Sunday, 17 August 2014

Holy Communion and symbolism

The Holy Communion service is shot through with very powerful symbolism, much of which I suspect, goes unnoticed by the average worshiper. This is not a criticism because until I stepped the other side of the Lord's Table, I was oblivious to the why's and what's of what went on. So here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

When the priest takes the chalice to the server and he/she passes the water and the wine, the reason why both are included is not to ensure that the wine is watered down and not too strong, but for a much deeper and more profound reason. The water represents the human nature of Christ and the wine the divine nature. In Christ there is no division between the two but he was fully human and divine at the same time. So just as you cannot separate water and wine once they have mingled together in the cup, so you cannot separate the humanity and divinity of Christ.

So the water and the wine mixed together represent a powerful biblical and doctrinal statement about the nature of Christ.

Another important symbol is the water poured over the fingers of the priest after he has received the bread and prepared the cup. It's purpose is, of course, practical in ensuring that the fingers that handle the bread are clean. But more than that they represent his prayer that his heart is also washed so that he is ready to stand in the place of Christ at the Lord's Table.

All of this points, of course, to something very real and powerful occurring whenever people gather for Holy Communion. This is underlined by St. Paul who writes to the Corinthians warning them of the consequences of unworthily receiving the body and blood of Christ. Take the following passage from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

"27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep."

Later in the 16th and 17th century the children of the Reformers tried to reinterpret this passage to remove any understanding of the Holy Communion as anything other than being merely symbolic. To them the bread and wine "represents" the body and blood of Christ, rendering the whole thing rather empty and, frankly, meaningless and powerless. But clearly Paul - and Jesus - see it in opposite terms. Jesus said, clearly, "this is my body/this is my blood" and St. Paul, as we have seen above, says that treating it in any other way, except with due reverence for what it is, is foolish and, frankly, dangerous.

But having said all that we also must, I believe, avoid any attempts at over-definition here about how exactly the bread is or becomes the body of Christ and how the wine is or becomes the blood of Christ. Such attempts never do justice to what, after all, is a deep and profound mystery. Suffice to say that it is what it says on the tin and not try and quench our spiritual appetites for more of Christ by reducing it all to the lowest level of definition. 

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