Hello, fellow pilgrims! This blog post is a slightly reworked version of one I published in October of 2019. I’m recycling my work for three reasons: 1) After spending six episodes on a survey of the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist has naturally been on my mind; 2) I hope this material will be helpful for my podcast audience; and 3) In light of our time with the Divine Liturgy, I’ve been pondering and writing about the question, “What is worship, really?” This is a big question that encompasses music, scriptural continuity, and ancient versus modern expectations of a Sunday service. Because I’m not a priest, a scholar, or an expert in liturgics, I want to be very careful to reflect an Orthodox perspective on various aspects of worship.
As a fellow gal in the pews, my emphasis will be, as always, on our experiences and mindset each time we head into the nave, as opposed to a deep dive into theology. Still, I feel the need for some extra time for study and pastoral review, and my earlier post about heterodox communion experiences is a relevant follow-up to our journey through the Divine Liturgy. Thanks in advance for your understanding. — Lynnette
A few Sundays ago I refrained from receiving the Eucharist because, for various reasons, I did not feel spiritually prepared. Later in the day as I reflected on the morning’s 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—the bread and the wine—is a sensory feast that points to the very earthy, physical reality of the Incarnation—the sight of the golden cross, liturgical fans, and lighted candles; the fragrance of incense; the melodic sounds 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—which was never called the “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, 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. As I’ve mentioned before, 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 at that time the church experienced an influx of Charismatic members from a local Christian university, so what was printed on paper and what was taught by volunteer youth group leaders didn’t necessarily match. 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.
Next, as longtime readers know, 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,” usually the version from Luke 22: “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).
But what did Jesus mean by these words? The interpretation varied, depending on the presiding pastor’s views. At one nondenominational church, a particular pastor with a Baptist upbringing consistently made a point of reminding us that Jesus was speaking symbolically. We partook of communion simply because He commanded us to remember Him in this way. (Side note: We examined the meaning of the term “remembrance” in part 5 of the Liturgy Quick-Start Guide, “Ascending the Summit of the Eucharist.”)
Because of my upbringing—and I’ll say this, I was well catechized—the oddity of dismissing Jesus’ words didn’t really register with me. The same people who believed in the inerrancy of Scripture and waxed eloquent on a “literal interpretation” of the Bible were the same ones who explained that in this important moment, on the night before His Crucifixion, Jesus didn’t really mean what He said. The disconnect was simply not discussed, or even recognized. Frankly, the real underlying, unspoken message at many churches was, “Catholics believe this is actually Jesus’ Body and Blood; therefore we don’t.”
Now, I definitely want to acknowledge that these communion services were full of reverence and prayer, usually (but not always) with special emphasis on repentance and confessing our sin—silently and privately, of course—before partaking of the elements. The churches I attended 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)
Today, as an Orthodox Christian looking back, I think it is significant that the preferred words of institution came from the Gospel of Luke and did not expand on Jesus’ words in the sixth chapter of John, where He said:
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 as a kid, I didn’t realize that multiple theological views 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.
At the time my hubby Rob and I attended a Southern Baptist church, so I asked our pastor about these various teachings. To this day 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 “in, with, and under” the substance of the bread and wine . . . er, grape juice?
“No,” our pastor 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 unfiltered 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. (For you blessed cradle Orthodox people, a Statement of Faith defines the doctrines that are important to that church. I recently perused the websites of several large, active Protestant churches in my area, and the topic of communion isn’t even mentioned. This fact alone shows how peripheral communion is to the spiritual life of the average Evangelical.)
Whatever this avoidant approach to communion lacks in catechetical rigor, it certainly 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 dominate my memories of communion over the decades, no matter where I worshiped. At various points in the 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. I heard a popular radio preacher teach this, but I never bought it.
- Clean water was not easily accessible in ancient times, so weak wine was the default beverage of choice.
Okay, let’s think about that last one for a moment. This means that the same Lord who turned water into wine at Cana (John 2), who in the Old Testament brought water from a rock in the desert (Numbers 20), couldn’t manage to find any decent drinking water, and neither could his disciples, so they drank a slightly fermented version of Welch’s when they were thirsty.
Leaving these arguments aside (as we should), I think that in the actual experience of receiving communion, something deeper is being communicated than any “wine vs. grape juice” debate.
Self-contained Lord’s Supper 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 little plastic 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 famous 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 were being communicated? Convenience. Efficiency. Speed.
What was 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. It really is possible, because God loves us and draws near to those who seek Him. Offensive Lord’s Supper units aside, I loved the reflective music and recitation of Jesus’ holy words, 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 faith: just as the experience is individualized, so is the theology. I am haunted by the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John who succeeded St. Peter as bishop and 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 Communion of the Divine and Human 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.
I personally know of two people who received physical healing from the Eucharist. Several years ago a priest told me about a time when he stayed overnight in the hospital before his surgery the next morning. He had an overpowering sense that he needed communion, and a fellow priest arrived to pray for him and give him the bread and the wine. The next morning the surgeon did a final ultrasound, and the mass had disappeared. The surgery was canceled.
More recently I received secondhand news of a monk who had been hospitalized with several conditions. After receiving Holy Unction and the Eucharist, his heart arrhythmia disappeared. Your own priest may have several such stories of divine help as a direct result of the healing power of Communion.
But I have never heard a story of healing after the “memorial supper” form of communion. It might have happened—I’m certainly not omniscient. But it’s hard for me, at least, to imagine this form of miraculous healing when believers actively deny Christ’s presence and power in the elements.
In the Divine Liturgy, after extensive corporate preparation (see the recent six-part Liturgy Quick-Start Guide), 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 our Lord’s marvelous condescension in coming to meet us right where we are.
In my home parish, 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 three 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, Hilda, receives the Body and Blood of our Lord . . .”
The experience is person-to-person as well as person to capital-P 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.
Our next post of Walking an Ancient Path will be published a few days after the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Great Lent is almost upon us! It is a season when we pray “Lord, have mercy” hundreds and hundreds of times in the services—yet another example of the Orthodox Church’s love of repetition. It’s a good time to look for an answer to the question, “How Much Mercy Does One Person Really Need?”
I hope you can join me.