I love communion.
I love the sanctifying aspect of it, the connection to Christ crucified through the observance of the Last Supper. I love the introspection we are called to engage in, which leads to confession, repentance, and grace.
Communion has always felt deeply spiritual to me, which is probably why I cringed the first time someone handed me one of those pre-packaged jobs–you know what I’m talking about, the little plastic cup of grape juice with the tiny wafer sealed inside the lid. I prefer a loaf of bread, a real cup.
My husband and I took communion at our wedding, as did our guests, while my niece played “In Christ Alone” on the guitar. It was one of my favorite moments of our wedding day, in part because almost everyone in attendance took communion with us. It was a collective time of connection with God.
The word “communion” isn’t actually used in Scripture, but it comes from the Latin word communis, which means “common.” It makes sense to me that over time, the Lord’s Supper began to be called “communion,” because it was common to all. Everyone took part.
What I’m going to say next is going to seem odd in light of what you’ve just read: I haven’t taken communion in almost three years. My church only serves communion once or twice a year, usually on a holiday, and we’re always out of town. As I shared this with various friends, family members, and colleagues over time, I began to understand that a good chunk of the modern church has veered away from a weekly communion service. I’m frustrated by this–I don’t understand why something like communion is apparently so unimportant. I want more connection with God, more reminders of who he is and who I am in him, not less.
I felt myself beginning to question this, beginning to ponder the importance of sacraments in helping shape a person’s spiritual life. Then, at the prompting of several books and a podcast or two, I picked up The Shaping of a Life: A Spiritual Landscape by Phyllis Tickle, a poignant and spiritually rich memoir about the author’s movement toward and exploration of a spiritual life shaped by liturgy and sacrament. It was a timely read.
What are liturgy and sacrament, you ask, and why might they matter? Readers who come from liturgical faiths, bear with me here.
A sacrament is “a Christian rite that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality.” Liturgy is “a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship.” So essentially, liturgy is the collection of all the sacraments observed in community during worship. Therefore, it follows that the “liturgical church” is the church that includes the observance of sacraments in its worship practices.
I’ve heard it argued that liturgy turns faith into religion, that over time it renders worship rote and devoid of inspiration. I am sure this can be true if one is merely going through the motions. But as I’ve read and studied, dipping my toes into liturgical practices like celebrating feast days (Candlemas is tomorrow, FYI), practicing fixed-hour prayer and the Daily Examen, while also studying church history (let me recommend this book), I began to sense that what I’d been missing, the communis, was actually available to me. Continuously. Globally. Transcending hundreds, even thousands, of years.
The lightbulb moment came for me when I realized that (to paraphrase Phyllis Tickle with some liberty here) when we practice liturgy, we are practicing with believers the world over, with believers across the centuries, sometimes even–as with fixed-hour prayer–at the same moment in time. When we celebrate Passover, we are celebrating the same miracle that has been celebrated since the Exodus from Egypt, the same Passover celebrated by Jesus at (you guessed it!) the Last Supper. When we engage in fixed-hour prayer, we join the apostles in Acts 3:1. When we bow before a priest on Ash Wednesday and allow him to trace a cross on our foreheads with ash, we are observing a rite that has been practiced since 325 A.D., in remembrance of our Lord’s triumphant yet humble entry into Jerusalem.
A friend recently described to me how her church is engaging in “21 Days of Prayer and Fasting.” I thought, Why? Why the need to go it alone? Why the need to do it “our own way”? Why, when Lent is almost here and you, church, could engage in a centuries-old, worldwide, interdenominational tradition of prayer and fasting for 40 days?
I find it odd, too, that my pastor recently gave a sermon on the importance of Pentecost, and yet the church doesn’t observe Pentecost. I knew when Pentecost was, and I noticed that it slipped by without even a mention. It mystifies me that the non-liturgical church turns away from the opportunity for unity, for connection with the wider body of believers.
I do understand that the church calendar, or liturgical year, contains many observances that very possibly do not occur on the actual date in history when something happened, and that some people object to it for this reason (note, however, that most Christians still celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 when the accuracy of that date is highly questionable). But I am finding that the church calendar alone is teaching me more about the history of my faith since biblical times than a lifetime of Sunday services has done. I also want to say, what does it matter when we celebrate something? Isn’t the point to simply celebrate, and to do so together, in communis?
Some people argue that not all liturgy is “biblical,” and that this is a problem. Personally, I am finding that all liturgy has biblical roots and reflects biblical purpose, even if the activity itself is not specifically found in Scripture–but I exhort you only to seek God and decide for yourself.
Just as the traditions and rituals we observe within our families are ways we keep alive the moments that connect us to one another in love, so liturgy can help keep alive the flame of God within our hearts. But take this post not as an argument for liturgy, nor one against a lack of liturgy. Take it as an offering, an open door, an invitation to wonder and question and think. You do not have to have been baptized in a liturgical church, or be a member of one, to embrace liturgy; it is available to all of us.
As Christians in the world, two thousand years after the death and resurrection of our Savior, do we not long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, even before heaven? How do we accomplish this? Mission work might be one way, vocational ministry another. And surely, liturgy is yet another. What way will you choose?
- Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey
- Out of the House of Bread by Preston Yancey
- The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle
- Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
- Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Conway Ireton
- Roots & Sky by Christie Purifoy
Photograph © NeONBRAND, used with permission