When the time came for communion, the pastor simply had the elements passed, virtually without comment. There was no explanatory ritual.
The layman who reported this admitted he went away from the service with a sense of holy disgust. His friend had little church background, was not a person of faith, and might therefore be mystified by those unexplained little cups and bits of bread. Or the absence of explanation may have robbed him of spiritual enlightenment.
Ritual, in the present case, means the prescribed words and actions that we use in church repeatedly to refresh memory, clarify understanding and deepen conviction. “The ritual of the Lord’s supper reinforces our understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the grace He imparts as we remember.” Served with skill, and in the Spirit, the words themselves can do real work in communicants’ hearts and minds.
Our forefathers bequeathed to us the core arrangement of these words to accompany the symbolic actions of the Lord’s Supper. What value should we seek in them? (1) They define who may partake. (2) They review for us the meaning of Christ’s atonement. (3) They remind us that repentance is always needed in the Christian life, and they prompt us to repent. (4) They also prompt us to review the seriousness of our commitment to Christ. (5) They unite us as a body around common declared Christian beliefs. (6) And above all, they prompt us to give thanks — eucharist! Who can question these values?
Without the words, only the communicants have an understanding of what the acted ritual is saying, and even they may need the detailed reminder.
When I was a college pastor, I sometimes had communion for the whole of Sunday afternoon in 30-minute segments. First it was for college freshmen who were believers or seekers, then for the sophomores, followed by the juniors and then seniors. During the last 90 minutes I served the three large adult Sunday School classes, serving the eldest last.
It was not lost on me that the oldest seemed to feel the deepest gratitude. There were tears. I assumed it was because those who had served the Lord the longest understood and felt the need for atonement most deeply. The depth of gratitude seemed to be the fruit of a deep and mature faith.
The Sunday after New Years I served communion for the first time in many years. I confess that I heard the words of the service more deeply and movingly than I recall ever before. I believe the congregation was helped by the conviction with which I led the ritual and served the elements.
The ritual can be fresh and doesn’t need to seem formal if the server has prepared his own heart and feels deeply the truth of what is being read. That was evidenced by the response of the elderly who had heard the words most often.
So why did the pastor described above have such a deep resistance to the spoken ritual of the Lord’s Supper? This was not his only case of resistance in worship. He never invited his congregation to pray the Lord’s Prayer together, never had them sing the Doxology, and intensely avoided the riches of the hymn book. Liturgical prescriptions — which are few in number in our more free church worship — may have threatened what he considered his “freedom.”
Or he may never have learned that words have power and that the Holy Spirit can ignite them as messengers of truth in the hearts of God’s people during worship. Perhaps his real commitment was to a sort of folk religion which had no alliance with believers of all ages. Or it even may have been a simple unrecognized resistance to authority that he was acting out in this way.
It has been the long conviction of our denomination that the serving of the elements of the Lord’s Supper needs with it a review of the carefully-stated meaning of redemption. The words are heavy with truth.
As I see it, before and around and behind what is going on between God and the communicant, there is a kind of grand ritual involved in the serving of communion. I believe that instead of cancelling the words that go with it, or abbreviating them severely, it is better to treat the prescribed words and actions with respect and give them the freedom to do their potentially deep, accompanying work in our hearts!
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