My earliest memories of Holy Communion are set in a small church in rural Netherlands. In that place and in those times, the pious took the apostle Paul’s injunctions regarding righteous living at face value.
The preparatory sermon always included Paul’s dire warning about eating and drinking judgment on oneself. Folks fastened on predestination, puzzled over and trembled at its implications. Election and reprobation were staple topics at the Sunday dinner of pot roast and potatoes. But unlike the hearty vittles, severe doctrine proved resistant to life-sustaining digestion.
Pauline warnings meant that very few found themselves worthy to partake of the Lord’s Supper. In those early days of my childhood, the communion table served as the gathering place for those worthy few who dared to leave the pew and go forward to sit around it. When the minister gave the invitation, they paused deferentially before rising and, heads bowed, made their way to the front. The small table had more than enough chairs; a second seating was seldom necessary.
During my youth in Minnesota, things got more relaxed. The preparatory sermon was still preached and the entire Lord’s Supper form read from the back of the Psalter Hymnal. Folks still agonized over election and predestination, but most ate the bread and drank the wine—or so it seemed. It was hard to tell as the communal cup moved through the pews. I could only observe the solemn ritual. There were still catechism questions to answer and faith in my Lord and Savior to profess before I could partake. From early childhood, our parents and other authorities had made it clear that eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood in an unworthy manner carried consequences.
Now that I am old, I see kids amble up the aisle with their parents, take a piece of bread, and dip it into the grape juice. Surely they’re too young to grasp the profound symbolism of table, beaker, and chalice. I wonder if they are able to see beyond the bread and juice the mysteries of incarnation and atonement. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.
But I can’t help wondering if the pendulum has swung too far from the suffocating practice of my parents’ generation to the seemingly laissez-faire attitude prevalent in some churches today. It’s heartwarming to watch a little child take part in reenacting the ancient and meaningful ritual our Lord instituted. I just hope we don’t lose sight of the earth-shaking significance of Holy Communion or dismiss altogether Paul’s cautionary words.