I was recently asked by a colleague from a non-liturgical church background about our weekly celebration of the Eucharist at Christ Church. He asked me if our service tended to be more somber or more celebratory in its focus. It is a good question, basically: How do we experience the Eucharist each week at Christ Church, especially given sameness of the weekly liturgy?
In my personal approach to the Lord’s Supper, I tend toward somberness. (It is likely indicative of my personality!) When I select the “communion hymn” to be sung just prior to reception of the bread and wine, for example, I typically choose words and melodies that fall on the solemn, more reflective side of the spectrum of hymnody. When we sing the Agnes Dei (O Lamb of God), the only tune with which I am familiar is definitely more somber than festive.
But it so happened the very week I was asked the question, I had just selected music for several upcoming services, and I had consciously selected a communion hymn that was more upbeat than usual for me. We Praise Thee, O God (Hallelujah, Thine the Glory, Revive Us Again) I thought, Why not? Eucharist, after all, means thanksgiving, and since it was Ascension Sunday, the celebratory nature of the hymn seemed especially appropriate.
In fact, in our liturgical tradition, the mood communicated and experienced in a given service is generally governed by the church calendar. For instance, the Easter season typically lends itself to more festivity than does the Lenten season, which is more penitential. The themes of Christmas and Epiphany are generally more upbeat than those of Advent.
The “celebratory level” of the Eucharist ebbs and flows through the fasts and feasts of the calendar year, with the variable parts of the service—the hymns, and collects, and scripture readings, and sermons—reflecting and carrying the mood of the season. But ultimately, how we experience the Lord’s Supper is incidental to our participation. Our experience at the table is of secondary importance to the meal in which we partake.
The words of the liturgy itself are virtually the same, week-in and week-out. But the elements also remain the same. We eat only bread and drink only wine. We do not change up the menu, so to speak. You and I need Christ for the health and nourishment of our bodies and souls. When we eat the bread and drink the cup by faith, we feed on Christ, which is the very thing we need for eternal life.
One of the reasons some traditions prefer a less frequent communion seems to be the preservation of a richer experience. The thought may be that something done too often will lose its effectiveness. If it becomes commonplace, it will no longer be special. But I believe this is to place undue emphasis on experience.
The effectiveness of the sacrament is in receiving the nourishment that comes through feeding on Christ by faith. When we experience this nourishment in a powerful way, we rejoice! But if we feel nothing, we still rejoice as we recognize we are made partakers of the body and blood of Christ by our participation in the sacramental meal. It is about nourishment, not experience.
We understand this when it comes to our physical sustenance. We do not reduce our food intake because we are afraid that eating regularly will diminish the effectiveness of eating. The conversation at the dinner table may be light or heavy, but, in any case, we are nourished by the food on the table.
We come back to the question. How do we experience the Eucharist at Christ Church? Is it an occasion of celebration or solemnity? We might similarly ask, Is the Cross a symbol of sorrow or joy? The answer is yes. Sometimes we experience more poignantly the sorrow of our sin and the affliction of a guilty conscience. Other times, we feel more the wonder of forgiveness and the joy of salvation. But regardless of how we experience our time at the table, we do this, that is, we eat and drink, in remembrance of Christ, whose body and blood (alone) preserve us body and soul unto everlasting life.