Thursday, September 3, 2009

Communion: What makes us become who we are

An Orthodox nun receives the Holy Eucharist or Communion. Why is this ceremony closed?
An Orthodox nun receives the Eucharist

Ever wonder why we Orthodox practice closed Communion?

Once upon a time, human beings were perfect. Actually, it was their destiny to be so. And we have to note right from the start that perfection didn't mean the inability to commit error. It was merely a status, a condition. Error hadn't been committed...yet. Until someone ate something they weren't supposed to.

Segue. Fast forward to a frightened, clueless mass of people being miraculously rescued from slavery only to find themselves wandering in a spiritual and physical wilderness, starving, thirsty, young, and obstinate. It would take them forty years of constant, daily reminder and frustration (and more!) to learn that God's plan was good, that when they thanked Him politely (even sincerely!) but tried to go their own way, it meant destruction, despair and disaster.

This God wasn't merciless. He provided miraculously. What does one need most of all in a desert? Water and sustenance. God gave a...thing...every day. They didn't even have a good word to describe it. They called it "manna," which means "what is it?" It taught them to rely, to learn to live on just enough. But most importantly, it gave them life. It gave them a fighting chance to beat the odds of a life in the wilderness, a life that should have ended in dehydration and death, but instead sent a message to the world that God sustained, strengthened, protected, and loved His people.

Segue again. We find a Messiah attempting to spend some time away from the crowds, to recuperate from the ministry he has to the descendants of the Manna eaters. The previous night, they were fed miraculously near Capernaum, beneficiaries of a boy who bought a few fish and some bread. They're still hungry, spiritually, physically, politically. They want to be rescued. In John, chapter 6, they tell Him, "Our forefathers ate manna in the desert."

He responds that the Manna wasn't the real deal, that "the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." Life. Real life. The first mistake was eating something that gave the opposite of life. Here was the antidote.

So the people ask for it. Of course they ask for it!

I know I'm reading something in to the text to say what I'm about to say, but forgive me, please. Indulge. I imagine that there was a dramatic pause as Jesus blinked, giving them just a second to rethink their stupidity before snapping back, "I am the bread." (This is followed by one of those moments where Michael Card believes the word "duh" should be in the red letter editions.)

But the conversation gets weirder, and decidedly un-Jewish. No Jew had ever said anything like this. As they begin to realize that He's dead (or live?) serious, He says

I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.

Manna had been the preview (for all audiences). But now, the real thing was here. And the commitment was serious.

Segue once a Church that acts with great solemnity, sincerity, and caution as they handle this Holy Food at every Liturgy. Just as it was the case that manna came with certain rules, to take this food unworthily was to risk divine wrath. And thus, there were priests and deacons there to protect the faithful, to remind them that preparation for this event--physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental investigation--was serious.

Some found this hard, as Jesus had predicted they would. Some left because it was too hard. And some of those who left decided to try to fabricate it on their own, in the hopes that acting vaguely communal would magically transform their stuff into Communion.

Segue to today, when masses wonder why it is that we protect Communion like it's radioactive, that we hoard it as if those outside the Church are unworthy of it, don't deserve it.

Stop for a moment. Ponder that. Two things must be pondered:

  1. The descendants of those who left the Orthodox faith sincerely believe that they are engaging in a vibrant spiritual life, growing in love and strength with, by, because of, and for God. They are not responsible for the initial rejection of the Church, and for the most part, they are ignorant of the fact that they perpetuate it. Oddly, they are convinced that it is we who have adjusted the practice and have inappropriately shut them out of this ominous provision. They wonder why it is that we bar them from communing with us (and we refuse to commune with them) as if the Eucharist is something they need to earn, need to fight for.

    Yet, isn't it? The Kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.
  2. Although the division remains, it is not our place to decide whom God may or may not love, bless, or save. It is merely our place to invite, and to warn and caution. Both. But it is the place of the Church to be sure that protocol is followed. Dangerous food that led to death was in the Garden. Manna was designed to give life, but the rules were very specific. And the Jesus food, following these two, hearkens back to both. This IS the manna, and it is the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil. It cannot be taken unworthily, for to do so is to act with the same selfishness as Eve and Adam, to TAKE what is not deserved, before it is deserved, before we are prepared and ready.

    It is not our place to be sure that someone is NOT worthy of this Body and Blood. But, conversely, the only way we can be sure that someone IS worthy of it is to recognize them as having been ceremoniously attached to the Holy and Apostolic Church, a Church that finds continuity with the events of Pentecost and the Last Supper. It is not so much that we refuse to serve Communion to the uninitiated, because it is not our place to refuse. But it is the case that those who hunger for this feast, if they hunger for it enough, recognize the mechanism by which they may eat of it.

I hungered. In time, I did what was necessary to eat. It was desperation.

There is a primary signifier that a person who sincerely claims to be a believer is NOT a member of the Body as we understand it. Simply, it is that they claim--intentionally or otherwise--that their modified Creed is the correct one. This is not the only signifier (certainly, there are many), but we can be sure that one who holds tightly to their certainty as if their knowledge is superior to that of the Church probably doesn't really want to have anything to do with the Church. However, as we seek to be corrected of error, and as we are grafted into the Body of the Church, we submit ourselves to obtain this Holy Food to give us Life.

Without clarity on the identity of this Body (which is physical, not just spiritual), we do well to protect some from the consequences of stealing Jesus prematurely. Communion makes us eternal. It gives us Life. Real life. The kind that's so serious it can't help but last forever. It's a bad idea to live forever before we're ready. We're terrified of making the same mistake Adam and Eve made. Communion is not a toy, and cannot be taken lightly.

But we must conclude with hope and joy. All are invited, all are welcome. When they are ready, they will come and receive. Properly. Decently. In order.


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