This is part of a series: Rituals for Resistance. If we take seriously the idea that churches are to be base communities for resistance then our rituals as communities should strengthen us for the work of resisting the dominant narratives of the United States. I want to think through some of the things a lot of church communities already do and reframe them as tools for resistance. If you’ve missed any, you can catch up!
I think one of the most interesting/vital rituals that the church has is the Eucharist (although I didn’t always feel that way). I want to spend the next several Fridays looking at the Eucharist and the ways in which it can become a ritual for resistance. I want to start by sharing some of my own history with the Eucharist as a way to enter into this conversation.
Growing up my church celebrated the Eucharist (although we called it “Communion”) in a rather interesting manner. The Grace Brethren church believed that in order to celebrate communion properly you needed to have three different elements; footwashing, a love feast, and the bread and the cup. They would never do just the bread and the cup (like many other churches) they would only practice all three together. Since communion was so elaborate we didn’t have it very often, maybe quarterly at the most. It would be on a Sunday night and it would take a couple of hours.
I didn’t really love communion as a kid. It was long and kind of boring. And there were parts of it that made me really uncomfortable, like the footwashing. The only good thing about footwashing was that it was first and so we got it out of the way early.
They would split up the group: Women would go to one room and men would go to another. People would sit in lines on folding chairs. They had this special towel that had a metal ring in it that would kind of clip onto your waist to protect your clothing from getting wet. You would strap on the towel and then kneel in front of the person next to you and wash their feet in warm water. This practice was to celebrate the way Jesus washed his disciples feet on the night of the Last Supper. It was to remind us to serve one another with humility. I hated it. It wasn’t the actual washing of the feet, it was how on the spot I felt. It made me nervous and like I was on display. I always tried to make sure that I was next to my mom so I could just wash her feet.
You would splash some water on their feet, dry them on the towel, and then stand up and hug the person. Then the towel and the bowl would be passed down the line. While the footwashing was going on we would all sing hymns. Someone would start a familiar hymn and then everyone would sing along.
When everyone’s feet had been washed we would gather again as the whole body and share a meal together. Sometimes the meal would be provided by the church; we would all have soup and bread together or something else that was simple. Sometimes we brought our own dinners and then sat around large tables and ate. We were supposed to keep our conversation centered on the event at hand; talk about heaven and how it would be to eat this meal with Jesus. I found the conversation to be a bit stifling and always wanted us to veer off into other, more interesting topics.
To be honest, I found the idea of contemplating eternity to be a little scary. What if I got bored with all of the praying and worshipping? Forever was an incredibly long time and it made me nervous. And if I did get bored did that mean I was a terrible Christian? Or maybe I wasn’t saved at all? It was a spiral of fear and shame that was compounded by the next portion of the evening, the drinking of the bread and the cup. There were always really strong admonitions against drinking the bread and the cup “unworthily” (from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians). We were encouraged to examine our hearts and repent of any sin before we partook of the elements. And if we had sinned against someone we were supposed to go and ask their forgiveness. I usually concentrated on a blanket “Forgive me for everything bad that I have done, even the stuff that I’ve forgotten or didn’t know was bad” and hoped that would cover it. But I always felt like I wasn’t doing this Christian thing right when I went to communion. I always felt like I was a screw up or not holy enough or not spiritual enough. It filled me with such shame that I kind of dreaded the whole thing.
My practice with communion changed a bit over the years as I moved on from the Grace Brethren church. Almost no other church did the three fold communion with the footwashing and the love feast. Everyone else simply did the bread and the cup, sitting in a pew, facing forward a couple times a year. It was very individualized; you got your little shot glass of juice or wine, you got your small square of bread, and then on the pastor’s command everyone ate or drank at once. No muss, no fuss, and finished. It didn’t invoke the same guilt in me, but neither did it invoke the same kind of spiritual feeling.
As my theology shifted away from the fundamentalism of my youth, I also became uncomfortable with the symbols of communion. I didn’t believe that Jesus died for my sins, I didn’t believe that God needed his broken body and blood to make me whole and forgiven. The whole ceremony took on the feeling of the macabre. I was uncomfortable with the symbolism. I hated that we focused so much on the torture and death of Jesus while only giving a passing nod to the resurrection. And so I really didn’t know what to do with communion.
While in seminary I tried to do some thinking about new ways to understand the symbolism of the bread and wine. Could we simply celebrate Jesus sharing these elements with his friends? Could we look at this as a remembrance of the things he did and the message of peace that he brought? Or maybe we could understand this in political terms; if Jesus’ death was a political act, then we could celebrate that he died for the movement. We could see him as a kind of martyr and celebrate that without saying that God demanded Jesus die in order to forgive me for my personal and individual sins. That at least felt a little better to me. It made me less uncomfortable. It made more sense intellectually and it helped me to not spend communion thinking of God as a ginormous bully (or worse an abusive Father). But I still struggled with how to find meaning in this doctrine that is such a cornerstone of all Christian traditions.
Over the next couple of weeks I want to share some more thoughts on the Eucharist and on how my own understanding of it has changed. I would love for folks to offer stories of communion or the eucharist in the comments: Is there a particular experience you’ve had that has been especially meaningful? Is there way that the eucharist was done or offered that has brought new insights for you?
Can you chip in to support House of the Transfiguration? It’s a new, radical, Old Catholic community starting in Minneapolis.