For more than 15 years, I snuck into the Catholic mass, taking the elements while knowing full well that Catholic doctrine allows only Catholics to share in the family meal. A guest in someone’s home should abide by the family rules, and I did not. For that, I repent.
My deeper sorrow, however, is not for what I did among Catholics, but rather, for what I did not do among my fellow Protestants—namely, experience power and joy in the sacrament. In fact, if God hadn’t intervened dramatically, I might still be searching elsewhere.
At my first pastorate, I was surprised to discover that Communion was celebrated only quarterly. Our denomination was in merger talks with another denomination whose tradition includes weekly Communion. How often to offer the sacrament threatened to become a major stumbling block to uniting. The discussions, however, never seemed to reach beyond simply affirming that each congregation was free to do as it pleased. A rich opportunity for education and renewal was thereby miscast as an issue of tolerance and individual rights—and lost.
Those who defended our own congregation’s quarterly Communion generally believed, as one woman put it, “If you do it more often, it’s just not special anymore.” To that, a fellow pastor remarked to me, “Quarterly? Would they say the same about making love?”
I encouraged the church to reconsider our policy, and devoted a month to preaching and teaching on the subject. Afterward, I was pleased when the congregation voted to increase Communion celebrations to monthly.
The usual mass was being celebrated, and with a sigh of relief I stepped into a pew and knelt down. At the appropriate time, I joined perhaps a hundred others in the line to the altar, and when I reached the priest, held out my hands for the host. Turning as usual with the wafer in my hands, I took several steps back towards the pew.
“Excuse me!” a voice rang out from behind me.
Thinking nothing of it, I continued walking.
“Excuse me!” the voice said again, aimed clearly in my direction.
I turned to look, and to my shock, the priest was walking toward me.
Silence fell over the huge, cathedral sanctuary as the dozens of others in line stopped and turned to look at me.
“Excuse me,” the priest repeated matter-of-factly, “but you have to take that up front.”
“Uh … pardon me?” I blurted out, confused.
“Are you a visitor?” the priest asked.
I nodded, embarrassed.
“Are you a Catholic?”
“Actually, well … no, I’m not.”
The priest reached out his hand.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to return the host to me,” he said courteously. “But I’d like very much to meet with you after the mass. Would you please wait for me so we can talk then?”
“Uh … well, sure,” I stammered, handing him the host. The priest smiled, then turned and went back to his position.
A surprising sign
Quickly, I retreated to a rear pew. Heart pounding, I leaned back hard, hoping to blend into the pew’s wood.
I couldn’t believe it. What in the world was going on? At least we’d already done the “Passing of the Peace,” so I wouldn’t have to look anyone else in the eye.
At the last phrase of the benediction, I turned and fled the sanctuary, beelining for my car. When I rounded the corner, I checked my rearview mirror and glimpsed the priest out front, turning as if looking for someone.
Communing with Christ in the present
When Jesus breaks the bread and commands his followers, “Do this in memory of me,” he is not telling them—or us—merely to think about what he did in the past. He means what my mother meant when she told me, “Remember your grandmother on her birthday.”
It’s not simply to stir up a mental image of Grandma, but to write her a letter, buy her a gift, give her a phone call—to interact with her in the present.
The difference between remembering a person in the past and actually being with that person in the present—especially someone you love—is quite dramatic.
Similarly, the biblical stories of Jesus are a genuine comfort to Christians. But to look forward to communion with excitement, you must believe that Jesus will actually be there at the table with you, to meet you where you are now.
The Risen Lord spoke to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, teaching them many things. But it was not until “he broke the bread” that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
The breaking of the bread led them to see that Jesus was indeed in their midst, which motivated them to get up “at once” to run and share the Good News with the others that “He is risen, indeed!” The sacrament of Communion is a preface to evangelism.
One Maundy Thursday we invited people to come forth and kneel for the sacrament, and the entire congregation responded. After, many came to me to say “how meaningful” the evening had been, but I was deflated. I know when I have preached well, but that night I was utterly flat.
Later I sat alone in the empty sanctuary reflecting on the service.
As I leaned back and took a deep breath, a stillness settled over me. Suddenly I knew the Risen Christ had been present and active during Communion that night, as always. My job was not to preach mightily, but simply to be the faithful doorman who announces the entrance of the Master, then steps back to open the door. At worship, my task is to lead the congregation into the presence of God. Sometimes that happened by preaching, but not necessarily at the sacrament.
I went to the kneeler and asked God to forgive me my pride and presumption. I released all my compulsion to “be in charge” of worship, all my responsibility to “make things happen,” my desire to perform as a preacher.
A deep sense of relief washed over me.
Protestant pastors and congregations alike could receive more from God during worship by stepping back and allowing the Risen Christ to come and do his transforming work among us. I’m learning that nowhere is this reality more alive than in the sacrament of Communion.
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Gordon Dalbey is the author of Broken by Religion, Healed by God: Restoring the Evangelical, Sacramental, Pentecostal, Social Justice Church. (Civitas Press, 2011). Visit him at abbafather.com