Vol 9, Num 3 :: 2010.02.05 — 2010.02.18
According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutheran congregations celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday and festival. This confession remains the norm for our practice.
In all cases, participation in Holy Communion is accompanied by catechesis appropriate to the age of the communicant. When infants and young children are communed, the parents and sponsors receive instruction and the children are taught throughout their development.
The holy Supper both feeds us with the body and blood of Christ and awakens our care for the hungry ones of the earth. The dismissal from the service sends us in thanksgiving from what we have seen in God’s holy gifts to service in God’s beloved world.
By God’s gift, the Word and the sacraments are set in the midst of the world, for the life of the world.
Excerpts from “The Use of the Means of Grace”
Adopted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly, August 1997; emphasis added
Right smack dab in the midst of our overly busy fast-food days, my wife Janet and I were recently gifted by our friend Mark with a stunningly memorable, life-giving meal. Near the end of the meal, in fact, I mentioned to the small company of gathered folk that this meal had been a means of grace for me, a “foretaste of the feast to come.” All agreed, with glasses raised, that it was so for them as well.
Curried pumpkin soup, multi-leafed salad, stuffed squash, eggplant awash in root and other vegetables, lovely wines whose color and palate changed with each course, warm cored pears chased by sweet-spiced warming wine and dark chocolate — splendid autumn abundance, gathered and shared with us, conspired to gather us up into the movement of the seasons and celebrated and rooted us in this current time.
The thoughtfulness, the preparation, the presentation, the bounty, the slow and careful movement between courses, and even — and perhaps especially — Mark’s intermittent sacrifice of his own participation for our sake, embodied profound care, honored each of us, and drew us into conversation and relationship with one another. We even sought and gave testimony among ourselves within Mark’s earshot: “How do you know Mark?” “Well, we’ve recently become reacquainted after not seeing each other for thirty years…”
At the end of the evening, the departure, the sending, consisted of lingering handshakes, warm hugs, long looks in each other’s eyes accompanied by gracious pleading and prayer: “This has been so great. I hope that we see each other again very soon.” “It feels like we’ve known each other for a long time.” We said our thanks and good-byes with full bellies and fuller hearts, yet hungry for more: more time together, more times like this, and more tables, including our own, abundant with welcome and seasoned with love.
Ponder this delightful and memorable meal: seasonal foods in multiple courses with marvelous presentation arising from thoughtful planning, time-consuming preparation, and care-filled attention in its execution…hospitable hosting bringing strangers into direct relationship with each other to become friends. And, as beautiful, bountiful, satisfying, and satiating as the meal was, by evening’s end we departed into Diaspora hungry for more, moved to reflection about how we might open our own tables to others with such bountiful grace.
What might this singular feast suggest for sacramental formation, with particular reference to the Eucharist, if it is to both thoughtfully embody Christian practices and prepare members to practice faith beyond the congregation itself?
As a beginning, we would do well to focus less on theology and logistics related to reception of the sacrament and to provide more opportunities for participation in various aspects of the preparation and execution of the Eucharistic meal. This may be a rather radical counter-cultural move for Lutheran congregations that have focused almost entirely on the gift aspect of Holy Communion. When catechizing children, new members, and even lifelong members, our tendency is to begin with discussions of Real Presence and end with which hand should be on top when we cradle the bread. These are important aspects of catechesis and they may even support a practice-shaped approach to sacramental formation. My own experience, however, suggests that this approach has not generally opened space for folks to embody Christian practices or to practice Eucharistic faith beyond the congregation. At best, in many cases it has simply made the catechumens good Lutherans with decent table manners at worship.
I am reminded, for example, of a group of some 25 members of a congregation I once served as pastor. These good folks agreed to participate in a focus group as part of my research toward a Doctor of Ministry degree which explored the Eucharist as the missional center for congregations. In the first session I asked folks to each share their answer to the question, “Why do you continue to participate in Holy Communion?” Without a single exception, every person’s answer centered on something like, “It refreshes (or recharges or renews) me.” Well catechized, it appeared that they understood themselves to be little more than recipients of grace.
What would happen, I wonder, if we shifted a significant portion of formational focus from theology and logistical details for recipients to practiced participation in the meal from Mark’s perspective, from the perspective of one given, but also gathering and sharing bountiful grace?
Such formation might include, for example, baking the bread or making the wine, planning the “menu,” inviting and greeting the guests, serving the meal, sharing in the meal (though differently because of also serving it), washing the dishes…all with careful attention to time and place, the movement of the (church) year and the contexts in which people live and in which this particular community’s sacrament is shared.
In some congregations, this approach may suggest a series of brief apprenticeships with those who have given of themselves (usually behind the scenes) to make the meal happen: liturgy planners, those who pick up or order the various supplies, the altar guild, pastors, ushers, greeters and others. It certainly would include discussion of these apprenticeships within an action/reflection model, as well as frequent meals together. Adding experience of and reflection on the daily and congregational meals of participants — and of meals served by soup kitchens or provided by community food pantries — in reference to the Eucharistic feast would begin to move catechumens deeper into the practices of Eucharistic faith and witness in the world, practices like hospitality and welcome, feasting and fasting, household economics, testimony, shaping communities, and care of creation.
In one congregation in which I served, the experience of some of the congregation’s young people with a local food pantry prompted the addition of grocery carts to our narthex. These carts, filled with contributed non-perishable food, were wheeled toward the altar along with the monetary offerings as part of the Eucharistic liturgy and then wheeled to someone’s pickup truck for delivery to the food pantry after worship.
Christian traditions which have emphasized and become accustomed to viewing nearly everything, including and especially the sacraments, as gift and only gift of grace may resist attempts to also practice gathering and sharing that grace as a way to participate in the gathering, giving goodness of God. Yet, is there a better way to be moved from being mere passive recipients to embodying the “Word and sacraments set into the midst of the world for the life of the world”?
Recall those 25 folks who kept coming to the Table because there they each were touched and refreshed by Jesus. After four or five weeks of connecting the Eucharist with the other myriad meals of our lives in these other ways, their responses to the same question that I asked at the outset were quite different. Now their answers were testimonial riffs on the theme, “I come to the meal to be refreshed and renewed by God in Christ so that I can share with others what I receive here.”
Thus, the experience of the Eucharist as gift and as nexus of Christian practices may be deepened through the very rehearsal and embodiment of them. In this way, too, the various tables of daily life, congregational life and life in the community become more explicitly and powerfully means of grace, life-giving feasts for others…the broken-bodied, poured out love of Christ in the midst of the world, for the life of the world.
I know of no one congregation where sacramental formation consists of all or many of these practices. I have initiated and have witnessed a few of them here and there. The effectiveness of this sporadic engagement in practices as part of sacramental formation gives me confident hope that placing practices nearer the center of such formation carries transformative power akin to the foretaste of the feast to come that Mark provided, by grace, for his small band of friends on a Friday night not long ago.