What is Holy Communion?
Holy Communion is a sacred meal in which Christ comes to us in bread and cup. “This is my body given for you … This is my blood shed for you.” We believe those words to be true. Christ is truly present in Holy Communion. When we eat the bread and drink the cup of this meal, we receive our Lord’s body and blood.
What happens in Holy Communion?
Christ comes to us in, with, and under the bread and cup to nourish the faith of Christians and the church. We share in a sacred meal that spans all time and space. We commune with the saints who have gone before us and with other Christians around the globe who gather at our Lord’s Table. The uncontainable presence, grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy of Christ comes to us in simple bread and drink.
Who receives Holy Communion?
All of God’s people are welcome to our Lord’s table – it’s our Lord’s table, after all, and all are invited. Let’s be clear – it is not “my” table, or “our” table, or a “Lutheran” table … it is our Lord’s table, and He sends out the invitations … to everyone under the sun.
The norm is for baptized Christians to receive the sacrament, as this is a Christian sacrament that nourishes and strengthens faith in Christ. And, it is the norm for Christians to receive instruction prior to first receiving the sacrament … and to continue to reflect on and learn about the sacrament throughout their Christian life. (Surely a single class during childhood isn’t enough to comprehend the mystery and blessings of Holy Communion, is it?) These norms are not iron-clad laws, but they are norms … patterns for how this sacred meal is generally practiced.
Is there an age requirement for Holy Communion?
There is no minimum age for receiving this sacrament. In years past an age-requirement reflected a desire by the church that those receiving the sacrament examine themselves and understand what it is they were receiving. Now such examination and understanding takes place at a variety of ages, and is a part of on-going, life-long education and faith formation. I generally ask that children express an interest in receiving the sacrament, and that they are able to sit through and participate in the worship service, prior to receiving communion for the first time. Determination of whether a child should receive Holy Communion is one that is made with the parents, the child, and the pastor. First communion classes will be held at least once per year.
How should we receive Holy Communion?
We are to receive these gifts of bread and wine, of Christ’s body and blood, in faith, trusting that in this meal our Lord comes to us, forgives us our sins, renews us in faith, and leads us into everlasting life.
The manner of receiving varies in different churches and even within churches, and there is no “right” way to receive communion. I suggest that people approach reverently – not somberly, but reverently and expectantly – holding out their hand to receive the body of Christ from the ministers. At New Joy we receive by means of “intinction” – that is, by dipping the bread in the cup. Take the bread between two fingers and dip it into the cup, perhaps dabbing the bread on the side of the cup so as to avoid dripping on oneself or on the floor. Then, consume the bread and drink together.
Upon hearing the words, “Body of Christ, given for you,” and “Blood of Christ, shed for you,” it is appropriate to respond, “Amen,” or “Thanks be to God.” It is also perfectly appropriate to smile a joyful smile, as this bread and wine are amazing gifts. Some Christians make the sign of the cross before and/or after receiving the bread and wine, as a sign of blessing and remembrance of their baptism. Others may also genuflect or bow before the bread and wine, a gesture that honors the body and blood of Christ … and which also humbles the one about to receive this great gift of Christ’s holy presence. We certainly do not insist on uniformity in how we approach the altar. In fact, we welcome the many ways we respond to the gift of our Lord’s presence.
What is in the cup?
Traditionally the church has shared bread and wine at Holy Communion. Here at New Joy we share bread and grape juice. This started somewhat by happenstance, as we were worshiping for years in a school and could not store wine in the school building. Thus, we served grape juice as our sacramental drink. When we moved to our new building in 2008, we continued to serve grape juice. Children, adults, and those with sensitivities to alcohol can receive the sacrament from the same cup without any concern, for the fruit of the vine that we share is non-alcoholic.
What about allergies or other sensitivities to bread and juice?
The church has long taught that communion with just one element – receiving only bread or only the cup – is a perfectly valid form of communion. Yet recognizing that gluten allergies are increasingly common, we offer gluten free bread and a separate cup for any who need to receive in this manner. When you come forward, simply ask the minister for the gluten free communion elements. They will present you with the plate, but will not touch the bread, as their hands have already handled wheat-based bread. Take the bread in your fingers, and dip it in the cup (a cup used only for gluten free communion, so as not to spread gluten via a shared cup). As you do this, the minister will announce to you, “The body and blood of our Lord is given and shed for you.”
More to say …
There is much more to say about Holy Communion. We can say more about all the prayers and words we traditionally say at the table. We can say more about how Lutheran practices of Holy Communion relate to those of other Christians. We can say more about the “how” of Holy Communion. We can look at what the Bible says about this meal. Clearly, there’s more to say …
I look forward to talking with you more about Holy Communion, to holding First Communion classes, and to offering on-going education and conversation with our Partners about Holy Communion.