My pastor always begins the celebration of communion at our church with a warning: “We’re going to do something really weird now,” he says. “It’s important, and it’s Biblical, but it’s also pretty strange.”
This always makes me smile. Our church works hard to be hospitable to new Christians, to people unfamiliar with church or religion in general, and to people who have had bad experiences with church in the past. There’s no liturgy: no confusing formats to follow or lingo to recite in unison or special times to sit or stand. Things are simple: a few songs, some announcements, a message, and another song. Everything is announced or written plainly on the flow sheet (our substitute for the traditional “bulletin” that your grandma took notes on or used to blot her lipstick).
The message feels the same way. Our pastor always explains the context of whatever Bible passage we’re reading because it’s unlikely that everyone listening knows why people in the Old Testament sacrificed animals or how the rabbi and student system in worked in the ancient Jewish tradition. Whereas in a more established church of longtime Christians, a pastor might give a whole sermon about the importance of tithing without ever defining what a tithe is, in our church every word is broken down, every piece of clothing in the text has meaning. And I’ve found that even as someone raised in the church, someone who’s supposed to have this background knowledge, I learn something new every week. Yesterday we read a parable I had never, in my twenty-four years of reading and Sunday school and religion classes, heard. (Luke 16:1-15. Check it out.) My pastor regularly says, “I don’t know” or “there’s no right answer here.” His sentences start with “I think” or “the way I see it.” The religious pretense and mumbo jumbo is kept to a minimum.
But that’s hard to keep up when we get to communion. Because it is weird. God came down to earth to save us because we’re inherently evil, and he died and asked us to eat his body and drink his blood as a reminder of that act? And then he left us here on the still-imperfect earth and we’re supposed to keep eating and drinking him until he comes back? It’s no wonder that many Romans in the first century heard rumors that Christians were cannibals.
The only thing to do, really, is embrace the weird. Though it’s not part of his usual communion introduction, one time early in my attendance at the church, the pastor said, “If you can get past all of that—the body and blood and the strange ritual of it all—that’s when you’ll understand.” If only we can put aside the logical human part of our minds that says what are we doing? and what would others think if they saw this?, then we can really start to see the beauty and simplicity of it all.
Bread, the first element. This is my body, broken for you. Bread is the simplest of foods. We call basic things our “bread and butter.” Bread is plain and humble. It’s elemental. Give us this day our daily bread.
Wine, the second element. This is my blood, shed for you. Wine is precious. It’s not to be wasted or poured out for nothing. Though, in the early church, it was consumed as a safe alternative to water, that essential of life.
Alone, these things are not much. A piece of bread will carry you only so far. A glass of wine is not a meal. But together, they are something more. Just as carbon and oxygen and calcium come together to make up our physical bodies, so the bread and wine combine to make up something new, something full of meaning and power and grace.