Communion. It’s one of the few rites that Christians around the world share… remembering the death of Jesus for our sins.
I still remember my very first communion. I was 18, a college freshman, and I’d been a believer for less than three weeks. Every quarter, our campus Christian fellowship gathered the Friday evening before finals week to share bread and wine together. As ignorant as I was, I understood that this was an important occasion, a time for introspection, repentance, and gratitude.
At our informal fellowship meeting, we used red wine and French bread. The first church I attended had quarter-inch crackers and grape juice. Since then, I’ve had communion with tiny bread cubes, huge hunks broken off a steaming loaf, pita bread, Wonder bread, matzo crackers, and saltines, as well as fruit juice of various sorts and wine (with and without alcohol). I don’t normally give much attention to the physical make-up of the elements, considering that the actual type of bread and “wine” used is nowhere as important as what they stand for, but last weekend challenged this view.
Pete and I were in Arizona on a staff retreat with Paraclete, a ministry we partner with. Before leaving Sunday morning, we all shared communion with elements provided by the retreat center.
As the plate was passed around, I discovered that instead of bread, it held quarter-sized flat, round wafers. I’m sure these wafers are familiar to many Christians but I had never encountered them before. They looked very official, and were even imprinted with a cross. But as I put one in my mouth, it dissolved into a gummy mass that stuck to my teeth and resisted my efforts to swallow it. This really bothered me.
Communion bread is supposed to represent the body of Jesus, broken for us, but these wafers were whole. Jesus is the most “real” Person who ever lived, but the wafers were insubstantial—I was reminded of the cornstarch-based packing “peanuts” that dissolve in water. Jesus is our source of abundant life, but the wafers were tasteless. Jesus is the nourishing Bread of life, while the wafers seemed to represent the exact opposite.
When I chew a piece of bread during communion, I’m reminded that Jesus had to lose His life for me. It’s almost as if my teeth are making the holes in his hands, feet, and side. When I swallow the bread, I remember that the Holy Spirit lives inside me. As the bread is digested, it becomes an integral part of who I am, just as my life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
The tray of tiny cups arrived, and I chose a full one, hoping to wash down the glob of wafer still stuck to my molars. As we drank together, I expected wine, or at least grape juice—so I was startled by a sickly sweet flavor I couldn’t quite place. At first I thought it was some sort of mixed fruit drink. This was a bit alarming, as I’m rather allergic to apples, and even that much juice would have made our twelve hour drive home pretty miserable.
But after asking around, I discovered that no, it was grape Kool-Aid. While relieved that I wouldn’t be suffering an allergic reaction, the idea of Kool-Aid was just as disturbing. Aside from the Jim Jones implications, Kool-Aid is artificial, a cheap imitation of what God has created. I felt it cheapened the precious blood that Jesus shed for me.
Since Sunday, I have given our communion services quite a bit of thought. The first communion occurred at the Last Supper, Jesus celebrating the Passover with His disciples, so He would have used unleavened bread. In a day without refrigeration, grape juice would quickly spoil and/or ferment, so it’s not a surprise that the Bible says the cup contained wine. Yet, for the most part, that isn’t what I’ve been served by the churches I’ve attended. Does it matter what we use for bread and wine? Or does the meaning behind the ritual trump all else?
I readily admit—while I struggled with last week’s wafers and Kool-Aid, they didn’t keep me from remembering Jesus’ death until He comes.
What do you think? How does your church or tradition celebrate communion? What about doing it that way makes it meaningful to you?