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Be amazed afresh at the wonder of Holy Communion!
Thursday, July 27, 2017, 13:09 (IST)
I once sat in a car overlooking a beautiful coastline which included a long sweep of beach stretching several miles into the distance.
Soon after I arrived, two very excited small children got out of another car nearby, waving their buckets and spades with wild enthusiasm. They were followed, somewhat more slowly, by a couple I took to be their grandparents.
The youngsters were brimming with joy at their imminent beach visit. But the first thing that happened was that grandma and granddad (if that is who they were) led them over to a large sign at the edge of the car-park listing all the potential hazards and difficulties of a trip to the seaside.
Slowly the grandparents read aloud to the children the lengthy series of warnings and possible death-traps listed there. I watched as the youngsters' buckets and spades sagged and their shoulders drooped. When the small party eventually trailed down to the beach, they looked a forlorn and dutiful foursome. All joy had gone. The wonder of the panorama in front of them had been sucked out by the grandparents' over-zealous obsession with tying up every detail in advance.
And it can be the same with Holy Communion – the Lord's Supper, Mass, Eucharist, call it what you will. In an earlier article on our fortnightly journey through Mark's gospel we thought about how Christians easily get tangled up in all sorts of complexities about this. We easily get bogged down in trying to sort out every detail about it, forgetting what should thrill us at the heart of it all.
That's why it's important to step back and wonder afresh at the big picture of what Communion is all about. Because ultimately it is a picture – a breath-taking vista – of what it means to follow Jesus. As former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright says, it's not possible to tie up every detail about Communion. You cannot capture its meaning fully in words, he says. Indeed, 'you can only put it into action. Actions like this are so powerful that sometimes people in the churches have tried to contain or control them, to surround them with more and more words, like trying to cage in a tiger. But the actions – taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread; taking, blessing and giving the cup – cannot be caged.'
So if we step back and take a panoramic view of Communion, what would we say? We would say it is about remembering Jesus (Luke 22v19). It is about proclaiming his death until he comes again (1 Corinthians 11v26). It is about reminding ourselves – and acting out the fact as we take the bread and wine – that spiritually we depend on the broken body and shed blood of Jesus as much as we do physically on food and drink (John 6v53-55). And it is something that should bring us closer not only to Christ but to his people, the church (1 Corinthians 11v29-34).
We also see how this panoramic view stretches back in time not only to the cross – but even further to the ancient ritual of Passover, for this is the context in which Jesus held the Last Supper (Mark 14v12-25). Passover commemorated the liberation of God's people from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb as a sign they were trusting in God to save them and would thus be 'passed over' when plague struck the rest of the land.
Again Tom Wright puts it so well when he says of Jesus' actions with the bread and wine: 'This Passover-meal-with-a-difference is going to explain, more deeply than words ever could do, what his action, and passion, the next day really meant.' For as St Paul put it, when speaking of the cross, 'Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed for us'. As we depend on that final, ultimate sacrifice, to which the Passover pointed forward, we can be assured that God's righteous judgement 'passes over' us. We do not merit this; we can't earn it; it's offered as a gift. That is the wonder of the cross.
So Holy Communion gives us a panoramic picture of God's saving activity in the cross of Christ, and our absolute dependence upon that. There is much more, of course, that could be said. And perhaps there is a time and a place for that. But the danger of trying to tie up every last detail is that, like the well-meaning grandparents, we suck the joy and wonder out of the vista of salvation which the bread and wine open up before us.
As Tim Keller has put it: 'The abstract, invisible concepts of Christ's propitiatory, vicarious, and substitutionary death for us are translated into a palpable sign – the bread and the cup – that engages the physical senses of sight and touch, taste and smell. All this makes Jesus' sacrifice more "real" to us, and at that moment most participants find personal interaction with God is profoundly enhanced and facilitated.' My friend, may that be true for you. Pray it will for me.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A