The Second of a Three-Part Series
In the communion liturgy, we hear the words that Christ spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me.” The particulars of a communion service can vary widely, yet these words will remain the same—whether with a handful of people or a crowd of thousands, common loaf or individual wafers, participants coming forward or served in the pews: seated, kneeling, or standing, casual youth group retreat or formal Sunday morning worship. Regardless of the form of the elements and the manner in which they are received, those who are invited to participate in communion will be reminded that Christ told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But what exactly did Jesus mean by these words?1 When the actions of that table fellowship are repeated by Christians, what are we to call to mind?
The call to remembrance is an oft-repeated theme in scripture, and it means more than simply “don’t forget.” Just as in the Passover, the call to anamnesis brings past events into the present. We are not only remembering an event in an historical sense; we are making that a present tense event. To this day, Jews during the Passover, recall the Exodus events as if they themselves were participants. “The participant in the Passover must speak of the exodus not in the third person, but in the first person.”2 Similarly, our remembrance of Christ in communion is much more than just a reminder not to forget him. It becomes a present tense event—in our remembrance, Christ is made present with us.3
But what events are remembered? The sharing of that meal? Christ’s impending death? His anticipated resurrection? Frequently, we focus on the cross when we “remember” at communion. Quite possibly, the cross was foremost on Jesus’ mind when he shared that meal with his disciples. As we gather for communion to remember Christ’s death on the cross, it is appropriate to note the following:
- Even Christ’s death on the cross is a multi-faceted event. The cross evokes a variety of emotions and can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. To remember the cross may evoke feelings of sorrow or gratitude, an awareness of humanity’s sinfulness, or a sense of glory, to name just a few. Any remembrance of the cross raises the possibility of multiple meanings.
- The cross, in this instance, must be seen in light of the resurrection. It was the impending death of Christ that set the stage for the origins of the Lord’s Supper, but the practice of remembering that meal would quite possibly have been discontinued if the cross had been the final episode in the life of Christ. As Paul commented, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Cor. 15:14, NIV). Apart from the resurrection, there would be no reason to continue to share meals in remembrance of Christ.
It follows, then, that our understandings of both the meal itself and the meals that we share in remembrance of Christ are severely truncated if we narrow our focus to Christ’s death. Furthermore, while the cross is often the focal point of communion, we must remember that Christ calls us to act in remembrance of him, not simply in remembrance of the Cross.
Which part of him do we remember? One moment? One event? Or the totality of his life, death and resurrection?
CLUSTER OF MEANINGS
A cluster of meanings arises in the anamnesis. Perhaps we can compare this to describing marriage: there are many different aspects of marriage—all of them descriptive, but none of them all-encompassing. The wedding ceremony is a multi-faceted event, with the exchanging of vows, the exchanging of rings, and pronouncement of “husband and wife,” all as part of the event. But even all the elements of the ceremony itself do not encompass the full meaning of a marriage. Marriage also involves taking on a new name, giving up a measure of independence, and a whole host of other dimensions. Just as there is no one term that captures the full meaning of marriage, there is not a single meaning that explains or describes the sacrament of communion.
HINTS IN THE LITURGY
We find hints at these multiple meanings in even the barest of communion liturgies: “Let us remember that it is the memorial of the death and passion of our Lord; also a token of His coming again. Let us not forget that we are one, at one table with the Lord.”4 These words alone invoke the meanings of the passion and death of Christ, his coming again, and the unity of the Body of Christ. Fuller liturgies call to mind other meanings through the spoken words.
We also find hints of the variety of meanings in the terminology we use, both for the sacrament itself (communion, Lord’s Supper, Eucharist) and for the accompanying verb: we speak of partaking of communion, observing the Lord’s Supper, and celebrating the Eucharist. This is not to say that the sacrament is a Rorschach ink blot test, where everyone is invited to interpret what they “see;” it is to say that there are multiple meanings of communion.
Here, briefly, are five of the most commonly referenced meanings of this sacrament.5
- Thanksgiving to the Father. As Christ took the bread and the cup at the Last Supper, he gave thanks (eucharidzo) before giving them to the disciples. This spirit of giving thanks, Eucharist, gives the framework in which communion is set. Despite the somber overtones of that evening, the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup—actions which we repeat in communion—were done in a spirit of thanksgiving. That joyful spirit can now shape our communion, making it a celebration.
- Memorial of Christ. As noted above, the remembrance (anamnesis) of Christ means more than just remembering Christ’s death. His death is a part of our remembrance, but not the totality of it. “It is not just the passion and death, the resurrection and ascension, that the Church commemorates in the Eucharist, though that is certainly a key part of it. The sweep of Christ’s work from creation to the Second Coming is recalled in the Eucharist.”6
- Sacrifice. This terminology divided Roman Catholics and Protestants for many years, as Protestants strove to emphasize that Christ’s sacrifice was once-for-all, never to be repeated.7 That is a significant point to clarify, yet the sacrificial imagery is unmistakable. Whether the Last Supper is taken to be a Passover feast or a precursor to the Passover, the imagery of the sacrifice looms large as Christ says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20, NIV). John Wesley embraced the language of sacrifice but also spoke of the “sacrifice of ourselves.”8 Communion, then, not only draws our focus to Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation, but also to our renewal of the living sacrifice of our lives to God.
- Communion / Fellowship of the Faithful. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul speaks of the koinonia (communion, fellowship, or participation, so NIV) we have at the Lord’s table. He speaks, first, of the broken bread as koinonia with the (corporeal) body of Christ, but then expands the scope as he speaks of our sharing one loaf as an image of being one (spiritual) body of Christ—the fellowship of the faithful. “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16b-17, NIV). Without giving a full-fledged theology of the Eucharist, Paul indicates that in the Eucharist we experience communion/unity with Christ and unity with one another, in the body of Christ. Some, however, would broaden the image further: “In the Eucharist the important concept of communion means unity with Christ, unity in the body of Christ that is the church, and unity with Christians of all the ages in the so-called ‘communion of saints.’”9
- Foretaste of the Kingdom. As Christ shared the Last Supper with his disciples, he cast their vision forward as he told them “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:29, NIV). And Paul’s words to the Corinthians are, “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26, NIV). From its earliest origins, then, communion has had this forward-looking emphasis. It is a shared meal here, in anticipation of the Lord’s return, and the heavenly banquet. Communion is, in the words of the liturgy, a “token of his coming again.”10
These five meanings of communion provide a list that is not exhaustive but merely suggestive of the variety of meanings of this sacrament. With so many possible meanings of communion, what determines which meaning becomes our focus? In a sense, all the meanings are present every time. “At each Eucharist we are there—we are in the night in which He was betrayed, at Golgotha, before the empty tomb on Easter Day, and in the Upper Room where he appeared; and we are at the moment of His coming with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.”11 And yet, “Not all of these meanings can be equally evident in every Eucharistic celebration . . . But over time, all of Christ’s work should be evident.”12 What determines the focus of any particular communion service? Two basic points of reference can guide our focus: the calendar and the biblical text.
As we allow our worship to be shaped by the Christian calendar, there are some natural cycles of emphases in communion. Instead of the pattern that many Nazarene churches have had over the years where every communion service had a somber tone, there will be an ebb and flow of the tone of the service through the course of the year. If we are attending to the calendar, however, the dominant tone will be celebratory: in Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and anticipate his Second Advent; at Christmas as we celebrate Immanuel— God with us; in Epiphany as we celebrate the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles; at Easter as we celebrate the Risen Christ; at Pentecost as we celebrate the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. A more somber, penitential focus will remain during the season of Lent: on Ash Wednesday as we enter the season, and on Maundy Thursday as we focus on Christ’s last meal before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.13 Faithful attention to the calendar will remind us that it’s not a matter of either/or (penitential or celebratory) but a matter of appropriateness to the season. The starkest contrast comes when churches have both a Maundy Thursday communion and an Easter Day communion, and the full range of meanings is experienced in such close proximity, but in each instance appropriate to the moment.
To appropriately emphasize the variations in emphasis at communion throughout the church calendar is through the words of the communion liturgy. Jesse C. Middendorf has provided a helpful resource in The Church Rituals Handbook.14 “Rite Two” provides a liturgy that captures the celebratory nature of the communion ritual. In a section known as “The Great Thanksgiving,” it includes the centuries-old phrase, “It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to You, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”15Worship resources which provide additional variations on the “Great Thanksgiving” draw the congregation’s attention to the “ebb and flow” of the seasons without being overly pedantic.16
The rubric in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene that introduces the communion ritual reads: “The administration of the Lord’s Supper may be introduced by an appropriate sermon and the reading of 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Luke 22:14-20, or some other suitable passage.”17 As we follow that rubric, the “appropriate sermon” and the “suitable passage” that we choose will significantly impact the meaning of communion that may most appropriately be emphasized.
If we no longer feel the communion service must be tethered to a text that specifically mentions the Last Supper, we will find a wide range of biblical texts that draws upon the variety of meanings of the Eucharist. We will begin to see thematic connections between the Lord’s Supper and other biblical passages. As N.T. Wright notes, “The Eucharist is the direct historic descendant, not just of the Last Supper, but of those happy and shocking parties which Jesus shared with all and sundry as a sign that they were surprisingly and dramatically forgiven.”18 Through that lens, we will be able to see connections in Jesus’ parables that use imagery of the Messianic banquet and in all of his table fellowship throughout the gospels. We may notice that the “four-fold action” of Christ at the Last Supper (took, broke, gave thanks, and gave) echoes the same pattern he used in the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16), which he repeated at the first post-Resurrection meal that he shared in Emmaus (Luke 24:30). We may also notice a “word and table” pattern in familiar passages like Revelation 3:20 and gain another (Eucharistic) image to add to the familiar image of Christ knocking at the heart’s door.
If our understanding of the meaning of communion is limited to a somber focus on the death of Christ, we will have a short list of texts that are deemed “appropriate.” If we embrace a broader range of meanings of communion; however, the full range of biblical texts is opened, and what we do “in remembrance” of Christ will draw from the full scope of Christ’s work, from creation to redemption and glorification. Every season of the church year will be appropriate for services of communion.
JIM FITZGERALD is senior pastor of Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Duncanville, Texas
1. In the Gospels, only Luke includes the words of Christ to “do this in remembrance of me,” spoken as he broke the bread (Luke 22:19). The more familiar words linking both bread and cup in remembrance of Christ come from Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
2. Scott Hahn, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 93.
3. This perspective involves a significant shift for many Christians today, for whom “remembering is a solitary experience involving mental recall. But for ancient Jews and early Christians (the first of whom were all Jews), remembrance was a corporate act in which the event remembered was experienced anew through ritual repetition.” Laurence Hull Stookey, Eucharist: Christ’s Feast With the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 28.
4. Manual of the Church of the Nazarene: 2009-2013 (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 2009), par. 802, 252.
5. For a fuller discussion of the images of Communion, see J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley ed. Timothy J. Crouch, American reprint ed. (Cleveland, OH: Order of St. Luke Publications, 1990); Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 10-15; James F. White, Sacraments as God’s Self Giving (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), 54-61; Horton Davies, Bread of Life & Cup of Joy: Newer Ecumenical Perspectives on the Eucharist (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); Rob L. Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1991), 228-249.
6. White, Sacraments as God’s Self Giving, 55-56.
7. As evidence that this 16th-century controversy still calls for the careful choice of words in dialogue between various Christian traditions, the ecumenical document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry avoids any direct discussion of “sacrifice” among the five meanings it gives for the Eucharist.
8. Rattenbury, 155-163. Rob L. Staples connects this image of communion as a “sacrifice of ourselves” to his discussion of Communion as “the sacrament of sanctification.” See his Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality, 236-240.
9. Davies, 128-129.
10. Manual of the Church of the Nazarene: 2009-2013, par. 802, 252.
11. C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936), 234, quoted in Davies, 86.
12. Stookey, Eucharist, 97.
13. Some traditions further emphasize the contrast between the Lenten season and the rest of the church year by “burying the Alleluias” during the season of Lent, thereby removing one of the most visible (and audible) signs of joyfulness.
14. Jesse C. Middendorf, The Church Rituals Handbook, Second edition (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2009).
15. The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992). If you want to draw more directly from the Anglican roots of the Wesleyan tradition, consider The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979).
16. Compare, for example, these two excerpts from the Great Thanksgivings. For Christmas, the words include “As Mary and Joseph went from Galilee to Bethlehem and there found no room, so Jesus went from Galilee to Jerusalem and was despised and rejected. As in the poverty of a stable Jesus was born, so by the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.” For early in Lent, the words include, “When you gave him to save us from our sin, your Spirit led him into the wilderness, where he fasted forty days and forty nights to prepare for his ministry. When he suffered and died on a cross for our sin, you raised him to life, presented him alive to the apostles during forty days, and exalted him at your right hand. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit. Now, when we your people prepare for the yearly feast of Easter, you lead us to repentance for sin and the cleansing of our hearts, that during these forty days of Lent we may be gifted and graced to reaffirm the covenant you made with us through Christ.” The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 56-57, 60-61. If you want to draw more directly from the Anglican roots of the Wesleyan tradition, consider The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979).
17. Manual of the Church of the Nazarene: 2009-2013, par. 802,
18. N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 63.