King's Evangelical Divinity School

2 February 2010

The Eucharist tradition and those little model paint pots

I really like America. Whatever her faults, only a complete idiot would deny the US is a nation of incredibly friendly, big-minded, entrepeneurial and energetic folk who are hardworking and have a quick eye for a business opportunity. Moreover, Americans are also quite perceptive... they know when you're making fun of them, though, for the most part, they're too polite to tell you. That is not to say, of course, everywhere in the US is equally modern, forward-thinking, serene or, frankly, sane. I too have encountered the unsmiling red-neck Sherriff or the gun-toting survivalist (once, at a gun shop, I saw "safety slugs" on sale, which were not, as the name implies, blanks but rather bullets guaranteed to kill your assailant outright, hence their "safety"). Let's face it, there are nutcases everywhere! But Americans are not idiots, or cowboys, whatever some people over here think (and actually I've met some rather erudite and articulate cowboys). In short, you don't become a world superpower enjoying massive influence if all your citizens are, contrary to common stereotypes, like Forrest Gump. It's not for nothing various aspects of US culture are embraced widely, even enthusiastically everywhere, including much of the anti-American Middle East. In fact I rather suspect this may partially account for much of the geopolitical strife we see, a reaction against a kind of US version of the hellenisation which so enraged the local Jewish culture during  pre-New Testament Maccabean times. But that is another story.

There! Now that I've got the nice bit out of the way, not least to appease my family (I'm married to a lovely girl from Ohio, while all my kids have dual nationality), I feel I can also point out the US is a somewhat eccentric, even zany country. Indeed, given how we Brits innocently revel in our national trait of eccentricity, I do wonder if at times we look positively German (sharp, organised, highly rational) compared with the nonconformity displayed by some Americans, though I hasten to add I don't want to overplay the racial stereotyping here... I've met some rather unconventional and disturbingly eccentric Germans too. Yet aside from these unconventional traits, Americans are also very sharp business folk, always looking to solve a problem and in doing so make a quick buck. A desire to help and serve, the search for ultimate convenience, and in the process make money (why not, after all, kill two birds with one stone?) is indeed the American way.
Chatting tonight with our nineteen-year old daughter, who last year worked in the US for a few months, introduced me to yet another example of where a symbiosis of these two characteristics yielded a quite imaginative (and frankly bizarre) result. She was explaining how, at a church service she attended one Sunday, large baskets of tiny vials were passed around shortly before communion. Listening to how she described them, they rather sounded like those thimble-sized plastic pots of model paint sold with Airfix models of Second World War aeroplanes you used to get (if you a trifle unlucky) on Christmas morning.

Anyway, despite their appearance the items my daughter described were, in fact, miniature communion kits. Immediately prior to the Eucharist (a somewhat ambitious term in light of what was to follow), everyone ripped off the tiny cellophane cover of said paint pot and, lo and behold, a wafer of bread the size of an aspirin was manifest! Next (after a suitably grave recitation of the relevant passage in 1 Corinthians 11) another cellophane lid ingeniously positioned beneath the chamber formerly housing the little wafer was removed to yield several drops of grape juice. Thus the church joyously celebrated - though taking great care not to engage in the debauchery James warns us about - the agape love feast modelled on the Passover celebrations (except, of course, they had hunks of roast lamb, cakes of bread, jugs of wine, and other items of culinary interest, possibly because technological advances of the day had not yet provided the early Church with the dubious benefits of little cellophane covers).

Now call me old-fashioned, but flippancy aside, for me an Airfix-sized vial of communion goodies somewhat loses the spirit of the communions described in the New Testament. Actually, I don't want to make a meal of this (excuse the pun, or even if the aforementioned kits enabled you to do so), but I do believe we have lost much of the New Testament purpose and style of celebrating communion. Yes, we have managed to ensure this little bit of liturgy surviving from our break with Catholicism serves as a remembrance moment marking Christ's precious sacrifice at Calvary. But it was also the fulfilment of prophecy, the outworking of the true meaning of Passover when the Israelites were freed from the bondage of Egyptian slavery, which in turn marks the Israelites' and our freedom from the bondage of sin (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Also, I do wonder sometimes if we've kind of lost other aspects of what Jesus instituted, not least the theological significance of the symbols employed - unleavened bread representing the sinless body of Christ given for us (yeast often representative of sin in the Bible), and (real) wine representing His blood which, aside from its curative properties, makes the heart of man glad, Ps 104:14-15, both features of what Christ's blood brings. Communion was also also originally a meal and a time for table fellowship, hence the New Testament warnings not to allow the occasion to degenerate into a glutinous free-for-all (with the paint pots, no danger there then). But instead in very many churches it has become a short 10-minute bit added on to the church service, a little piece of liturgy marked by a crumb of cracker and a bit of juice. Once, I even heard of a youth group that celebrated communion with crisps and cola, which for me doesn't quite cut the mustard.

I have no doubt the advertising campaign for the communion vials described above was an effective one which probably sounded quite attractive to the said church's joint expenditure and facilities management committee: "No washing up, no fuss, why waste time buying wine and bread and then having to vacuum afterwards?". But aside from an excellent (if somewhat kitsch) example of American business acumen, I do wonder if there is a wider lesson to learn here, namely, how the Church (whether in the US, UK or elsewhere) has taken one of several ancient theological institutions (baptism is another issue I think some of us have misunderstood) and somehow stripped them of their symbolic value so that we merely go through the motions, losing sight of what it is all about. Tradition is important, vital in fact, but if we're not careful it can evolve so much, and in our consummerist society so be adapted in the name of convenience, that we lose sight of what it was originally all about. Thus I suggest it can be quite healthy to reassess the biblical and theological basis of our traditions from time to time. What do you think?

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