What is the nature and power of Communion?

Setting down the path of developing a new communion ceremony, we are immediately confronted by looming, insistent questions that must be addressed before we can proceed further: What is the nature of Communion? And wherein lies its power?

A provisional answer to the first question presents itself pretty quickly: Communion cannot be pinned down to a single definition, practice, or even name. To do so would be to impoverish its plenitude and its power. Communion, like so many elements of the Christian faith, is a singular but prismatic mediator of divine reality. It speaks more deeply and widely than mere words, and presents different facets and faces to different people in different times and different contexts. The great variation in contemporary practices of Communion mirrors the variation in Communion practices throughout church history, which in turn reflects the variation in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. And this variation, particularly as it is rooted in Gospel accounts that cannot be fully squared with one another to produce a single, self-identical story, should not be a cause of anxiety. This multiplicity reveals strength, not weakness. It means that our Communion practices radiate from a central, unifying reality that engages with and speaks to a wide variety of humanity in a wide variety of contexts.

Communion that is responsive to context and faithful to God’s reality

But the very variety of Communion practices – and undertaking the task of producing yet another variation – presents another sobering challenge: how do we create a Communion service that is both responsive to context and faithful to that underlying reality? How do we transform the Communion service in a way that continues to capture its transformative power for the people that we serve?

As I move forward with this project, my work will be guided by the following touchstones [and I heartily welcome your comments, suggestions and critiques here!]. A new service of communion must: be grounded in the Biblical witness; ignite the imaginations of the participants; speak to the cultural and personal realities of the participants’ lives; incorporate effective ritual practices; and mediate divine presence.

A brief word about each of these touchstones:

Grows out of the Biblical witness

A new Communion service must be fed by, be rooted in and grow out of the Gospel accounts and understandings of the Last Supper and of the ministry and identity of Jesus. This does not entail a search for a singular core that unites all accounts. Rather, it demands a searching out and a discerning of those facets and features of the accounts that speak most powerfully and salvifically to the cultural and personal realities of my congregants’ lives.

Ignites the participants’ imaginations

Poverty, trauma and oppression destroy the imagination. [And yes, affluence does as well, but in a different way.] They crush people’s ability to imagine a future that is fundamentally different from the deadening, hopeless present. Worship in general and Communion in particular must imbue participants with the power to envision, hope for and believe in a future that is genuinely new, grounded in the experience of a God who brings new life out of deathliness.

Speaks to cultural and personal realities

In my congregants’ context, the Communion service must acknowledge and speak to individual and community trauma. It must also do so in language, images, concepts and practices that appropriately and helpfully respond to and heal trauma, and that are grounded in and resonate with American Latino culture and the harsh realities of life in the inner city.

Incorporates effective ritual practices

For me, the most effective rituals are those which involve the whole person: body, mind and spirit. They do not simply preach a message; they also invite and require participants to experience and to affirm with their bodies the transformative truths that are being offered. This recognizes the central importance of the entire embodied process of taking communion: the decision to stand up to take communion, to arise and move forward towards the promise of new life; the slow, contemplative pilgrimage toward the altar, a pilgrimage that is both solitary and in solidarity with others; the opening of the hands, and therefore the heart, to gratefully receive the gifts of God; the ingestion of the gifts of God, the startlingly tactile experience of accepting and incorporating into oneself the indwelling reality of God; and the return to one’s place, the same and yet transformed.

Mediates Divine Presence

I believe that something real and transformative happens during Communion, something over which we who preside over Communion have no control but which the Communion service can and should create the sacred space for. The goal, the telos, of the Communion service is the communion of the participants with God. When that telos is achieved, the realities of participants are transformed, because the participants find union with God – or more precisely, they recognize, welcome and affirm the union that is already there and always being offered. Their lives are opened, and ever opened again, to the radical spiritual reality that God abides in them and they abide in God. And that God is precisely the God who creates new life where new life did not seem possible.

A revised Communion service that meets these criteria should be a faithful and transformative experience for participants.

What do you think? I welcome your reflections!

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Context 3: Worship and Recovery from Trauma

Our worship services at Denver Inner City Parish offer powerful possibilities for acknowledging and addressing our community’s trauma, theologically and spiritually, and for providing a place of safety and a path to recovery. Our services are intimate in size and caring in spirit and practice; congregants participate actively during the service; and every service concludes with a welcoming community dinner. The heart of our worship is Communion, which is celebrated at every service. For our congregation, Communion is the medium through which divine love and welcome are most fully communicated and experienced.

Standard liturgy fails to engage the fundamental and ongoing communal reality of trauma.

The traditional liturgy currently used in our worship services is based largely on the Book of Common Prayer.  As beautiful and powerful as this liturgy is, however, it fails to engage the fundamental and ongoing communal reality of trauma; and it provides our congregation with few theological or spiritual resources to help them acknowledge, cope with and prevail over this towering reality in their daily lives.  And it may even unintentionally cause harm:  I cringe when I hear or use the language of blood sacrifice that is interwoven through the communion service, and fear that the language and underlying theology may re-traumatize or drive away our congregants who have suffered from blood-letting violence.

Our worship services at The Parish do not currently address the crisis of trauma in our community – but they can and they must. Christian worship is uniquely suited to be a safe and sacred place where trauma and its effects can be witnessed to, and where recovery from trauma can begin. Trauma propels its victims into existential crisis, and recovery from trauma requires the long, hard, caring work of rebuilding belief in self, trust in others, and reliance upon a stable ground of meaning. Worship can provide the essential elements needed for recovery from trauma: a safe and caring place where the hard and complex truths of traumatic experience can be spoken; loving relationships with other people and with the triune God that restore both a trusting connection with others and a new valuing of the self; and a new understanding and experience of the unshakeable divine bedrock of love that grounds life and provides meaning, sustenance, hope and courage, even in the ongoing darkness.

A revised liturgy can declare new things to those who sit in darkness and captivity.

Seeking a revised liturgy that engages the fundamental realities of life in our community does not disparage existing liturgies, which speak powerfully to the realities of other communities.  Rather, it affirms that the word of God is living and active, that it speaks to all people in their own languages and contexts — and that it can ever be trusted to declare new things to those who sit in darkness and captivity.