For some, “Communion Eucharist” might seem a bit repetitive. But “communion” and “Eucharist” are not the same thing: communion refers to the joining together or union of two or more things or people to create something new [Latin, cum (“with”)+mūnus (“gift”)]. Eucharist, however, refers to the Greek word for “gratitude” or “giving thanks” [Greek εὐχαριστία, eukháristos, from εὖ (eû, “good”) + χάρις (kháris, “grace, favor”). Each speaks to different aspects of the same sacramental meal practiced by Christians around the world.
We often refer to things like Communion/Eucharist, prayer, baptism, or even charity as “practices” of our faith. I have long used that idea to teach youth that we seek to practice these things together so they they might become natural expressions of our relationships with God, one another, and the world. Church—that is, gathering as a community —is itself a “practice” in which we seek to be in communion with others which shapes and informs our relationships with (understandings of, engagement with, and experience of) God.
The first Sunday of every October is World Communion Sunday (October 4, 2015) for many Christians. It was started, evidently, by folks at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1933 (go Presbyterians! … You radicals!). A few years later it was adopted by the then Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (one of the two predecessor denominations of today’s Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.). In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (predecessor to today’s National Council of Churches) adopted it and began promoting it world wide.
I don’t know how many churches celebrate World Communion Sunday across the globe, but it’s a pretty incredible thing to consider: through Communion/Eucharist, we are related to, connected with, and sharing in ministry with churches and congregations around the world!
Traditionally the congregation I serve, University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, AZ, passed plates full of bits of bread and small plastic “shot glasses” of grape juice. Several years ago “intinction” was introduced: dipping a piece of bread into a shared cup, and then eating the dipped bread. A couple of years go our session (board of elders) decided to make intinction our standard practice. One of the reasons for this move was to invite those sharing the meal to more actively engage in the meal by coming forward to the table (of course, roaming servers bring trays with the elements to those who are physically unable to come forward). For many this act of coming forward invites them to more actively engage in the communal nature of the sacrament, including the idea of a shared cup. Intinction also greatly simplifies the set up and clean up, and significantly reduces waste through the throwing away or having to clean hundreds of tiny cups.
This year, in honor of World Communion Sunday, people were invited to serve one another at one of six small tables covered in fabrics representing cultures all over the world. We had servers take a plate full of torn bread and a goblet full of juice to each table. Worshippers were then invited to go to any of the six tables spread out along the outer edges of the sanctuary, meet who ever is already there to meet them, and offer the elements to each other two-by-two.
We tried this on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week last spring, and it was exciting to see people really get into it. Many found it then to be surprisingly enriching. Last Maundy Thursday and this past World Communion Sunday, it was clear that some found this way of experiencing communion as awkward or confusing, while others it was clear this was a deeply spiritual experience. I saw people helping each other figure out what to do together (instructions were given before the congregation was invited to share in the meal, but it’s one thing to hear instructions and another to put them into practice). I saw families serving each other. I heard people who didn’t really know each other briefly getting acquainted. I was surprisingly overwhelmed by the act of offering to and receiving from a person with whom I have shared a difficult and even painful relationship. It was a humbling moment that I hope might lead to healing.
As I looked out and watched the relatively controlled chaos of people serving one another, I was struck by the image of a community wrestling with what is often the ambiguity and clouded vision that is faith in communal life.
In an adult class I am teaching about Eucharist on Sunday mornings during Sunday School, I am asking some hard questions that challenge our assumptions about this ancient practice. We are all being challenged to broaden our understanding of the ritual meal. During this class on World Communion Sunday, after worship, we spent nearly half the class reflecting on our experience that morning of the tables of Communion. Some loved it. Others felt positively challenged by it. Others did not like it at all. Like a typical intellectually motivated Presbyterians (we tend to be a pretty heady bunch), we got hung up in a discussion of the pros and cons of the mechanics of the experience, even trying to “fix” some of the things that caused some of the confusion and discomfort. But some of that ambiguity and discomfort was supposed to be there, inviting us to reflect more deeply during and after about the meaning of this practice that I imagine many of us take for granted. They did that, too!
I wondered later if another question we might ask ourselves is something like: As we experienced this idea of serving one another at tables (plural), sharing with one another, how do we carry our sense of connection—to one another as well as to God—with us into a world that seems to feel increasingly disconnected along all sorts of lines and borders we have established and built to presumably protect ourselves? Jesus fought to beak down so many barriers and bring people closer to one another, to see each other for who we are: children of a loving, compassionate, merciful, and just God. What might God be inviting us to consider differently were we to embody Eucharistic lives? Might such a life think differently about what it looks like to love God and love neighbor? What about loving oneself? Your thoughts?
1. “Communion” at wiktionary.org, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/communion (accessed October 6, 2015).
2. “εὐχαριστία” at wiktionary.org, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/εὐχαριστία#Ancient_Greek (accessed October 6, 2015).
3. From Ancient Greek κυριακόν (kuriakón), neuter form of κυριακός (kuriakós, “belonging to the lord”), from κύριος (kúrios, “ruler, lord”). [From wiktionary.org, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/church (accessed October 6, 2015).
4. This experiment was inspired by the work of Cláudio Carvalhaes, Associate Professor of Homiletics and Worship at McCormick Theological Seminary, in particular Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).