In some churches, clergy and altar guild members stand in the sacristy after the service, encouraging each other as they struggle to consume the mountain of consecrated wafers that were left over after Communion. In our church, however, a line of children quickly forms at the sacristy door in case there may be some extra Communion bread for them to eat. Someone from our bread guild bakes fresh loaves each week, and for many the soft, subtly sweet morsel received at the altar rail is the highlight of their Sunday worship. On the rare occasion that the bread runs out before the last few parishioners receive, we turn to wafers, and, when I place the round, cross-marked disc into a child’s hands, he is likely to look at me and then his parent with a face that says, “What’s that? I’m not eating that. You might as well have handed me a Brussels sprout.”
Most churches use wafers—mass produced, perfectly circular, Styrofoam-esque pieces of baked flour and water that hardly resemble bread. Actually, I like the wafers for their simplicity and consistency, and, while I agree that the bread is far tastier, I like the bread more because of the symbol that it represents. Both become the Body of Christ—the real presence of the incarnate Son of God—of which we partake by an inexplicable mystery. Between the two, there is no difference in the “Jesus-ness” that is conveyed, but, when the bread is baked by members of our congregation, I am drawn into the communal Body of Christ that the congregation itself represents in a way that I find harder to see when the origins of the Communion bread are largely unfamiliar to us.
There has been a liturgical renewal of sorts as more and more congregations use loaves instead of wafers. Of course, before there were wafers, all Christian communities used loaves that were indistinguishable from the loaves that they bought at the market or baked for their families. In the ancient church, before the clergyperson presided at the Eucharist, he would collect both bread and wine from members of the congregation and use them at the Lord’s Table. In a very clear and real way, the offering of the people was the substance of the communal meal that they shared in the name of the Lord. Of course, some loaves were better than others. Some were overbaked and crumbly. Some were underbaked and chewy. Some were moldy. That happens sometimes. And, as is so often the case in the history of organized religion, church officials stepped in and, in an attempt to make everything better, messed everything up. To ensure that the Communion bread was as perfect as the Christ it represented, religious professionals (i.e. monks) took on the responsibility of baking uniform portions of unleavened bread, simultaneously eliminating the imperfections of congregation-provided bread and the joy that those people got from bringing their best, if flawed, offering to God.
Until then, the principle “sacrifice” of the Eucharistic celebration was one made by the congregation as they, through their offerings, participated in the sacrifice that Christ had made upon the cross. Just as Jesus gave up his life for the sake of the world, so, too, did his followers give up their lives in his service, and their bread was a token of that. Although by that time martyrdom had become a rarity, Christians were drawn personally into Christ’s death by bringing something of themselves—something they had made or worked to buy—and offering it to God in the Communion service. Once their bread was no longer needed, their symbolic sacrifice had been effectively replaced. Without the bread of the people, the sacrificial focus shifted from that of the congregation to that which the priest performed on their behalf, and the connection between the congregation and the Body of Christ was stretched—perhaps even severed—as the people of God largely forgot what it meant to give themselves to God each time the sacrament was celebrated.
I have only had the opportunity to bake Communion bread once. An odd turn of events combined with a scheduling snafu meant that an important service might be without the fresh baked bread that our congregation has come to love and expect. I didn’t ask anyone else to do it because I wanted the chance to try it myself. Although I had never done it before, I had been taught by the bread guild, and I tried my hardest to replicate their work. The end result was the decent attempt of a first-time baker who tried his very best to bake bread that would honor those who usually provide it for our church and also honor God, who is always willing to receive our faithful offerings. The bread that day may not have been spectacular, but it was my offering—something I could bring to God and share with our congregation—and the act of baking and presenting that bread brought me into the Body of Christ in a way that I had never experienced before.
What sacrifice do you bring to the Lord’s Table? If you are not a part of the bread guild, do you help set the Table and clean up after the service? If you are not a part of the altar guild, do you help welcome people into our fellowship? If you are not an usher, do you sing God’s praise with all of your heart? If you are not in the choir, do you proclaim the Word of God from the lectern? If you are not a lector, do you serve with the clergy at the Table? If you are not an acolyte or a lay Eucharistic minister, do you spend time telling our children about Jesus? If you are not a volunteer in Children’s Chapel, do you arrange flowers for the altar? If you are not a member of the flower guild, do you help fold the bulletins or set up for lemonade after the service or play the organ or preach the sermon or vacuum the floor? What sacrifice do you bring to the Table? What part of yourself do you offer to God each week when we gather in Jesus’ name?
Holy Communion is not something you that show up once a week to receive. It is something that you participate in by offering to God the very best that you have. What sacrifice will you make? What will you bring to the Lord’s Table? The Body of Christ is not complete without you.
This post originally appeared in the St. John's newsletter. To read the rest of that newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.