What Is the Meaning and Significance of Communion?


What is the Meaning and Significance of Holy Communion

 Dane’s Place copyright 2005 ©

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Vickie1 was raised in a volatile home, marked with frequent and frightening violence.   In the winter months her body was filled with pain because the house was never warm enough.  For her there were few escapes.   However, when she could, she made for herself a cup of hot tea and would curl up beneath a blanket near a window to soak up the warmth of the sun.  There, in the midst of a difficult home, she created for herself an extraordinary space out of an ordinary place.   In this uncommon space she could momentarily stand beyond the turmoil of her young life.  And in that extraordinary space something common – hot tea – became an uncommon means of finding solace that was generally unattainable.

Thankfully, Vickie’s family life is not the norm for most of us.  However, what she learned to do is quite common from a human standpoint.  I believe that part of our human experience is to take ordinary places; a wilderness trail, a graveside marker, a special room in the house, and associate it with something transcendent – something supremely important to us.  We can also take common elements – like tea – and make them be for us as something uncommon.  We can even take ordinary days and celebrate them because they are our birthdays and anniversaries.  What we inherently do as humans, because of the manner in which we have been created, is to take ordinary space, time, and elements, and give them extraordinary significance for our own lives.

Recognizing something common as uncommon is deeply divine.  The first appearance in the Bible of the Hebrew word qodesh – translated holy – appears in Exodus 3:5.  This was recorded when God spoke from the burning bush to Moses and told him to remove his sandals because the ground he stood on was “holy ground.”  Because of God’s presence, ordinary ground became extraordinary, and common ground became uncommon.

This concept is reflected throughout Biblical history – especially in the Old Testament times.  Prophets would often take something commonly known to everyone and use it in a way that caused people to see God’s truth.  For example, the prophet Jeremiah was told by God to visit a potter.2  As Jeremiah saw the potter working he was inspired to tell Israel that God was like a potter to them.  Through Jeremiah, and this visual aid, God’s voice was heard in the lives of the Israelites.

One of the most telling uses of the ordinary being used as a way to celebrate God’s truth was the Passover Meal.  This celebration has its roots planted in Egyptian soil, on the eve of the great exodus out of Egypt – a paramount moment in the history of Israel.  It was a clear example of God miraculously intervening into history; an intersection of God and humankind in a tangible manner.

Since humankind has a tendency to become forgetful, and lose sight of those “mountain top experiences,” God gave to Moses and Israel a way to commemorate the great exodus; through the sharing of a meal.  This meal, made up of very ordinary elements, became known as the Passover Meal.  Its menu was ordered and sanctified by God; therefore, its elements bore a very specific meaning to the people of God.  God also made ordinary time into sacred time as the meal was commanded to be celebrated once each year – “the fourteenth day of the first month.”3  By giving this rite to the people, God transformed ordinary elements, space, and time, into something extraordinary and sacred.

But the importance of the Passover celebration was not just in the meal.  God gave directives for a certain “liturgy” to be used while the meal was taken.  When future generations of Israelite children would ask why they were partaking in the meal, God instructed the elders to recall for them the night of the Passover, and the great exodus from bondage.4  The retelling of the story and the sharing of the meal formed an enriching celebration of the goodness and grace of God.  The simple elements of the meal and the fellowship of the liturgy transformed the ordinary into something sacred, again marking the intersection of the Divine and humankind.

I do not believe that it is an accident that God chose the sharing of a meal to be the means of conveying spiritual grace and truth.  It is my belief that there is a certain “spirituality” in the act of eating.   I believe that nearly everyone recognizes this at some level.  Family mealtimes are not just about absorbing the protein and other nutrients that our bodies need; they are about talking, learning, and sharing with one another.  The “liturgy” that we share over a meal in our conversations gives testimony to that fact that we instinctively recognize that the needs of the meal transcend simple bodily hunger.    That is why the focus of many of our parties and other celebrations becomes centered around the food we eat.  That is also why eating a meal alone, or while angry and upset can be disruptive to our appetites.

Back to the instant question: What is the meaning and significance of Holy Communion?  No greater intersection of the Divine and humankind can be found than in the Person of Jesus Christ.  God’s single act of becoming human stands out among all the collective works of the Lord as being the most splendid.  The celebration of this event should be so glorious that the commemoration of it should never cease.  What better way to remember the life and death of Christ then through a holy meal to be celebrated continually – even throughout eternity?

One of the great wonders of Holy Communion was that it was born in the ambrosial cradle of the great Passover Meal.  Hours before Christ was arrested and crucified, while sharing the Passover with His disciples, He instituted this new celebration.  Jesus told His disciples that they were to repeat the sacrament “in remembrance”5 of Him.  He took the common element of bread, and, sharing it with His disciples, told them that it represented His body which was about to be broken for them.  In the same manner he took the common element of wine and made it be for them as His blood that was to be poured out for the forgiveness of sin.  Telling His disciples that they remember His death as often as they participate in the Holy Meal, Jesus made uncommon the common element of time throughout the life of the Church as we gather at the Lord’s Table.

The significance of eating this meal is overwhelming.  As we sit down for any meal our bodies take the elements of the food and make them become our blood, bones, organs, and muscles.  The elements are soon no longer discernable, as they have become us.  So it is with Holy Communion.  As we partake in this blessed sacrament, the body and blood of Christ, through a spiritual process, becomes a living part of us.

John Wesley recognized this truth as he wrote that Holy Communion conveys “the grace of his [God’s] Spirit … to the souls of all the children of God.”6  The United Methodist Church confirms this understanding, stating that Communion “sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation.”7  Communion is also very powerful because whenever we partake in it we “proclaim”8 our faith.

Probably one of the most significant aspects of Communion comes in the understanding that Christ is believed to be very present in the Sacrament.  Jesus indicated that in participating in this great Supper we remember, or recall Him.  This does not mean that we re-sacrifice Christ for our sins9, or that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.  Rather it means that the Supper “so powerfully”10 represents the mighty acts of Christ, that they truly become present for us.

Just as there was a telling of the exodus experience during the Passover Meal, and just as we often enter into conversation with loved ones during our family-time meals, so is there a liturgy that is important during Communion.  For United Methodists this liturgy first includes an Invitation to the Lord’s Table.  We do not have a “tradition of refusing any who present themselves desiring to receive.”11  Our liturgy also includes a confession of our sins, and recognition of their pardoning.  The “talk” at the Lord’s Table in the United Methodist Church also includes what we refer to as The Great Thanksgiving.  In this responsive prayer we acknowledge the awesome works of God through Christ Jesus in the past, the continuing favor of Christ in our present, and the certainty of one day banqueting together with God at the heavenly table.

For me the mystery of Holy Communion is how God takes the ordinary common things of life and sets them apart for holy service.  Yet the greater mystery is how God takes this ordinary, common sinner and sets him apart for God’s eternal glory and good.  I scarce can imagine ever solving that great mystery.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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