Eucharistic conventions: Why we practice these (somewhat) odd manners at the Lord’s Table

SehestedBy Ken Sehestedthe author/editor of prayerandpolitiks,org

When three of us began daydreaming about a starting a new congregation, during long hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the first year of the new millennium, one of the things we immediately imagined was worship centered around communion, including placing the table in the center of our seating. Every Sunday—which is unusual in Protestant bodies. None of us were raised that way. This tangible ritual act—of re-membering in the midst of a dismembered world—is poignantly expressive of our theological vision.

Moreover, we wanted to do this with bodies in motion, as an act of intentionality, requiring each (who were able) to stand, to walk, to mingle in random, status-scrambling order with others, encircling a round table—with the offering plate right there on the table sharing space with the cup and homemade Host, along with hand-picked flowers, one or more candles burning in remembrance of those not present and, on occasion, pastoral letters of encouragement or prophetic challenges issued from the congregation and signed by all so willing.

Coming to the table involves a certain animation, just as the life of faith requires rising from the spectator’s chair, just as the pursuit of hopeful vision in a tortured world is never hand-delivered but hard-won.

The Eucharist is rightly called a “joy meal,” but it is not a Happy Meal. As the author of Hebrews puts it, it was “for sake of the joy set before him” (12:2) that Jesus endured the cross. Just as it was “on the night of his betrayal” that Jesus drew his followers into shared culpability for the struggle to come, so, too, do we week after week, in the mire of the world’s continuing betrayal (and sometimes our own), return to the source of confidence and courage and beatific vision that Another World is promised.

More odd still in our communion practice, we not only invite children to participate but, sometimes, to serve as well. It is a scandalous departure from the believers’ church tradition, and even the infant baptizers typically require confirmation classes prior to being welcomed at the table.

The complaint against such is that young ones do not understand the implications of the ritual. I say, who among us understood the implications of our initial confession of faith? Who, in their wedding ceremony, understood the implications of matrimony? Who among us parents refuse a place at the dinner table for our children because they do not understand the digestive system?

Didn’t Jesus rebuke his disciples for keeping the children at bay? And did he not say that entry into God’s Reign entails child-like character? (Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17)

The third of our unusual Eucharistic conventions is that we use three servers each week: one for the bread, one for the cup, and the third for anointing, with oil in the shape of a cross, the forehead of each who desires it. It serves as the weekly reminder of our baptismal vows that faith is not an inoculation but an invoking. We must repeatedly be called back from distractions and distress to our one True Mind. (1 Corinthians 2:16)

Typically one of our pastors does the anointing. But on one recent Sunday, when no one was doing so, one of our children noticed (see the photo above) and, on her own initiative, retrieved the small beaker of oil and began performing this act of blessing.

Can you think of a better image for the upside-down, inside-out, privilege-reversing character of our calling?

Ken Sehested is the author/editor of prayerandpolitiks,org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action. In 2001 he, along with his wife, Nancy Hastings Sehested and colleague Joyce Hollyday, co-founded Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, NC.

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