Saturday, September 15, 2007

Holy Communion as a Wholly Impersonal Meal

Holy Communion has all the trappings of a sentimental, personal meal. The bread and wine are given to you, and you are reminded that the bread was broken for you, and the blood was shed for you. You know that you receive Communion for the forgiveness of your sins, and to be in communion with other believers. Aesthetically, the music is often familiar, maybe even soft, almost like a lullaby. The mood around you is serious, and to receive communion can be seen as an opportunity to grow in your faith, to be close to God, to experience that concept of grace up close and personal. And then there’s the fact that often, when people commune, it’s at sentimental times of the year, like Christmas and Easter. Communion for you, in its familiarity, can help it to feel more and more personal.

So if it’s a personal meal, a meal that offers the personal forgiveness of sins, shouldn’t I, as a pastor, say everyone’s name as I offer them the bread and/or wine? If this is a meaningful event in the life of the recipient, shouldn’t I highlight that moment by adding a personalized touch, making sure they know that Jesus’ body was broken specifically for them? Not only them, to be sure, but to them as much as anyone else? Logic would say yes, if we accept the premise the Holy Communion is a personal meal.

But I say no. To personalize communion, to name the recipient is to cheapen the moment, to play into all the sentimentality the ritual seems to offer, but doesn’t. And please see this only as a small example of a much larger issue as it relates to worship in general: there is a certain danger when community rituals get so familiar we think of them in personal terms. At baptism, we says some very heavy things, and parents make enormous promises. Yet, it seems at times that the sentimentality of the adorable baby in her white baptismal linens overshadow the theological significance of the moment for the whole community. I’m no fan of private baptisms because they overemphasize the personal nature as opposed to the corporate significance of the moment.

Perhaps the most gaudy example of this corruption of corporate ritual is in the modern wedding. While there has always been some cognitive dissonance about whether marriage is a sacred or a secular event, the use of sacred space and sacred trappings for a marriage that has wholly secular intentions strikes me as drastic misuse of space. Not to say that the holiest of marriages don’t have their problems as well; they most certainly do! But the point here is that in personalizing corporate rituals, we begin a process of becoming selfish, legalistic, or self-righteous.

To take it a step further, I see this as a more common problem in Protestant worship than Catholic worship. One of the reasons I have always felt very comfortable in Roman Catholic worship (besides the liturgy), even as a Lutheran, is because of the sense of anonymity. Now, there are drawbacks to this, to be sure. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on evangelism, church members may have little interaction, and church life can become institutionalized instead of inspired. But Catholics seem to understand corporate ritual in a much healthier way. The emphasis isn’t so much on changing, but on simply being. It’s like the old adage: “90% of success is just showing up.” I’m not sure who to attribute that to; it’s probably anonymous.

But Protestants tend to demand more than being; they want change. Admittedly, some Protestants demand more change than others. And there is something good in hoping for change, aiming for and achieving an emotional response. Jesus made it pretty clear that repentance (literally “turning around”) was a major part of his message. But how do we know when enough change is enough? And when does this start to veer down the path of works righteousness? And finally, if an emotional response isn’t achieved, what does that say about the efficacy of the ritual? Catholics seem to appreciate communal rituals to the point where they have a power on their own terms.

So Communion as a personal meal seemed to sum this whole discussion up rather tidily. For a Catholic to attend mass and receive Communion, it’s like a way of life. I feel Protestants stress the importance of the moment more, in a more personal way. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I just prefer to think of these corporate rituals in terms of who has gone before me and who will come after me in addition to who is there at the moment. The beauty of Holy Communion is not just that I am emotionally settled that my sins are forgiven; it’s that I’m in communion with the community of saints that has preceded me for millennia. There’s something to be said for the stoic nature of impersonality in ritual. From my point of view, it doesn’t diminish it all; if anything, it speaks to its true power. It works over and against our sentiment, emotion, and fickle natures. They are timeless in their impersonality, consistent in their repetition. Of all the changes parishioners regularly reflect on taking place in the world, I can take great comfort in detailing all the things that haven’t change in the ritual life of the Church. If these rituals were mere exercises in personal sentiment, I couldn’t take the same comfort.

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