We Anglicans are very good at Communion. I guess we’d better be, since most of our churches serve the Lord’s Supper every week.
And we are.
At my church, we’ve got the system so well-organized that we can almost always serve 200 people the Body and Blood of Christ inside of a song and a half. And that’s with both chalices and individual cups of both wine and grape juice, as well as gluten-free bread available for those who need it. (The Flash-powered animated diagram we show at the start of Communion each week definitely helps newcomers navigate the process.)
Like many Anglican churches, we use special wafers as the bread during our Communion services. Thin, white discs without much flavor.
These wafers are a big part of what makes our Communion table so efficient: they’re inexpensive, durable, they don’t spoil easily and they’re uniform in shape and size, which makes counting and distributing them simple and quick. They’re also bite-sized, even for the smallest mouth, so they don’t generate a lot of crumbs.
Meanwhile, their blandness ensures that most people won’t have an aversion to the taste.
Plus, there’s no trouble eating them very rapidly. They practically melt in your mouth, so by the time you reach the front of the wine line, you’re always ready for your sip.
Not long ago, though, I had a slightly different experience with Communion.
At an Anglican-sponsored gathering I attended a few Saturdays ago, we did things a little more old-school. Rather than walking up to the priest who put the bread in your hand, and then walking over to the chalice bearer who gave you a drink, we all knelt on the steps of the altar and the administrants came to us.
So far, so good. Just a style change, and I’m no stranger to kneel-and-wait Communion. I kind of like it, actually.
But then I noticed that the bread was actual bread. Not tiny, melt-in-your-mouth wafers, but dense, chewy bread. And what’s more, the priest administering communion actually tore a chunk off a mid-sized flatbread to give it to each communicant.
A sizable chunk.
‘This is the Body of Christ, broken for you,’ he said as he put what looked like two teaspoons of the bread in my palm.
‘Thanks be to God,’ I responded, as is my custom, and took the bread in my mouth.
Then I noticed that the administrant with the cup wasn’t very far away and was headed my way with alarming velocity.
‘This is a lot of food,’ said the voice inside my head. ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to chew and fully swallow before it’s my turn with the chalice. And I really don’t want to backwash breadcrumbs into the Blood of Christ!’
Chew, chew, chew, chew (faster).
‘He’s getting closer…’
But at some point during my panicked munching, I remembered (all by myself, to be sure) what I was re-enacting – the Last Supper – and what, either symbolically or transubstantially, I had in my mouth – the Body of Christ.
Broken for me.
Suddenly, it stopped feeling inconvenient that I had to put slightly more effort than usual into ingesting this sacred meal. Instead, it felt like an honor. Like an invitation to do more than participate in a ritual.
I decided to accept the invitation, and the very familiar religious experience that Communion often is for me became a holy experience.
With every chew, I was breaking Jesus’ body anew. Each time my molars made contact with each other, it was another lash on the back of the Lamb – another step on his labored walk to Calvary, another nail in his hand – and I was participating in His crucifixion.
So when the cup came my way, it was difficult to take a sip. Not because I still had bread in my mouth – the body was swallowed in plenty of time before the blood arrived.
Instead, it was the tears in my eyes and the shaking of my hands that made grasping the chalice a bit tougher than usual, and the lump in my throat that made drinking from it more of a challenge.
The actual experience only lasted a few seconds, but its effects still have the power to quicken my breath and give me chills.
Somehow, this inconveniently large and irregular-shaped hunk of bread was the catalyst for one of the most powerful Communion experiences I’ve ever had.
Thanks be to God.
I challenge you to attend a Maundy Thursday service tonight, and give God the chance to breathe new life into your experience of His Last Supper, as He did for me a couple weeks ago.
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Now, as you read the paragraphs above, I hope you didn’t get the wrong idea.
It’s not that I’m normally just going through the motions when I take Communion. It’s always important and sacred to me – but often, this is ‘head knowledge’, not an experience of the heart, or maybe the spirit.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The grace of God is just as valid, present and available to us, whether we ‘feel’ it in a particular moment or not.
Goosebumps, chills and lumps in our throats are great indicators of the presence of God, but the lack of them at any given time does not point to His absence.
I hope you know that.
At least in your head, and that your head remembers to remind your heart now and then.
And while the ‘less churchy’ Communion bread helped bring about a profound experience for me, I’m not advocating that we abandon the little Communion wafers. All of the reasons we use them are still completely valid.
But this experience has helped remind me that there is often more than one right way to do things.
Even (or perhaps I mean ‘especially’) religious things.
Peace be with you.