Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Meaning of Communion

As a teenager in the Presbyterian church, I decided that I didn’t understand the meaning of communion. This is my body, broken for thee? Eat of it? Why should we eat the body of Christ and drink of the blood of Christ? It didn’t make any sense to me, and it seemed to be cannibalistic.

And so I stopped taking communion. I couldn’t share in something that I didn’t understand.

Later, when I was in my thirties, I started taking communion again, but not because I understood what it meant. Only because I thought I should share the communal experience.

Then, one Holy Thursday during a Tenebrae service, I decided to try to figure out what Jesus might have meant by the words of the Last Supper. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? Why did he say what he did?

I tried to imagine that I was Jesus, and that I knew what the New Testament accounts said that I knew, meaning that I knew that I would be betrayed, that my disciples would desert me, and that I would be tortured to death. Imaging that, I felt alone and scared. Imagining myself at a Passover seder, an annual celebration that is rich with symbolism (and feeling somewhat melodramatic), I realized that I might have asked my disciples, when they gathered for the same Passover celebration next year and in years to come, to think of the bread that was broken as my body, broken for them, and to think of the wine as my blood, spilt for them, and to remember me as they eat the bread and drink the wine.

In other words, I imagined a plea from Jesus that he be remembered. He was lonely and scared, and he wanted to be remembered. So he asked his disciples to remember him during Passover meals in the future.

And that’s all there was to it.

And, in thinking of Jesus in that way, I saw a great irony in the traditional celebration of the Last Supper, because it is celebrated as a holy event, a sacrament, full of divine meaning. But there was no divine meaning. Jesus was asking for a very human thing: to be remembered. What is called "holy communion" has all of the theological significance of a group of guys hoisting a beer at a corner bar and saying, "Here’s to Jesus."

Which is a relief to me. It's a relief to know that I haven't missed something or misunderstood something. And it's a relief and comforting to think of Jesus in a very human and very understandable way.

As a result, I still don’t have much use for communion. But every year, before Easter and during Lent, I like to pause, lift a glass of something, and say "Here’s to Jesus."

I like to think that he’d like that.