeing Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. It does not seem to be a coincidence that Jesus instituted the Lord's supper here, and gave it a new meaning, that now God acts in Jesus to set us free from the bondage of our sin to enter into the promised land of the Kingdom. White even notes that commemoration for us includes God's work in both the Old and New Testaments (White, 1990). We are reminded here of the God who was there for the Jews in the Exodus, there for the world in Jesus, and will continue to act in history on our behalf.
In joining the Last Supper to the celebration of the Passover, Jesus also intimately joins it to the concept of sacrifice. This also was a notion common to the Jews, who practiced many different forms of sacrifice – the burnt offering, communion sacrifices, sacrifices of expiation or atonement, and the mina or gift sacrifice (Steinkirchener, 1998). In the Middle Ages, this became the most dominant understanding and almost entirely eclipsed the interpretation of eucharist as meal. The mass became mostly a sacrifice of expiation, as the congregation rarely received the elements and merely watched the priests "perform" the mass for their benefit far up front, and it was this idea of sacrifice that Luther railed against in his restructuring of the mass. Fortunately we have recently begun to recover the meal aspect and other meanings as well.
But what kind of sacrifice are we referring to here? There are really two. We remember and participate in Jesus' once-and-for-all sacrifice, his blood which he "poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matther 26.28), and we present our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Jesus' sacrifice is the "pure sacrifice", the giving of oneself back to God, and "by invoking the Passover and allowing it to interpret Jesus' death, we see that God's act of salvation is primary, ours is a response. In this understanding, we are not saved by sacrifice, but by God's free gift. We then offer some small token in acknowledgment of this work of God" (Steinkirchner, 1998). In the eucharist we both remember Jesus' sacrifice and seek to emulate it in the surrendering of our own lives in service to the Lord. Here again the eucharist speaks to our need for relationships, recalling for us the love in which Jesus surrendered his own life, and re-calling us to give our own offerings, so that we might grow ever closer to our Lord.
The synoptic Gospels, in their descriptions of the Last Supper, present us with the basic texts for our belief in Christ's presence in the eucharist. Jesus tells his disciples that the bread is his body and the wine his blood, and "thus we believe that when we, today, celebrate the memory of the Last Supper in our Lord's Supper, Jesus Christ is once again present in the eucharistic elements" (Steinkirchner, 1998). But this is not the only place where we find reference to the concept of presence.
The Gospel of John also speaks of presence, but reverses the order. Rather than offering bread and referring to it as his body, Jesus calls his body the bread: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (John 6:51). "Rather than relating the Eucharist primarily to Jesus' passion and resurrection as in the synoptics, John relates it here to his incarnation. Jesus among them is 'the bread of life'" (Steinkirchner, 1998). And so, just as "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," Jesus continues to come to us, each time we celebrate, in the bread and wine through the gift of the eucharist. How much more "there for us" could our God possibly be?
This is not to say that Jesus is not present elsewhere, in the Word, in preaching, in the community gathered in his name, but is present in a unique way in the bread and wine. We also note in passing that the question of "how" Christ is present has sparked heated debate at certain points in the history of the church, particularly around the time of the Reformation, but we now have come to conclude that "the how of Christ's presence remains as inexplicable in the sacrament as elsewhere" (ELCA, 1997). Even Roman Catholics will admit that "to go any further is to enter a 1000 year tangle of arguments. What is important is to realize that it is God who is encountered in the Eucharist, completely, powerfully, personally" (Steinkirchner, 1998).
Finally, as meals for the Jews were times of celebration, so also is the eucharist a celebration of thanksgiving for all that our Lord has given us. Jesus began the Last Supper by giving thanks, and our early documents about the worship life of the church( the Didache and the writings of Justin Martyr) both affirm that thanksgiving was an important part of the celebration. Part of our relationship with our "God who is there" involves our giving thanks, in recognition of all that God continually gives freely to us.
We have seen that the eucharist does provide answers to our original question, "will you be there for me?", but now we need to ask ourselves if the way in which we celebrate it best communicates that message.
As mentioned before, our culture does not assist us in recognizing meals as a sign of community, and so we must strive extra hard to communicate that message to our congregations. Long lines of people processing up to the front of the church to receive the elements one at a time does not seem to be a particularly helpful image to us in this area. Although larger churches will certainly struggle more with the logistics involved, we need to seek alternatives. Kneeling at the alter is somewhat of an improvement, but even better would be to face one another around the alter-table, reminding us of both the bond between us and Christ's presence among us. The physical structure of many of our churches is a hindrance here as well, but in new church buildings and remodeling of older ones we can seek to provide better space for gathering around the Lord's table. More powerful imagery yet for community could be recovered through the use of the common cup, provided we could get over our hang-ups about communicable diseases.
If the eucharist is really a meal of the community, perhaps we could make it feel a bit more like a meal to us with the use of real bread (ordinary bread, like we see every day) and real wine, and portions more generous than a large crumb or a few drops. The current practice probably inherits rationale from the minimalism of earlier times, but we need not be afraid of using "everyday stuff" for our spiritual nourishment. As C.S. Lewis has said, "we may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it" (Lewis, 1952).
Remembering that the eucharist is both a sacrifice and a time of thanksgiving, we need to provide opportunities for both within the service. Too often communion is merely a somber activity to "get through" so we can end the service and get home. We need to provide opportunities both for quiet reflection on Jesus' sacrifice and how we are called to follow, and joyful thanksgiving for God's gift of forgiveness and nourishment of our faith. The "Great Thanksgiving" needs to be such, and we need to strive for music and words that allow our congregations to "lift up their hearts" and offer that thanks (more on this topic in the paper to follow!).
We need to not only practice the eucharist, but teach people to understand the meanings we have discussed. All of our wonderful symbolism and signs are merely empty ritual unless our congregation understands (at least intuitively) why we are doing what we do. This requires some form of instruction, though it need not be a ten-week course on the ministry of worship. A note in the bulletin on the eucharist as thankgiving, or a pause in the service for the pastor to explain why the congregation has switched to using real bread, could go a long way toward helping the people grow in their understanding. We need not be afraid to interupt or modify the order of the service where it would benefit the congregation's experience – the liturgy is our servant in helping us to worship, not we it's slaves.
In closing, we ask again: do we have in the eucharist what we need to answer our question – "will you be there for me?" The answer, if we have the faith to see it, is a resounding yes! Through communion, God knits together a community of believers for our own mutual support (God knows our need for human relationships as well). We remember in Christ's sacrifice the depth of love that God has for us, we relive the promise of God's forgiveness, and we offer our thanksgiving for gifts we have received. And through the mystery Christ's presence in the bread and wine, we know that we have a God who is truly "there for us."