A friend of mine from my church asked this question:

“Theological question: which do you think is more important in reference to communion: eating the elements or observing thru prayer/reflection?”

It is a good short question which seems simple. But it opens up a whole can of theological worship worms. Here’s my attempt at a short answer in three parts. The first part has to do with the meaning of the physical eating and drinking, the second part with eating and drinking unworthily, and the third part with potential danger is widespread observational practice in the eucharist. [Fair warning: I am getting far more theological in depth here than I normally do. Come back next week for more jokes and stuff.]

1) Something very real happens in the eucharistic act of eating and drinking. It is symbolic, but also beyond symbolic. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Eucharist means something, but it also is a means of something: grace.[/highlight] There is a tension in much of Christian worship between the physical and the spiritual. It is an excess, I think, to lean to far to one or the other. To mark the Eucharist as merely a physical transfer of magically transferred elements is too much. To mark the Eucharist as merely a spiritual transfer of energized particles via the ether is too much. The mystery of the Eucharist means  a spiritual thing and a physical thing is happening. And the more we learn of ourselves, the world, and Scripture, we learn that it is unwise to too rigidly divide the spiritual from the physical, the soul from the body, the spirit from the mind. This move may be, in fact, heresy.

2) Scripture notes that participating physically in the Eucharist can be damaging to us spiritually, and even physically if we do so unworthily. Hard to sum this up in a few lines (I devoted my entire masters thesis on this claim by Paul: The Pauline Concept of Self-Examination in 1 Corinthians 11, so limiting this to a paragraph is painful). However, the most unworthy posture is that of relying on ones own righteousness to certify worthy reception–so mere confession in “self-examination” is all that is needed. None should refrain from participation in the Eucharist because of their sin… they can confess & receive right before they take. In fact, I have found that the Eucharist is the best “altar call” in any church. Whenever I lead this portion of the service, I offer an opportunity to confess one’s sins and receive Christ as one receives his body and blood in community. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]The Eucharist is the best conversion opportunity of all[/highlight]. It is better than any other way to receive Christ, for in the Eucharist you can initiate and start to receive all else that comes from receiving Christ in the same moment, rather than having it sprung on you later in a colossal Christian bait-and-switch. It exceeds the prayer altar breakdown, the campmeeting high, the door to door coercion, the extreme-tract-evangelized, the force-fed-sinners-prayer, etc. All those other ways are permissible, no doubt. Indeed I came to Christ in one of those above ways. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Each of us comes to Christ in our own way, but each of us must submit to Him in His Way[/highlight]. However, I find that Communion is common to us all, regardless of our liturgical practice–and it is the best way to convert and immediately be drawn into the great tradition and fellowship of the Church. Quite simply: the Lord’s Table in a Church is the best place to join the eternal fellowship of the Table of the Lord for the first time. I have seen hundreds drawn to Christ for the first time through communion, who afterwards told me it was their “first believing communion.” Baptism should then follow, of course. But let’s save that for another day.

3) To sum up my advice in this matter, I think it can become problematic to encourage observation as some kind of standard part of the Eucharist. I am very open Church in the way I feel we should worship. Nothing is more diverse and more unified than Christian worship. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]In the veneration of the singular Christ Christians have invented a billion blessed ways to venerate His singularity. [/highlight]This is part of the special genius of Christendom and I do not wish to hold back the diversity of application with undue dogma. But I am reminded of the excesses of the Middle Ages which included bizarre separations in the priesthood of all believers. Lest we forget to learn from history, we should be reminded that it became common practice to listen for the bell when the priest rang it (traditionally done prior to lifting the host) and then to glance over make sure one simply “observed the raising of the host”–even if it was a peasant at work in the village doing something else, one could “look over” at that most holy moment of an outdoor holy mass and “that was enough” participation to “count” (it was said). It is no coincidence that at this moment, in Latin, the priest would utter in the liturgy the phrase: “hoc est corpus meum” (this is my body). This is, of course, where the non-latin speaking masses derived the magical incantation “hocus pocus.”

I would have concern about encouraging observation in a broad way over participation in the Eucharist. It is not wrong for a few who choose for some special exception. [highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]Some worship practices are not sins of commission for the worshippers but may be sins of omission for the leadership.[/highlight] It should not be a standard practice, lest we develop our own abracadabras though distant separation in what is our most participatory part of Christian worship.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

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