In communion with Christian brethren

  • January 5, 2011
One day recently, a friend was wrestling with the meaning of communion. He’d heard a homily delineating the proper way to receive the host so as to avoid dropping it. All very practical. But, my friend asked, is that all there is to say? Doesn’t communion mean more to us than rubrics?

Immediately I thought of one of my best teachers on this subject. Some time ago, I arranged a meeting with a colleague, a minister of the United Church of Canada. Mark and I had a disagreement about a project we were involved in. I requested to meet him not at either of our offices, but at a downtown mission where I volunteered.

He came for lunch at the mission, quite comfortably eating in the refectory with people who’d slept on the streets or in shelters the night before. I didn’t even see him at first because he fit in so easily, chatting with the people around him. It was awards day. The volunteer of the month — one of the homeless — was being honoured with stories, smiles, hugs and a little present.  

Afterwards, I showed my colleague around, including the chapel. We got talking about mission, this particular mission and the mission of the Church; what it meant to serve communion in this chapel, while in the adjacent refectory breaking bread with those who were lowly and of no account in the world. We agreed there was a connection between liturgical communion and communion with one another and with the poor. I remember saying: “I can see Christ in the refectory because I meet Him here in the chapel.” To which Mark responded: “I can see Christ in the chapel because I meet Him in the refectory.”

After that, our work conflict dissolved like smoke.

What does communion mean to us? I saw much better after talking to Mark, who’d devoted his life to service of and through the United Church. Yet he and I can’t receive communion together.

“Communion” reflects the dazzling belief that we humans, underneath it all, are one with each other.

More stunning still, that we’re one with the Divine One, our Creator, greater than the universe. One with God, who’s not just a reflection of ourselves, but really Someone other than we are. Being with Him allows us to be completely ourselves; that’s the freedom love gives.

All this can be because Christ became one of us, so that we might become one with God.

It’s one of those staggering Christian teachings that we sometimes take lightly.  I’m not sure if it’s this doctrine atheists reject in rejecting Christianity, but if so, they deserve credit for noticing the enormity of the claim.

This teaching goes far beyond the Catholic Church. It’s common, if not universal, among Christian denominations. Yet the sacrament of communion has been — tragically — one of the truths that tear Christians asunder. It isn’t news; familiar with this strangeness, we almost forget it is strange. If you’ve ever attended a Catholic Mass where Christians of different denominations are present — or if you’ve been to a Christian communion service that’s not Catholic — you may have felt the oddity of what we generally take as normal.  

The documents of the Second Vatican Council, and Catholic documents since then, helpfully describe this as the “real, but imperfect communion” between the Catholic Church and other Christian communions. I remember being greeted with enthusiastic delight by a Syrian Church community, so happy were they to pray with someone who knows the same Christ, the same Scriptures, as they: a stranger, yet a sister. Still, they couldn’t invite me to communion. It’s a joyful pain, a painful joy.  

Communion is a profound reality, with many levels of meaning. That’s why we can’t just say “let’s forget our differences and be together on this.” The theological differences on this key teaching are real, and not to be taken lightly. Nobody has yet found a way to resolve the tragedy, to bring all Christians together without moving away from truth. We’ve moved towards each other, certainly, farther and faster than anyone could have foreseen. Perhaps it means we’ve all moved closer to Christ: back in the 1930s, Abbé Paul Couturier saw that the more our churches are converted to Christ, the closer they will be to one another.

So what’s the proper way to receive and hold the host, the Body of Christ? How do we take the physical host into our bodies with love and respect, and how do we live daily this mystery of union?

In Eucharist, wrote St. Augustine, “we become what we receive.” How are we to take inside ourselves and become Christ Himself? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one of the ways we become Christ, become Christian, is by becoming agents of healing among Christian communions. We receive this mission and this power of healing, too, when we receive the host. Let’s not drop it!

The 103rd Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is celebrated Jan. 18-25.