This past Sunday I refrained from receiving Eucharist because, for various reasons, I did not feel spiritually prepared. Later in the day as I reflected on the Liturgy, I thought about how different the Eucharist is from my Protestant experiences of communion, also called the Lord’s Supper.
More Than a Memorial Supper
In the Orthodox Church, the procession of the Gifts is a sensory feast, pointing to the physical reality of the Incarnation—the sight of the golden cross, liturgical fans, and lighted candles; the fragrance of incense; the melodies of sacred music and chanted prayers; the motion of our bodies as we cross ourselves, kneel, and open our mouths for the communion spoon; the taste of the bread and wine. We spend the majority of the service in corporate worship and preparation “that we may receive the King of all,” who, in a great mystery, transforms the consecrated bread and wine into His Body and Blood.
This definitely wasn’t my understanding of communion during the majority of my Christian life.
In most of the churches I attended, communion (never called “Eucharist”) usually was offered every two or three months, most of the time with prayerful solemnity. But whether we walked forward to receive it or passed trays of crackers and juice down the row of people, a common denominator in the communion experience was its lack of mystery.
A Salad Bar of Theological Definitions
Because Protestantism encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices, I’ve experienced communion served in similar ways yet with completely different definitions of the bread and the wine—or, most often, crackers and grape juice. My teen years were spent at a wonderful United Methodist Church, a denomination that in its doctrinal statements affirms the real presence of Christ in communion. But in the day-to-day reality of Sunday school and Bible study, sacraments were rarely discussed, and communion was not an integral part of weekly services.
The following decades of my Christian life were spent in Baptist and nondenominational Evangelical churches. In each of these churches, the communion service included Jesus’ “words of institution” from Luke 11: “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me…. This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you” (vv. 19-20).
What did Jesus mean by these words? The interpretation varied, depending on the presiding pastor’s views. At one church, a particular pastor consistently made a point of explaining that Jesus didn’t really mean what He said; He was speaking symbolically. We partook of communion simply because He commanded us to remember Him in this way. Because of my upbringing, the oddity of dismissing Jesus’ words didn’t really register with me. Frankly, the underlying, unspoken message at many churches was, “Catholics believe this is actually Jesus’ Body and Blood; therefore we don’t.”
These communion services were full of reverence and prayer, usually (but not always) with special emphasis on repentance and confessing our sins (silently and privately) before partaking of the elements. These churches took seriously the Apostle Paul’s warning: “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:28–29).
Now, as an Orthodox Christian looking back, I think it is significant that the preferred words of institution came from the Gospel of Luke and not from Jesus’ words in the sixth chapter of John: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (vv. 53-54, 56). Jesus’ words here are more explicit, not easily diluted to a mere “remembering.”
Because my understanding of communion had been limited to my own church experiences, I didn’t realize that multiple theological explanations existed until I briefly attended Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California in the 1980s. In one Church history class (which really meant “Protestant History”), we explored the various interpretations of communion. I was fascinated and especially moved by the possibility that Christ Himself was in the elements—that when He said, “This is my body… This is my blood…,” He kind of meant it in some sort of way.
My hubby and I attended a Southern Baptist church at the time, so I asked our pastor about these various teachings. I still remember where I was standing, with my permed hair and shoulder pads, on a Wednesday night in a classroom filled with rectangular tables and plastic chairs.
Our church wasn’t Catholic, so I knew “transubstantiation” was a non-starter. But did we perhaps believe in Martin Luther’s “consubstantiation,” the idea that the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine…er, grape juice?
“No,” he said, in a tone of voice that implied the answer was obvious and eminently reasonable. “It’s just a memorial supper.”
Something in me died at that moment.
I knew in my heart that the symbol-only explanation was wrong, but I couldn’t explain why. I had no tools, no vocabulary, no lens to consider the subject. When the Bible is the only authority, varying interpretations result in a big, intellectual salad bar of doctrinal options that allows us to pile our plates with the pieces of our own preferred belief systems. This divergence of opinion was considered fine as long as we justified our views “biblically.” But the variance from one church building to the next was incredibly confusing.
A few years later we attended nondenominational churches that use an interesting tactic regarding communion: they simply never define its meaning, either during the services or in their Statements of Faith. (A Statement of Faith defines the doctrines that are important to that church. I recently perused the websites of several active Protestant churches in my area, and the topic of communion isn’t even mentioned. This shows how peripheral communion is to the spiritual life of the average Evangelical.)
Whatever this approach lacks in catechetical rigor, it prevents a lot of arguments. I remain convinced that, in such churches, if five people are shown a cracker and some juice and asked, “What is this, and what does it mean?” they will give five different answers.
A Trail of Little Plastic Cups
According to the song “Red Solo Cup” by country musician Toby Keith, “a red solo cup is the best receptacle / For barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals.” But for Protestant communion services, clear, disposable cups are the plastic standard.
These tiny containers define my memories of communion over the decades, wherever I worshipped. At various points in the occasional communion service (with the frequency of these services determined by the church’s pastor), we passed silver trays stamped with dozens of holes to hold those ubiquitous little cups. Next we passed along shallow silver dishes that held the bread—sometimes little square crackers, sometimes torn bits of French bread, sometimes broken bits of matzo in a nod to Christianity’s Jewish roots.
But always, always, those little plastic cups held a shot of grape juice, not wine.
The usual reasons given for this practice were: a sip of wine might cause relapse in an alcoholic (with no evidence provided and definitely no understanding of the Eucharist as a source of healing and the “medicine of immortality”); ancient wine was weak, closer to grape juice than modern wine (an assertion that ignores the many references to drunkenness throughout the Bible); and clean water was not easily accessible in ancient days, so weak wine was the default beverage of choice.
This means that the same Lord who turned water into wine at Cana couldn’t manage to find any decent drinking water, and neither could his apostles, so they drank a slightly fermented version of Welch’s when they were thirsty.
Leaving these arguments aside (as we should), something deeper than wine vs. grape juice is the message communicated in the actual experience of receiving communion.
Self-Contained Communion Units as Metaphor
My most impersonal experience of communion occurred at a multi-denominational Christian conference (and once at a mega-church). In a setting with thousands of people, communion is often portioned out in individual containers: grape juice in a cup sealed with foil and, on top of that, a small cracker sandwiched under another piece of foil—much like one of those Mini Moo cups of half-and-half, but with an extra layer.
Even as beautiful hymns and worship songs echoed through the auditorium, I felt alienated by the assembly-line experience. As I held one of those Lord’s Supper units, I was forcibly reminded of that infamous instruction from old-school TV dinners: “Peel back foil to expose tater tots.”
Yes, this approach allows thousands of people to receive communion together, but what values are being communicated? Convenience. Efficiency. Speed.
What is missing? Relationship. Sanctity. Unity in doctrine. One Body of Christ, the Church, partaking of the precious Body and Blood of our Lord together from one chalice.
Individualism versus Community
Is it possible to have a prayerful, meaningful communion service under any of these motley circumstances? Absolutely. God loves us and draws near to those who seek Him. I loved the quiet music and recitation of Jesus’ holy words, of taking seriously the importance of asking God’s forgiveness for our sins before we communed.
But, to me, those little plastic cups speak to the lack of unity in beliefs: just as the experience is individualized, so is the theology. I am haunted by the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote in AD 107, “Be careful, therefore, to take part only in the one Eucharist; for there is only one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us with His Blood.”
The use of one chalice for all, sanctified again and again at each Liturgy by the Body and Blood, communicates a powerful message of unity. The individualized servings, to my mind, speak not so much of concerns about hygiene but of an individualized faith of “me and Jesus.” Landfills everywhere are sprinkled with those little self-serve communion cups.
The Divine and Human Communion in Holy Communion
In the service of Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church, we agree together that the precious Body and Blood of our Lord are really present. Those who don’t believe this and the teachings of the Nicene Creed should not partake.
We don’t explain how the bread and the wine become His Body and Blood; we merely receive them with gratitude, content in the Mystery. The Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving,” is the medicine of immortality that brings life and healing to all.
In the Divine Liturgy, after extensive corporate preparation (see the eight-part Liturgy Survival Guide in the Archives, beginning in January 2019), I walk forward with my brothers and sisters in Christ and receive the Mysteries from one cup and one spoon, along with a prayer of blessing. We receive the Gifts (rather than take them) as we stand on the solea, between the altar and the nave, where heaven meets earth. The practice itself models unity and Jesus’ marvelous condescension in coming to meet us right where we are.
In my home church, I receive the Eucharist from one of two priests who actually know me and my family, along with my questions, heartaches, and struggles. I also receive communion from one of two deacons who know me and my baptismal name (Hilda). I have talked with them, and I know their wives and the color of their children’s hair. Even when a visiting priest serves, he asks parishioners’ names so that he may pray a blessing over each of us: “The servant of God, [Name], receives the Body and Blood of our Lord…”
The experience is person-to-person as well as person-to-Person.
I have a relationship with Jesus Christ, who gives us Himself intimately in the Eucharist, and I am in relationship also with my brothers in Christ who give me this Medicine of Immortality. I know and am known.
The Eucharist in the Orthodox Church is real, beautiful, communal, and far from plastic.