Starting this week and continuing for the next four weeks of Lent, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Eucharist, Holy Communion, etc.). It has been the practice of this church for the past several years to celebrate the Eucharist weekly during the season of Lent or Easter. This year, the elders of our church have agreed to extend that practice beyond just one liturgical season. The one thing the elders asked of me is that I not let it become rote, routine, and empty of meaning. The main way I want to grant that request is by making these five weeks, as we prepare for Easter, into an extended meditation on the many levels of meaning we find in this most central ritual of the Christian faith.
We’re starting this series today as we talk about the Eucharist as a symbol. Next week, we’ll look at the Eucharist as a memorial of what Christ has done for us in the past. In two weeks, we’ll look at the Lord’s Supper as spiritual nourishment. After that, we’ll look at the way in which Communion brings us into fellowship with one another as we partake of one bread and one cup. Finally, on the last week, we’ll look at our present sacramental celebration as an anticipation of the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb at the end of history, described in the Scriptures.
Let’s get started by talking about this idea of the sacrament being ‘just a symbol’: We hear this a lot in Protestant churches: “Catholics believe that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ, but we Protestants believe it’s just a symbol. What do we mean by that? First of all, let’s look at what a symbol is.
First of all, a symbol is something that points to a reality beyond itself.
We live our lives surrounded by symbols. When we drive up to an intersection and see a red octagon, we stop. That particular symbol is one we recognize as a command to stop. This (obviously) is an example of a sign. The reality that the stop sign points to is traffic law. We wouldn’t know about the law if the symbol (i.e. the stop sign) didn’t point to it. But if we were to deliberately disregard the symbol, we would actually be disrespecting the law itself.
A photograph is another kind of symbol. If I were to hold up a photo of my wife and me on our wedding day, there would be no mistaking who or what it was a symbol of. If I were to set that picture in a nice frame and put it on display in my house, it would send a message to all who saw it that Sarah and I love each other and we value the promises we made to each other on that day. If, on the other hand, I were to take that same wedding photo and rip it in half, one might get the sense that something has gone wrong in our marriage.
Symbols are important. Human beings participate in reality through symbols. The way we relate to our symbols is a reflection of the way we relate to the deeper realities they represent. Thus, disregarding a stop sign equals disrespect for the law; ripping up a wedding photo indicates trouble in the relationship.
A sacrament is one kind of symbolic action. When we share bread and wine in the Eucharist, calling them the Body and Blood of Christ, we are participating in the reality to which those symbols point. The way we relate to these symbols is a reflection of our relationship with God in Christ. If we dismiss the Eucharist as unimportant or superstitious, that says something. If we see it as an annoying chore that occasionally gets tacked on to the end of worship, it says something. If we were to put the elements inside a decorative box and adore them from far away, that says something. If we enjoy Communion frequently and reverently, look forward to it, and give it a central place in weekly worship, that too says something about the way we relate to Christ.
There are two reasons why it’s important for us to pay attention to the way we relate to God through symbols. Both of these reasons are rooted in the core principles of our Christian faith. The first reason is creation and the second is incarnation.
Let’s look at creation first. We say in the Nicene Creed that “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” We believe, first and foremost, that this universe was created by God. In the book of Genesis, we read that the Spirit of God calls all things into being, blesses them, and calls them “good”. According to Christianity, matter is not opposed to spirit. Heaven and earth are not enemies, but complementary parts of the whole, created by God. This blessed cosmos is an aide, not a hindrance to understanding God. Christians believe that we are able to learn about God through the elements of this universe in the same way that we might learn about Vincent Van Gogh by studying his paintings or Ludwig Van Beethoven by listening to his symphonies.
Let’s look at incarnation next. Not only do we Christians believe that God created the universe, blessed it, and called it good, we also believe that God takes up residence in the very stuff of this universe. We know God primarily in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we believe that God “became flesh and lived among us.” Christians believe that this flesh and blood human being, an ordinary, poor, Middle Eastern carpenter from Nazareth, is where the reality of God can be experienced most directly. God doesn’t take us out of the world in order to experience the divine presence; God meets us in the world, as one of us. Remember that song from the 90s? “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?” Well, the really wild and crazy thing about us Christians is that we actually believe God is one of us: Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, born into poverty like an animal in a smelly stable in a backwater hick town on the very edge of the Roman Empire. If you want to find God, that’s where to look.
And it was this very same Jesus, fully human and fully divine, who took bread and wine (two of the most common table elements at the time) and said, “This is my body… this is my blood.” When we celebrate the Eucharistic feast, the incarnation is extended: through these elements of bread and wine, Christ takes up residence in us. We become the body of Christ; Christ’s blood flows through our veins. God lives in us now.
This is a new way of thinking for most modern Presbyterians. We’re used to being “people of the book.” We tend to see faith as a matter of the head: it’s all about having the right ideas. But the mystery of Communion is something we experience more with our bodies than with our minds; it’s tangible, visible, and edible. You are what you eat: the Body of Christ on earth.
When the reality of this truth hits home for us, it changes the way we look at the universe. Suddenly, the everyday, ordinary stuff of this world becomes “charged with the grandeur of God,” in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And if this physical world is the place where God lives, then things like science and art, farming and family, industry and activism take on sacred levels of meaning. This world is not just some kind of waiting room for heaven: it is the very House of God.
A regular, weekly celebration of the Eucharist can help this truth become more real in our lives. When we restore Communion to its rightful, central place in Christian worship, we open ourselves to experience new dimensions of Christ’s presence in our lives; we grow in our relationship with God. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic action, but it is not “just a symbol.” Through our celebration of the Eucharist, we Christians actually participate in the reality toward which it points: the mystery of Christ living in us. That’s the main point I want to drive home during this Lenten series on Communion. My hope is that our deepened understanding of this sacrament might transform the way we relate to God, ourselves, and the world. May we look with the eyes of the heart to see this universe for what it truly is: the House of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Spirit.