Today many Christian churches celebrate World Communion Sunday. Communion, or the Eucharist, has its roots in the Jewish Passover feast, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples on the night before the betrayal that led to his death. In a rented room, surrounded by the twelve, Jesus broke bread and passed around the second cup of wine, reforming a familiar ritual by offering a fresh midrash to his actions. The bread was now representative of his body, which would be sacrificed for them. The wine was his blood, signifying a new arrangement with God. From now on, his followers were to remember not the exodus from Egypt – Israel’s meta-narrative– but Jesus’ upcoming death, which would enable their own exodus from lives dominated by separation and powerlessness.
In Holy Communion, George Herbert, the 17th century priest and religious poet reflects on his experience of taking the bread and wine.
Not in rich furniture, or fine array
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me does now thy self convey,
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sin.
But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast,
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length,
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sin’s force and art.
Christ could have conveyed himself to us as a King, Herbert imagines, seated on rich furniture, dressed in royal robes, crowned with a golden diadem. But if it were to kingship Jesus had aspired when he came to earth two thousand years ago, he would have stayed distant, powerful and yet “without.” This regal other would have had no impact upon Herbert’s inner life, “leaving within [him] sin.” But through his death, Christ comes to him by “the way of nourishment and strength” - bread and wine, which are his body and blood. These small quantities are able to act as antibiotics, spreading their way into the length of his body and diminishing sin’s “force and art.”
Still, Herbert wonders if this is enough.
Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’outworks, they may control
My rebel flesh, and carrying thy Name
Affright both sin and shame.
Only thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privy key,
Op’ning the soul’s most subtle rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at door attend
Dispatches from their friend.
It seems as if Herbert is after more than healing, more than pardon from his religion. Even if he has been forgiven from past wrongs and been given power to live in ways that are honorable, the heart still yearns for more. The soul’s subtle rooms are waiting to be unlocked. Will grace come and offer a divine friendship, filled with intimate communication?
As Fiona Sampson asks in her poem Communion
If I’m you, or you me-
Enlarge our intimacy.
Becoming one with God infers intimacy. Just as the wine and bread become a part of the person who eats them, so God, interpenetrating the self, becomes part of me, as I am part of God. This is what Jesus is at when he tells his disciples upon leaving the last supper that, after his death and resurrection they will “know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
This coming together, engaging in communion, has a third element, however. Not only are we made whole within ourselves, not only joined with the Divine, but as we take communion we connect with a community that stretches across the globe, and moves freely through thousands of years. The spiritual nature of this community makes it seem in some ways virtual, but that doesn’t mean it is not real.
I was reminded of the possibility of unity across cultures and continents as I listened to a TED talk by Eric Whitacre this week. Whitacre, a choral composer and conductor received a youtube clip from a young musician who wanted him to hear her singing the soprano line of a piece he’d written. Touched, and a bit intrigued, he sent out an open invitation to any musician to upload a video of themself singing their part in the song Sleep. He also put up clips of himself directing, as well as a piano accompaniment, so the singers could keep time.
Several months later, he had over 500 respondents and a volunteer to mix the piece. The result was a collaboration resulting in a choir who had never met each other. One conductor, one piece, one technician (a nod here to the Holy Spirit, I think) and the result was a unified whole, different parts and harmonies from around the world blended into one.
Communion – the many becoming one. It seems impossible, but it’s not. It’s the goal of a God who is offering an open invitation to join the Godhead. There is one caveat, however. The only way this all works is if those who respond, who take communion, remember. Remember that Jesus came to earth because of Divine Love, loving us enough to give his own body and blood. Remember that it is this love that heals and empowers and then connects us not only with God but also the others who live in love. We need to remember, and then live from that love, nourished by what “creepest into my breast, making thy way my rest.”