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 4: Towards a Theology of Inner City Trauma

Effective liturgy informs and forms participants in worship. Liturgy should retell the central stories of the Christian faith in a way that pulls congregants into the experiential and theological heart of those stories. Good liturgy mediates both our understanding and our experience of the divine by evoking and inviting participants into the theology — the logos of the theos — that frames and animates the words and rituals of worship. Theology, then, is the life spirit of liturgy – and trauma-informed worship must be infused by a theology that grapples with and responds to the challenging realities of trauma and recovery from trauma.

Mainstream Christian theologies do not speak adequately to inner city trauma.

Contemporary mainstream Christian theologies of redemption and resurrection – theologies that largely originated in white, middle and upper class contexts — do not speak adequately to inner city trauma. In the United States, the prevailing Christian narrative of redemption posits deathliness and life as mutually exclusive realities. That narrative describes a clear and final transition between death and life, in which death is concluded, a joyous new life is begun, and good wins out over evil. That narrative fails in the face of trauma; and it markedly fails in the context of the ongoing, communal trauma of life in the inner city. For trauma victims, the deathliness of the traumatic event is never fully left behind, and the potent reality of evil remains, even in recovery. For those who live in the inner city, where violence and grinding poverty are seemingly intractable facts of life, a complete escape from the effects or threat of trauma is impossible. A practical theology that promises and delivers resilience, hope and some mode of healing even in the midst of enduring deathliness is required.

How do we begin to discover such a theology? What are the guideposts that will direct our journey? I believe that an effective and faithful theology of inner city trauma must be guided by the following criteria:

A faithful and effective theology of inner city trauma should be trauma-informed, Biblically-based, Trinitarian, and grounded in the experiences and culture of the inner city community.

1. It must be grounded in the experiences and culture of the worshiping community. For my congregation, a theology of trauma and recovery must grow out of the experiences and culture of this American Latino/a community, and must be informed both by the struggles and by the strengths and resources of Latino/a culture and theology. At a minimum, such a theology must recognize that ‘la vida es la lucha’ – but even in the midst of la lucha, life is fed by wellsprings of relationship, familia, and community.

2. It must be trauma-informed. To be effective, this theology must be responsive to the dynamic of traumatic experience and, guided by imagination, wisdom and compassion, must incorporate the central features of trauma recovery. It must create a safe place for honesty and grieving, as well as for trust and growth; it must witness to and honor shattering stories of traumatic events; and it must work to restore the selfhood of the survivor, to foster loving relationships, and to engender a sustaining faith in a coherent and meaningful cosmos, even in the midst of darkness.

3. It must be Biblically-based. The Bible abounds with narrative, poetry and prophecy that give powerful voice to harrowing experiences of trauma and to the grace-filled gift of life after trauma. From Jesus’ resurrection with the wounds of his trauma still intact, to the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, to the agonies of Job, to the Psalms of lament and Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, the Bible witnesses honestly and faithfully to interlaced realities of trauma and grace. In addition, the Gospel of John provides an alternate account of the Last Supper, which opens the way toward a communion service that celebrates salvation based in love stronger than death rather than in blood sacrifice.

4. It must be Trinitarian. The Trinity embodies the loving, life-sustaining relationality that undergirds trauma survival and recovery. Jesus is the incarnate reality of the God who walks with us and helps to bear our burdens, even to and through deathliness; he is both the messenger and the personification of God With Us and God For Us. The Spirit is the Paraclete whose exhorting, supportive presence is promised and given in the darkest hours of the disciples’ – and our – lives. And God is the Parent, whose love embraces even the most broken and wretched among us and whose mercy creates and recreates life, even and especially where new life seems humanly impossible.

And now, let’s begin.

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.

The Challenge

Trauma is pandemic in the inner city community that I serve.  Physical and psychological abuse, rape and sexual abuse, beatings and shootings are commonplace. Community members sometimes name the acts of violence, but many of those acts are unspeakable or unspoken. The effects of this widespread trauma manifest themselves in individuals and throughout the community as hopelessness, numbness, an inability to trust or form close relationships, a shattered sense of self, and a disbelief in any secure ground of meaning or order.

Conversation and exploration at the intersection of trauma, theology and liturgy

Our worship services at Denver Inner City Parish do not currently address the crisis of trauma in our community – but they can and they must. Over the next year, I will be developing a theology and liturgy that: are grounded in the experiences and culture of my inner-city community; express – perhaps even rediscover – the Good News for traumatized persons and communities; and reshape worship as a safe and sacred place where trauma and its effects can be witnessed to, and where recovery from trauma can begin.

This blog is an integral part of that process. This is a place for conversation and exploration for all who study, worship or work at the intersection of trauma, theology and liturgy. My weekly blog postings will trace the course of my reading, theological and Biblical reflections, and liturgical writings. Please join the conversation! Our experiences will be richer for your participation.