Holding joy and sadness in tension: The Lord’s Supper

by Gwen Groff, Bethany

Gwen GroffAt Bethany we share communion at least three times each year. Our first communion service is in January when we renew our annual membership covenant with each other. Our system of membership at Bethany is an odd hybrid. We can become members by taking a membership class and being baptized or by transferring a letter of membership from another congregation, and we can become members by annually affirming our covenant with this congregation. When we renew our membership covenant each January, affirming that we intend to walk with this particular group of people and uphold our commitments to what we state in our covenant, we mark this by celebrating communion together.

This is one of the times that I most feel the difference between the Mennonite congregation in which I grew up and the Mennonite congregation of which I am now a part. I grew up seeing communion as a very somber service in which people wore dark clothes and often wept. I recall preparatory services the week before the communion services in which members filed into a small anteroom and shook hands with the bishop and declared that we were “at peace with God and our fellow men.” Members were warned not to eat and drink “unworthily,” thereby eating and drinking “damnation unto himself.”

By comparison, our communion services at Bethany feel very open, perhaps even lax. I invite people to come forward to receive the bread and cup with the words, “This is the Lord’s table and all are welcome.” I do not ask if someone has been baptized or is a church member. This seems not very Anabaptist. It does however seem to be in keeping with what Jesus did in sharing the table with anyone who wanted to eat with him.

The Bethany communion service that I most enjoy is part of our annual outdoor service. Each summer I mow a labyrinth into the grass in the back lawn and at our outdoor service we take the bread and cup just before we begin walking the the labyrinth together. We walk into the middle of the labyrinth in silence, pause in the center circle, and come back out again. Some people look into the faces of others they pass going the opposite direction, some look down, some are chewing the bread, many are barefoot. Some children are held in their parents’ arms. Most of the children enter the labyrinth at the front of the line and run to the center ahead of the adults. There they receive a spoken blessing from one of the servers, “You are known and loved by God,” and are given grapes and crackers. They run or walk back out, passing the adults who are still on their way in. The adults walk more slowly and contemplatively.

I usually take the bread and cup to the older people who are unable to walk the labyrinth and are seated on the grass that is slightly higher than the labyrinth. I love to look out across the people walking and see our congregation moving as one, like a giant organism on the grass. Sometimes we are a little crowded as we walk but we have not outgrown the practical limits of this ritual. The service is full of laughter and reflection, movement and epiphanies. If the labyrinth symbolizes our spiritual path, the bread and cup represent nourishment for the journey.

Our other communion celebration is part of our Good Friday service. This communion meal seems to be most in the spirit of the first Last Supper. It holds together the joy of the Passover celebration, remembering liberation from slavery, with the grief of the looming death of Jesus.  It focuses on the stated purpose of communion — doing this in remembrance of Jesus — reminding us of his life, death and resurrection. The service is virtually the same every year. We eat a simple meal together in the church basement on Good Friday evening. We read aloud the Passion account from one of the gospels, we sing, we serve one another the bread and cup, and we leave in silence.

I value something about each of these three services. In the January communion service, I appreciate the emphasis on our covenanted commitment to God and one another. I appreciate the symbolism of nourishment for our faith journeys that is part of the summer communion service. And I appreciate the remembrance of the first Lord’s supper that is part of our Good Friday service. What I love about all of them is the way the communion ritual holds in tension joy and sadness. Words can’t make sense of that paradox, “proclaiming the Lord’s death.” But ritual does.

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