Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Abbey Normal: Part 3 (Surprised by Communion)

Disciples of Christ (the religious movement that ordained me into ministry) must always be hungry. We insist on having communion (aka The Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) during worship services every single week. This sets us apart from many other groups under the holy umbrella of Protestantism (such as Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC’s, and certainly most mega-church movements) who have concluded that the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated only now and again. Since our local church usually has two Sunday worship services and I preach at both services, I share in communion over 100 times every year. I have communion more in one year than many Christians have in a lifetime. I don’t say this to boast, but instead to state how very privileged I feel to participate twice a week in a physical reminder of Christ’s great love and sacrifice for all of us. You might argue that Disciples aren’t really that hungry but just have short attention spans and need to be reminded again and again and again so that we won’t forget.
I am about halfway into a three month sabbatical, and so far I have been in North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania with trips to Michigan, California, Iowa, and Virginia in weeks to come. It seems like almost every Sunday morning I find myself in a new place. Although my sabbatical has been a wonderful blessing and I have been able to devote more time than ever to writing, to reading, and to my personal devotions, I realized during my recent visit to the Abbey of the Genesee just how much I was missing that weekly communion experience. And I certainly didn’t anticipate that I would be able to share in the Lord’s Supper while at Genesee. The Abbey is very welcoming and I enjoyed and appreciated their hospitality, but I had accepted that while I was there that their celebration of the Eucharist (held every day) was not open to me since I am not Catholic. Their understanding of that sacrament is not the same as mine, and I did not want to trample on their hospitality by coming forward during Mass because I thought to do so would be like walking into my host’s home with muddy feet.
Even though I had accepted in advance that I would not have communion while I was there, I was surprised by the deep loss I felt when I stepped aside while others came forward to receive the elements during Mass. On the way to the service, I had eaten a chocolate chip cookie baked by the monks and had joked with myself that the cookie (which had no doubt been prayed over sometime in its creation) would have to take the place of the communion elements. It didn’t work. It didn’t satisfy.
This experience made my think of all the ways that various churches partially welcome people into their midst but do not allow them (for one reason or another) to have full and complete communion. We hold back the body of Christ and offer a cookie instead (or maybe only crumbs) so that people won’t feel left out. It doesn’t work. It will not satisfy. A cookie is not communion. Of course, everyone is welcome as long as we don’t ask and they don’t tell. As long as we keep things on a surface level. But that’s not true community or real communion is it?
During a meeting the next day with one of the monks, I shared these feelings - my appreciation for their hospitality, my respect for their tradition, as well as my sense of loss. At a lecture the day before, this same monk had asked this question: “How many of you are out of communion with Rome?” During our session, I reminded him of his question and told him that I did not feel out of communion with Rome, but that Rome seemed to be out of communion with me. I told him that I understood that he didn’t make the rules but was bound to carry them out. And I respected his obedience to Rome. His reply surprised me: “I can’t offer you dispensation, but my understanding is that if you need communion you can have communion.” In other words, I didn’t have to pretend to be Catholic, but I could still be welcome at the Lord’s Supper.
The next day (my last full day at the Abbey), I arrived early for Mass which was a special celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. And I can tell you without a doubt that I needed communion. I had a serious communion deficit to make up. And after all of the readings and the chanting and the incense and everything else, the time came for the worshippers to come forward to receive the elements. This time I didn’t step aside but walked to the communion rail with my hands out to receive the host. I was nervous and excited as I put it into my mouth. I moved down the rail to the priest who held the chalice, and he offered it to me. As I tipped the chalice to my lips, it wasn’t that usual Welch’s grape juice that I tasted, but it was wine. I had known it would be wine but I had forgotten. How fresh and unexpected it was for me. What a marvelous surprise. My communion deficit was instantly overcome. I truly felt in communion with Christ and with those around me. I will not forget that meal.
What did that bread and wine taste like? They tasted like love.
When was the last time that you were offered true communion instead of a sweet cookie? Did it surprise you? What did it taste like? Did it taste like love?

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