Warning: The writer of this article attempts to use common Christian language. Incorrect usage, misunderstanding, and unintended implications are inevitable. Readers are advised to continue at their own risk and invited to offer kindly corrections where needed.
There may be no common Christian practice about which so little is recorded in scripture as communion (footnote 1), yet which carries so much weight and significance as to occupy the center point of most Christian worship. Communion is the typically the pinnacle, climax, or focus of Sabbath services. For many traditions it is the one essential element.
Krister Stendahl (1921-2008) proposed three rules of religious understanding, which I like to reference. These are:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy.”
In the spirit of seeking subjects of holy envy, I have been attending the worship services of churches in my area. I began to recognize that the communion practices of different traditions helped draw out nuances in the LDS sacrament that I had overlooked.
The following is not so much an exegesis on religious symbolism in Eucharist liturgies (which I am not qualified to give) as much as it is a snapshot of a growing seed of understanding of a layperson. So, please be patient as I step outside of my own echo chamber and attempt to use common Christian language.
Sacramental and Non-sacramental
Pastor Eldon Peterson of Cache Valley Bible Fellowship introduced me to a distinction between “sacramental” and “non-sacramental” communion. Dr. Rev. Steve Sturgeon at St. John’s Episcopal church helped me a bit more.
Communion in some Christian churches is a memorial or celebratory ordinance; it is a symbolic reenactment intended to help the individual understand and appreciate the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This is considered to be a non-sacramental or ordinance view.
Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant denominations consider communion to be a rite necessary for salvation. Through the rite, God’s grace is conveyed to the individual.
(My apologies if these descriptions are inadequate. Please enlighten me.)
With this distinction in mind, I want to speak to a few points regarding my observations from several churches.
Cache Valley Bible Fellowship
Communion is offered on the first Sunday of the month at Cache Valley Bible Fellowship (CVBF). Like most Christian services, it is the last event and climactic point of the service.
The communion ordinance is Spartan. Referencing 1 Cor 11:23-26, Rev Eldon Peterson introduces communion as a celebration and memorial of Christ. He brakes matza bread in front of the congregation, explaining it as a symbolic braking of the body of Christ.
All are invited to come forward and instructed to break a piece of matza in recognition that each is a member of the body of Christ. Small cups of grape juice are offered as emblems of His blood.
There is no formality, no special prayer, no pulpit call, just an invitation to come and eat.
I met with Rev Peterson a few days later to discuss his understanding of the Lord’s Supper. His preference for communion would be to serve wine because he sees meaning in its bitterness and sweetness. Nevertheless, he recognizes grape juice as a reasonable compromise. Juice does not cause distraction for the children and respects those that don’t drink alcohol or struggle with alcoholism.
Peterson’s view is that anything beyond a simple remembrance ceremony is unbiblical, so he prefers to keep communion simple, allowing each individual to extract meaning and value from the ordinance.
St Thomas Catholic Church
Catholic Eucharist stands on the opposite end of the spectrum to the simplicity of communion at CVFB. To be frank, I expected high-church formality at Catholic Mass, but I was not prepared for the complexity of the communion rite.
Holy Eucharist is understood to be the literal, physical presence of Christ through transubstantiation of the emblems. Catholic practice and doctrine exemplify a sacramental view of communion. Those who receive Eucharist, literally receive Christ.
The preparation, offering, and clean-up or disposition of the Eucharist emblems is very formal. Once blessed for their intended purpose, the remnants are treated as sacred and are not discarded, but consumed by the officiating priest.
The expectation of worthiness is part of the communion practice. Ideally, each parishioner would have attended confession some time prior to receiving communion. This works in concert with the liturgy to prepare each person for full readiness to receive the grace that is offered through the sacramental rite.
A couple of observations that were of interest to me.
A sanctus or altar bell is rung three times as the priest blesses and presents the bread to the congregation. The sanctus is rung three times again with the presentation of the wine.
According to Rev Stephen Strugeon of St. John’s Episcopal church, Catholic Eucharist wafers must be made from wheat flour. While it is considered adequate to receive the wafer only, those with Celiac disease may not be able to do this. Addressing this population is a challenge for any church that offers communion.
Episcopal and Lutheran and Presbyterian
The events in Catholic liturgy are largely similar to those at Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian services that I have attended.
My first exposure to formal liturgical worship was at Prince of Peace Lutheran church in Logan, UT in 2018. I found it very intriguing. Overall, it seemed to invoke a sense of remembrance and reverence. I imagined that I was gathered with a small group of ancient saints, reading from the Old Testament and hanging on the words of a tattered copy of a letter from an apostle of Jesus.
The liturgy progresses through several stages prescribed by the synod or governing body of the church. Other than the sermon, nearly everything is read from the Bible or common prayer book.
In general the liturgy progresses through the following:
- Call to Worship — Recognition of God and invitation to join in His worship.
- Communal Confession — Congregational pray for forgiveness.
- The Word — Recitations of Old and New Testament passages. This followed by a sermon.
- Statement of Belief — Recitation of the Apostles’ or Nicene creed.
- Collection — Passing of collection plate or basket.
- Offertory — Offerings are presented with communion emblems.
- Communion — Blessing, and distribution of emblems.
- Thanksgiving — Expression of thanks by the congregation through song and prayer.
- Dismissal — Sending out of the congregation to carry God’s word to the world.
With respect to the Holy Sacrament, I find the interplay of the offering by individuals and receiving of communion interesting. Each person has an opportunity to give a donation into the collection plate, thus symbolically preparing themselves to receive the grace of Christ.
At the Catholic service, I noticed several mothers giving coins and bills to their children so that they could each make an offering. These are then presented to the priest and may be placed on or near the altar as part of the communion rite.
The invitation is then given for all to come forward and partake of the body and blood of Christ.
A few observations:
Like the Catholic service, Episcopal communion utilizes the sanctus when each emblem is presented by the priest. Rev Sturgeon indicated that this may differ from one congregation to another, but the intent is to punctuate the presentation of the emblems with an auditory experience. Occasionally, incense is used, again as a stimulus of the senses when participating in communion.
According to one seminarian, historically, the sanctus was a way to announce to observers outside of the building to pause for a moment of prayer in consideration for the sacredness of the moment.
Wine or grape juice are offered from common cups. The exception is the Presbyterian traditional service. In this service the broken bread and small cups are distributed to the congregation as they remain seated. All other services have the members approach the alter to receive communion.
St. John’s uses gluten-free bread that is prepared by five women of the congregation.
Like the Catholic service, any remnants from communion at St. John’s are considered sacred and should not be simply discarded. They are kept in a compartment at the front of the sanctuary until they are consumed. This may be through communion offered to home-bound members or remnants are disposed in a proscribed fashion, such as feeding to birds. As long as remnants are present, a candle burns next to the holding place.
Presbyterian communion prayer comes from “The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving,” which, Rev Derek Forbes explained, is very long. Typically, the priest or priests will read selected passages instead of the fully prayer.
Latter-day Saint communion differs in a number of ways from those previously discussed.
First, the LDS church, for better or worse, is very democratic. While strongly hierarchical in church governance, local church administration and operation is done by lay members. Communion typically involves about 12 ordained males. Since nearly every male member is ordained to some order of the priesthood, it is not uncommon for several to be invited from the congregation immediately before the meeting in order to augment the young men that are given primary responsibility.
Second, in emulation of Old Testament principles, LDS doctrine and theology are formed around a covenantal relationship with God. Nearly all LDS rites, sacraments, or ordinances are couched in a covenantal language, baptism being the exception.
Third, the LDS church is very practical, and efficient. Rather than presenting a whole loaf of bread for communion, store-bought, pre-sliced bread is typically used. This practice may differ significantly from one congregation to another. I know that some use bread made by members
LDS communion is offered as the initial action at Sunday worship meetings. In contrast to the memorial or sacramental rites of other churches, the LDS communion serves an additional purpose. While it would be considered non-sacramental from a formal perspective, it is not strictly memorial.
Drawing from the covenantal theology (footnote 2), the sacrament prayers serve not only as a call to remember Jesus, but also to commit to willingness. I explore this in more depth in A Covenant of Willingness. As summary, I’ll briefly explain the blessing on the bread found in LDS scripture.
O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ,
to bless and sanctify this bread
to the souls of all those who partake of it;Moroni 4:3; D&C 20:77
that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and
witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father,
that they are willing to
take upon them the name of thy Son,
and always remember him,
and keep his commandments which he hath given them,
that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen
So, we are to eat in remembrance of the body of Jesus Christ and witness we are:
willing to: take upon [us] the name of [Jesus Christ], and
willing to: always remember him, and
willing to: keep his commandments
Through our willingness, we are then entitled to receive the Spirit of Christ.
Each Christian church has something that enhances my understanding of communion. A few lessons learned from my experience so far.
- Communion is what you make of it. There are no magic words uttered by any priest that can make you more Christ-like than you are willing to become.
- The collection plate no longer seems crass to me, but symbolic of the preparation and sacrifice that we should each make as we approach Christ.
- The symbology of the common cup is indicative of the need for all to approach Christ and partake of his grace from the cup He offers. But, distribution of the emblems to congregants has value as well. Christ meets us where we are and we are all responsible (and authorized) to pass the gospel message to our neighbors.
- The simplicity of a Bible-only memorial perspective helped me understand the extent to which we may try to augment and embellish the Word. These embellishments should not displace the core principles of remembering and willingly following Jesus.
- The pomp and ceremony of the orthodox services recognizes the sanctity of what would otherwise be mundane. As Rob Bell often says, “It’s ALL sacred.” But, we often don’t see it.
- No Biblical communion references provide any “How To” instructions. Bread and “cup” offered by Christ: Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:15-20, 24:28-31. John does not give account of bread and cup at last supper, but does record metaphoric relationship of bread and “drink”: John 6:31-35; John 6:35:52-59. Bread eaten or blessed by apostles: Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7; Acts 20:9-11; Acts 27:33-36. Bread and “cup” offered as communion emblems: 1 Cor 10:16-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26. Feeding of multitudes has some parallels to communion: Mark 6:40, 8:6, and other places.
- NRSV, NET, and NIV use “covenant” or “new covenant” in place of KJV’s “new testament” in Mark 14:24, Matt 26:28, and Luke 22:20.