8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.
“An indescribable and glorious joy,” a joy that cannot be captured by words. Some years ago our altar was near the back wall. To come for communion you had to go up three steps onto the chancel platform – and the altar was up a further step on which you knelt before an altar rail. There was a young child who, when leaving after communing, ran and jumped the three steps to the main floor.
It was the highlight of my morning. A child should be free to be a child in worship. Faith ought not suppress the spirit but free it. Indeed all of us should find in worship a welcome that liberates the heart. It is reasonable to think this child would have delighted in jumping any steps, but this particular jump always represented for me a small manifestation of that indescribable and glorious joy that is our proper response to God’s gift of himself.
Communion means many different things to us depending on our situation in life and our innate wiring. I see in children the profound importance of being a participant in the common life. I see in others the deeply moved piety of kneeling in the presence of the eternal. There have been times when that bit of bread was for me a lifeline, the one real thing in a year when everything seemed meaningless. There have been times it has been a profound grace, that I am welcome at God’s table. There have been times it has been a promise that I am not alone, that God is walking with me. There have been times it has been, as for the child, an experience of belonging, a participation in a common life. There have been times when I see Christ in the bread and times when I see and feel nothing and must take it on faith. What pulses through all of these is that remarkable declaration “for you.”
I do not commune myself, as in some traditions. I always step down and stand at the rail to receive as all others receive – at the hand of another, with the words spoken to me: “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” Such a promise we need to hear in our ears. Hearing your beloved say “I love you,” is much different than having to say to yourself “I know she (or he) loves me.” To be honest, communing yourself is more like putting your wedding ring back on after taking it off to do the dishes; it can be thoughtless or quite profound. If we are listening, the ring speaks. Still, I prefer to make visible that this is a gift given to me. And I think it is good for the congregation to see that at this table I stand with them.
I commune last because at the altar I stand in the place of Christ, speaking his promise to the community, and Christ came to serve not to be served. As a friend grumbled years ago when the servers were all being communed first: “What other banquet do you know where the kitchen staff eat before the invited guests?!”
When I step down to the rail, I try hard to carve out a few seconds when I am not the pastor, but a petitioner like all the rest. When I am not thinking about what is happening or should be happening in the worship service, but thinking only on this promise spoken to me.
There in my hand is the embodiment of God’s promise. There in my hand heaven’s speech is made visible. There is the promise of a perfect communion between God and ourselves. There is the promise of Eden fulfilled. There is the promise of the New Jerusalem. There is the promise of sins forgiven. There is the promise of a world gathered around a shared table. There is the promise of swords beaten into plowshares. There is the promise of the end of all sorrows and the perfect dawning of an “indescribable and glorious joy.”