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.