The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 10 “On Bread & Wine”

Liturgy of Saint James. Russian Orthodox Churc...

I’ll admit it – I felt irritated, angry even. The little kid who had wandered through the service all morning had his hands full of blessed bread. He was enjoying every morsel – while I stood on the outside of the circle, not allowed in.

Of all the things that have made me reluctant to move forward in this journey towards Eastern Orthodoxy it is communion, the bread and the wine, body and blood of Christ.

Communion. Christ died for us, for me. Christ broken. Christ bruised and beaten, then dead in a tomb covered with an immense rock designed to keep any who would tamper with the body away. Communion – served only to those who are Orthodox, a closed table, a fenced table, designed to keep people away. At least that is what I felt.

I think back on churches I’ve attended in recent years. There were our ‘mega church’ years, the ones in Phoenix where church was a cool worship band swaying to the beat of guitars, drums, and a fabulous soloist. Those years had us begging for more fencing, longing for a closed table as we realized no change or transformation was ever expected of anyone who attended. It was just feel good and above all, Jesus wanted you to feel good. He wanted you to feel good about yourself, about your flaws and faults, and especially about who you had taken to bed the night before. No guilt there. Jesus is Love and we would prove it to the world by showing that no matter who or what we did or were, there was no need to change.

There was the church that brought a wagon down the aisle and served lemonade to all of us. That was cool – but of course, you could get better lemonade at a good restaurant and you wouldn’t have to tithe. Charlie Brown Christmas theme music filled the auditorium on Christmas eve, no candles or Silent Night here – that was too traditional.

The church that didn’t want to speak of the Resurrection on Easter, for fear that with so many visitors it would be unrelatable – What?!

With so many of these it didn’t matter what you believed — the point was to feel accepted and loved and so communion was for all. Communion was served once a month, unless it fell on Christmas or Easter and then there would be a break in the predictable schedule and we would wait until the next month.

So I don’t like the open table and I don’t like the closed table. What do I like? What do I want? 

In more recent years the church we attended had a gentle fencing, why can’t Orthodoxy “gently” fence the table instead of asking so much of me?

But communion is not about me and what I want or don’t want. And this is why I’m now glad that I haven’t been able to take it for the last year, despite seeing little kids grab blessed bread.

I’ve needed the time to read and find out what exactly Orthodox believe about the bread and the wine, about communion. And I find it differs profoundly from Protestant belief. For to Orthodox communion is not a symbol – it is the physical body and blood of Christ. It is not a ‘reminder’, it is a sacrament. Church centers, not around the sermon, or the music, but around the Eucharist, around the point where all Orthodox Christians are invited to partake of the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. This is the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst, the central theme of Christianity. All of time stops in these moments, this is why it is Divine Liturgy. 

It is also about the Church, the Church as a community of believers and my willingness to submit to the authority of the church, to not go out on my own, but that is certainly material for another reflection.

In the book Facing East by Frederica Matthewes Green, the author speaks of being at a conference with many varieties of believing Christians. The discussion on communion came up and the Orthodox and Catholics, in arguing for a closed table, said that “open communion is like premarital sex – a premature sharing of intimacy without commitment”. She goes on to say that she thinks it’s a “good analogy”. 

I’m still working this through, I still have questions and struggles with all of this. But as with so many things in Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is not something to take lightly, it never was. And in it, like so many things in Christianity, there is deep mystery.

So I sit and watch others go and take communion, pondering the mystery of Christ crucified, resurrected, present in our midst. And my irritation with little boys and blessed bread dissipates, replaced by deep gratitude that I am in this place, worshiping the Christ, son of the Living God. 

12 thoughts on “The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 10 “On Bread & Wine”

  1. Oh no, I hope it wasn’t Dimi you were irritated at (:!  He is such a little beggar.  I do like how you come around in your blog from a confrontation with your own passions, to an understanding that the Church offers something so much greater than we could ever conceive of for ourselves. Love PPaula Happy Thanksgiving

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  2. Hello Marilyn,
    I have highly enjoyed your insightful series on Orthodoxy, and continue to look forward to your posts!
    I have been wondering why you came to the decision to become Orthodox? (If your posts are leading up to that, you don’t need to give the answer away, I can wait in anticipation.)
    I ask because I was raised as an MK in Serbia, which is Orthodox, and there gained an appreciation for it. But also, moving around during my childhood meant attending many different churches, both in America and Eastern Europe. There have been aspects of each church that I admire, but similar to countries, I find it difficult to subscribe to just one of the denominations, which is why, since moving back to America for college, I have attended an Orthodox Church in our city, but hesitate to become Orthodox. I was wondering if you, as a TCK and expat, could shed some light on this for me.
    Thanks!

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    1. Oh wow – this was both interesting and encouraging to read. If okay with you I’ll contact you apart from the blog and tell you more but there are some strong similarities as well as differences in our journeys. I share such similar feelings around denominations. Growing up across denominational lines, in a Muslim country, prepared me not for the denominational boundaries I encountered in the U.S. And actually nothing really prepared me for the way Christianity played out in the west. Now that we’re moving in this direction, I find many things that draw me to this non-western style of worship.The lack of attention to time is one thing I appreciate. When asked one time if America was ready for the Orthodox church, someone responded – the question should be “Is the Orthodox Church ready for America?” The other thing is that it is a congregation of immigrants. More than half of the congregation is from Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece. etc. So there’s more but I’ll connect with you off line. I really, really appreciate this conversation.

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      1. Thank you! I would love to learn more! If you need my email address, it is slovakmk@gmail.com.
        Yes, the Evangelical Christianity which I encountered in America was a stark contrast to the Christianity I had known overseas. Not in terms of doctrine, but culture. I have found the Orthodox Church to be more palatable, but still think it odd yet wonderful that the liturgy is in English!

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  3. To be clear, the tradition within which I work favors a somewhat closed communion – limiting the sacrament to the ‘baptized.’ You will never hear me say anything about being baptized in the invitation to the table.

    I’m a Benedictine Oblate of a Roman Catholic order. When I first went there I asked one of the Sisters if I could take communion. Here answer: “you should do what God is calling you to do.” Not everyone tows the party line.

    I understand the theology of the closed communion, and I respect it (which is why I ask when I go places where I know there is closed communion and I am not offended if I cannot participate). If you think about what was going on in the 1st century, though, the closed communion was as much a matter of self-protection as it was theological purity. The extensive catechism and literally sending the unbaptized out of the church when the Eucharist began pretty much insured there were no infiltrators who might turn the faithful over to the authorities – with no good result. That was a time when Christians were accused of being cannibals – eating body and drinking blood. I can’t help but think communion was closed so no one would think the Christians were out of their minds. Bread and wine = body and blood? Hmm. It’s a leap of faith.

    That, of course, has all changed; thanks be to Constantine.

    The wonderful thing about the Orthodox tradition is that when you finally do take communion, you know what you’re doing. You’re making a statement – a personal confession of faith. There is something very beautiful about that. And in the Orthodox tradition, you are pretty much assured everyone taking communion with you is “of one mind and heart,” which is hardly possible with our more loosey-goosey approaches.

    One of the reasons why I favor Eucharist by intinction is that one must make a conscious decision to get up and walk down to receive the elements – which is, in a way, a statement of faith. Even if you don’t really BELIEVE, it is a statement that there is something in there for you that, God willing, will grow.

    I’m loving this conversation, and we haven’t even gotten into whether the elements are the real body and blood of Christ . . . Thank you Marilyn for sharing your journey.

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  4. Wow – there’s nothing like dissenting voices to make me want to defend this faith tradition!! One of the things Orthodox would say to all of us is this: We’ve been around for over 2000 years….how long will your traditions last? And there is some truth to that. I used to think it was said in arrogance, but I’ve met enough Orthodox now to know that it’s usually said as a fact. Almost as an invitation to look back at the centuries that occurred before Luther and find out more of what the church fathers said. As I’ve made clear, this is a journey — but all of the commenters seem to lean more toward a closed communion – at least to a degree. You just don’t want it as closed as the Orthodox.

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  5. Oh, my dear. It is my fault. I forgot to bring you blessed bread (antidoron) like I usually do. I remember what a great consolation it was to me before I could receive the Holy Mysteries with everyone else. Please forgive me, a sinner.

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  6. Marilyn, I did not grow up in a church. I had never heard of “closed communion” until our appointment as missionaries back in 1954. Theology and doctrine was important. None of the doctrines were missed in the examining process. This particular question had never been an issue in the churches where we had lived and ministered. Towards the end, one of the Baptist men responsible for recommending us asked my husband, “Now, tell us your stand on “closed communion.” Hu gave his sound views. Then looking directly at me, one of the men asked, “What is your view, Mrs. Addleton.” I took a long breath before replying in my best southern drawl, “I agree with my husband. We walk together in unity.” Then another gentleman said, “That sounds like “close communion to me!” There was laughter of course. Perhaps this episode sounds silly and irreverent. For this to have been a serious question does illustrate diversity among many peoples of faith. Nevertheless, I think of a former pastor who always prefaced communion with this statement, ” This is not ___Baptist Church’s table. This is the Lord’s table. We invite those who have received His grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to join us.” To exclude others of faith at the Lord’s table hurts. Being invited to share communion with believers in other Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Anglican tradition has been spiritually enriching for me. I wish it could always be so among believers.

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  7. It was Augustine who defined the sacraments as “an outward and visible sign of an
    inward and invisible grace.” And, because the God’s grace is freely and fully extended to all in the person of Jesus Christ, I have real personal and theological difficulty with the closed table, although, I do understand it.

    When Jesus fed the 5,000 (or 4,000), he didn’t ask people what they believed or if they were truly repentant before they ate. He thanked God and fed those who were hungry not only for food, but for the Bread of Life. Why else were they gathered but to hear the words of Jesus?

    God’s grace is given to us long before we know we need our want it. The Presbyterian Church (USA) “policy” of the sacrament is that anyone who has been baptized is able to take the sacrament – and since we baptize infants, our children are free to participate in the Eucharist. “The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love.”

    When I administer the Lord’s Supper, I always end the invitation by saying “This table is open to all who know and love the Lord Jesus Christ as their savior; this table is open to all of us who wish to know Christ better.”

    Then I pray (inwardly) that everyone will come to know the blessing that is ours in Christ through the Eucharist.

    Loving your posts, Marilyn,

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  8. I struggle with the Catholic (and now the Orthodox) view of closed communion. What if a person believes that communion is sacrament, sacred and holy, the True Presence of the True Christ? Why can that person not take? I find this so completely against the unity that the Table communicates. It hurts my feelings. It seems to adopt some sort of religious caste-ism.
    I was at Conception Abbey for a 3 day personal retreat when I first learned that Protestants couldn’t take communion with Catholics. I had taken it during Holy Communion much to the glaring consternation of the serving Priest. Afterwards a friend whispered that she didn’t think I was supposed to take it. I was sure she was wrong. Surely these brothers wouldn’t be so inhospitable, so unwelcoming, so divisive. I spoke to Brother Crispus at lunch time. What if I believed as he did? Couldn’t I take it then? He quizzed me on transubstantiation and the theological details. I agreed with him on most every point. So can I take it? Nope. He shook his head. Nope I couldn’t take it. He didn’t seem to be that sorry. Later when I met my assigned Spiritual Director, Father Albert, I asked the same set of questions all over again. He sincerely apologized. Tears filled his eyes. He told me he thought it was the most painful of the doctrines. He regretted it. He wished it was different.
    That moment meant so much to me. I felt I almost saw Jesus sitting where Father Albert sat, I could almost see Jesus crying about it too. It pained him too to see the divisions in the Church over the most hospitable welcoming grace-laden table ever set. I think he regrets it too.
    I don’t want a completely open table either. I want a table where the elements are consumed with sobriety and memory. I want a place where people understand the holiness of the moment. I want to share it with my Orthodox brothers and sisters and my Catholic brothers and sisters. I want a place where I can tear off large chunks of grace and take big swigs of liquid love.
    But…I don’t always get what I want!!
    Marilyn…thanks for writing this up. I feel annoyed with that little boy with the sacred Bread and nauseated at the lemonade cart. I wish I could sit quietly and listen in as you and Auntie Polly discuss these things. When the conversation was over I’d quietly pour you both a glass of merlot and I’d serve up large pieces of fresh bread. And the three of us could quietly take it in and remember. Sacrifice. Holiness. Sorrow. Joy. Redemption. Generosity. Hospitality. Jesus!

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    1. This is really interesting to read both your and my mom’s responses and annoyance, reflective of my own. I think Orthodox would ask that you respect the differences – they don’t believe that communion is ultimately about Christian unity. They believe that in order to share communion together, there must be a commitment of faith and that comes through the Church. As one priest put it “Why would someone want to push taking communion with us when our beliefs about communion differ so significantly? When they are not willing to come into community and communion with the Orthodox Church?” And that in itself is a different view than many protestants. Communion is preceded by fasting, by confession, and by the hearing of the gospel reading. They believe it’s somewhat audacious for someone to want to take communion when they don’t believe the same things about communion. And I get their point. I think that’s one of the hard pieces of this journey – I see both sides. In terms of the little boy, while he remains a good illustration, I don’t want undue harshness to be put on him. He actually was very quiet in his wanderings, it just hit me the wrong way that he was allowed bread, and I wasn’t.

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  9. Thank you Marilyn for a thought provoking post, especially to your Baptist parents! (although we have been in Community churches recently, we are still Baptists at heart, and by conviction.)
    I have a couple of comments/questions. With such a high sacramental view, I don’t quite understand how a child is allowed to do what you describe. In the Baptist churches we grew up in, children in the church were taught, or we absorbed it somehow that Communion was a sacred and solemn time, and we (cradle Baptists?!) were not allowed to partake until we had been baptized upon our profession of personal faith in Christ. It seems totally out of place in an Orthodox church or any other for that matter that a child would be so out of control. I think I would be offended!
    The other is the concept of “closed communion”. The question that comes to mind is this, “Whose table is this?” I understand that the church needs to guard the sacrament/ordinance from misuse. There are strong words of warning from Paul in 1Corinthians for those who come without self examination,harboring enmity against a brother, or in ignorance. But the emphasis in the New Testament seems to be more on each believer examining his own heart. Whatever the church, it is the Lord’s Table. I think I understand the position of the Orthodox Church, and where they are coming from. But I don’t believe it is the only legitimate interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on Holy Communion.
    Actually there is a middle position between the high sacramental view and the view that it is purely a remembrance. I believe it comes from the Reformers. This understanding is that the Lord’s Table and our partaking of the bread and wine as representing the Body and Blood of the Lord in faith is a means of receiving grace.
    I look forward to talking about all this face to face sometime soon!
    And we are thankful for both you and Cliff, and pray for you both in this journey you are embarking on. We love you!

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