By Hari Kumar
Quick name three key elements of what Christians mean when they say “Communion”.
Regardless of your faith background religious or non-religious, Christian or not chances are you probably thought of at least “bread” and “wine.” You might have also heard of the phrases “body of Christ” and “blood of Christ” in connection with Communion.
If you’ve actually been to some kind of mass or church service that involved Communion, you’ve probably experienced it as a rather somber affair. Even upbeat contemporary evangelical services tend to play somber hymns during their once-a-month Communion services.
I remember when I first encountered Communion when I was probably about 12 years old. It was in a small town in deeply Islamic Yemen, at a Christmas Eve mass conducted by the Sisters of Light, the Mother Teresa group. I was a young Hindu boy then, but my mother had a deep friendship with several of the Mother Teresa sisters since many of them were from the same part of India as my mother. We attended this service at the house where the sisters lived. A Catholic priest drove in from the big capital city, hundreds of miles away. Since it was illegal in Yemen to have non-Islamic religious gatherings, the mass had to be held in secret, in a room shaded with thick curtains so that the neighbors wouldnt report us to the police. When time came for Communion, I remember that my mother and I were told to stay in our chairs, as we were not allowed to take the bread and the wine. I remember hearing the priest intone the somber words “this is the body of Christ”, and all the nuns bowing their heads and crunching away on odd-looking whitish discs, and then the somber words “this is the blood of Christ”, followed by equally somber sips from a simple but mysterious goblet.
I vividly remember being shocked by the thought of people actually eating the body of a dead person and drinking that corpses blood.
What kind of crazy people were these Christians, eating the body of their “God” person?
And now, almost two decades later, through many Communion services where Ive partaken of the bread and wine (grape juice, actually) as a practicing and devout Christian, it is still a mystery to me that Christians regularly “eat” the body of Christ and “drink” the blood of Christ.
What about you? What do you think? Doesn’t this seem rather strange and uncomfortably cannibalistic, perhaps bloodthirsty even?
Maybe you’re itching to tell me about all the great theological significances of this new covenant, about the echoes of the sacrificial Lamb, and that it’s all about Jesus giving his body and blood for ME.
Maybe you’re itching to assure me that it’s not the literal body and blood of Christ, that the Catholics are dead wrong, that it’s actually a symbolic token of the new covenant, not to be taken literally as us chewing on the bloody body of Jesus at the foot of the cross.
So you drink and eat, and you remember him dying and bleeding, and you symbolically remember this new covenant, and you sing a quiet song to yourself.
Maybe you sit there and try to make yourself feel guilty about last night’s party, or you try to feel remorse about not being a good witness at work.
Or maybe you’re just hungry for lunch. It is an appetizer after all, especially if you haven’t had breakfast yet.
And, why do we call it “Communion” anyway? Where’s the “communal” part?
Perhaps there’s something deeper about Communion – something mysterious and dangerous, something that wont let us sit there with just deep thoughts about it, but something demanding reckless action.
Perhaps Jesus intended it to be a ritual that resonated with the deep-rooted Jewish belief that blood contains life, hence the law against eating meat that still has blood in it. Maybe Jesus intended Communion to be a celebration of the giving and sharing of His LIFE-blood.
Perhaps Jesus intended it to be a reminder that he is alive, not dead, that following him means more than belief in ideas and doctrines, that following him really means biting into his life, intimately seeking true nourishment from Him.
Perhaps Jesus intended it to be something you do regularly with other people, not just alone in your pew once a month with your little plastic cup of wholesale grape-juice-from-concentrate.
Perhaps we should celebrate Communion every time we eat and drink, not just once a month.
Perhaps the saints of old were on to something when they coined the word “Communion” to describe this ritual a word with overtones of vulnerability and intimacy. Perhaps it really is an intimate act of relationship with God, more than just a guilt-trip, more than a bizarre cannibalistic holdover from sacrificial days.
Perhaps the Catholics are right after all, perhaps there really is something deep and mysterious and supernaturally transforming and perhaps even something divinely dangerous about the act of Communion.
Perhaps Communion is the beginning of a recklessly interactive relationship with Jesus, not a feel-guilty morose sing-along about poor dead Jesus up on that tree, all dead and broken so that we can feel righteous about ourselves. Instead, it is a relationship that challenges us – a relationship that is strikingly uncomfortable, vulnerable, intense, humbling, and one that makes us bite and swallow and taste and breathe His living presence into our continually wrestling souls.
Hari Kumar is an engineer-turned-educator and storyteller who is originally from southern India but grew up in Yemen. He lives with his reckless wife, Alexis, in western Massachusetts, and he writes about his Christian faith journey on his blog.