Depending on the church you attend, you may take communion corporately on its “scheduled” Sunday each month. Perhaps your church provides the elements weekly for you to celebrate at your desire. You may “pass the plate” of crackers, or perhaps you walk to a table to pull off a piece of bread. Regardless, there is a consistent theme: Communion is special, it is sacred. We examine our hearts for unconfessed sin, and we approach the bread and the cup with a somber respect in gratitude for the history changing act that Jesus performed through His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
As we look back at the early years of the Church in the East, we see a transition in how communion was observed. In the time frame between roughly 300 and 400 AD, the church in Eastern Europe (namely Turkey) gained visibility and elevation under the Edict of Milan, issued by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. What was once an underground movement, thriving through its persecution, was now transforming into a cultural institution by empirical permission.
To quote James Hastings Nichols on the topic, “…the worship of the early church was swiftly elaborated to suit the new social position. The men and women who gathered for Christian worship were no longer knit by intimate bonds such as prompted the mutual economic aid of the early church. The rich were now willing to listen to fine preaching from an Ambrose or Chrysostom and to contribute to great philanthropic undertakings, but they had no intention of removing the barriers that hindered full community with the poor. Civic and political interests now claimed religious sanction and support where earlier Christians had looked instead to the coming Kingdom.”
The bread and the cup were formerly celebrations of redemption among people that clung to each other for subsistence and shelter. In the absence of the intense community that existed before the government’s endorsement of Christianity, the bread and the cup were no longer about celebrating as a mystical community in Christ. Now, they served to create a sense of mystical brotherhood. Where worship was originally an intimate encounter that was worth risking your life over, it had become an ornate and opulent display designed to clean up and dress up this “shabby” community of Christ into something dignified that would suit everyone who wanted to participate.
“This called for a great elaboration of liturgy and architectural magnificence and every conceivable accessory to create a mood of participation in a mystical body so conspicuously contrasted to social and ethical realities. The Russian word, sobornost, which means ‘cathedralness’ and ‘togetherness,’ is a clue to the nature of this sacramental life in which men participate in the body of Christ although nearly every aspect of their daily human relations would seem to deny it.”
So, what is communion for you and me? Is it a formal ritual that intends to unify its participants? Or, is it a grateful response to Jesus Christ for plucking our souls from certain death and calling us into deep community with Him and our fellow believers? Ultimately, this examination raises a lot of questions about our church experience as a whole! Is church the place or the service I attend to find community in the body of Christ, or does the body of Christ happen to converge regularly in places of worship in order to celebrate the collective life in Christ outside of the walls of the place of worship?
Do we find more beauty in the ceremony or in the sacrifice that Jesus became?