Lesson 3: God’s Presence in the Communion Meal

Holy CommunionIf you asked most Christians about God’s presence, I suspect they would think you were talking about the Sacrament of Holy Communion. That is a good thing in as much as the meal is the central act of our worship and therefore should be where the divine is most manifest. However, it is also terribly sad as it focuses on one of the most embarrassing controversies in the holy Catholic Church. The very place where God’s people should come together in unity has become a major point of church division. When Protestants and Catholics explain their separation, one of their primary justifications cites the insolvable conflict over the way Christ is present in the Communion meal. And Protestant denominations deepen the shame when they use additional explanations to further divide God’s people.

If we look at this situation from the perspective of the two criteria I have examined in the previous two lessons, Christ’s promise to be there certainly makes the Eucharist one of the primary means of grace. Participation in this special meal should open us up to discern Christ’s presence in every meal we eat with one another. However, the Church’s disgraceful witness in offering the sacrament can obscure the graceful divine presence.

The most obvious example is her making the meal a privilege of membership that can be used to deny outsiders a place at the Lord’s table. This lack of hospitality makes it appear that Jesus who expressed God’s love by eating with sinners and tax collectors now associates only with a special elite.

Our witness is also wanting when we insist sharing the meal demands a proper understanding of the means. Some insist Christ is physically present only when an ordained priest speaks words that brings a metaphysical change in the bread and wine. Others think the presence is dependent on the elements without requiring a metaphysical change. Even others think the elements are simply symbols. And some associate the presence with the act of remembering that makes the past present. Ivan Illich suggests Jesus might have spoken the words “This is my body” with his arms extended indicating those gathered as the Body of Christ. Searching for a proper understanding is obviously fruitless.

Requiring membership in our particular community or belief in an authorized explanation of what takes place certainly makes God’s grace dependent on human requirements. It trivialities God’s love much as we do when thinking we must be able to define exactly and completely how we love our spouses. We make our best witness when we simply trust Jesus’ word to be present when we eat together and proceed to gather around his table in faith.

We certainly can and should declare that the sins of the celebrant do not prevent Christ’s graceful presence. However, we have to admit our faulty witnesses can create difficulties. Let me quickly suggest some ways we can make good ones:

  • Every effort should be made to make sure everyone knows that they are welcomed to the Lord’s table.
  • Care should be taken to emphasize the sacrament is a community love feast rather than an individual receiving of magic food.
  • The gathering should involve the willingness to share the burdens of those sharing the table with us.
  • It should also indicate forgiving any sins committed against us by the brothers, sisters, and strangers eating with us.
  • Those communing should be reminded that Christ is also present when they eat with one another anywhere.

It is these that reveal Christ’s presence far better than our feeble attempts to maintain a pure community or explain how God’s grace works.

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