Monday, July 23, 2012
Means of Grace
At church I serve on the communion team. Communion, also known as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, is a ritual instituted by Jesus during the Passover meal with his disciples on the night he was arrested. He broke bread for them and told them it was his body given for them. Then he took a cup of wine and told them it was the new covenant in his blood, concluding, "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:25).
So that's what we do, every Sunday. Every third week or so I serve. That means arriving early and tearing loaves of bread into bitesized portions and pouring wine and grape juice into lots of tiny little plastic cups set in trays. After the sermon we bring the trays up to the front and set them on the table. The pastor institutes the sacrament and then we stand at the front with the food as the church files past, telling each man, woman and child that this is "the body of Christ, broken for you," and "the blood of Christ, shed for you."
The small portions may be a little silly, but they mean that everyone can partake in the meal at the same time (followed immediately by the clink of a hundred plastic cups being set down). Then the pastor prays, we sing a song, we're blessed, and that's it. We on the team clean up the supplies and put them away for the next week.
Sometimes we do special things for the bread. Lately the first Sunday of every month we pray for another country specifically, and to go along with that we eat the bread of that nation. Sometimes too people in the congregation bake the bread, as I like to do being a hobbyist baker myself.
The precise nature of what happens at Communion can be hard to pin down, and different Christian groups hold different ideas. Roman Catholics and similar groups hold that the elements of bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. On the other side, some groups of more recent vintage hold the elements are merely symbols intended to call Jesus to remembrance. The Reformed tradition in which my church stands holds a yet different idea. We believe the bread and wine are really just bread and wine, and yet that in their giving we truly and literally receive Christ and his grace for forgiveness of sins. God communicates his riches, riches greater than all the world's reserves, to us via these humble items. They are a means of grace.
Our position may seem like a fine distinction to draw but it makes a big difference. That we should receive the King of Glory through such ordinary means highlights that God is not limited; he can convey himself by whatever way he pleases. It also highlights that the initiative is all his and not ours. It is not through riches or feats of strength or moral piety that we reach God, though such a transaction would come naturally to us. Rather it is through the utterly common things around us that he has chosen.
It is also crucial that he is really there for us week after week, caring for us until such time as he shall actually return to claim us. We say during the ritual not only that "Christ has died," but also that "Christ is risen" and "Christ will come again." A mere memorial of his death will not suffice.
For today's bread I followed Jeffrey Hamelman's instructions for pain rustique, a French name for a simple bread. Indeed it requires no ingredients other than flour, water, salt, and a little bit of yeast. As is unfortunately my wont I arrived late to set up, and I was greeted by a small tide of nervous energy due to the delay I caused. In response I opened up the plastic bag and released a different kind of wave, the creamy aroma of the still-cooling loaves. As we tore them into pieces others came by the table to take in the smell, and one of us joked that we didn't need to tear everything up, that we could eat some of it now. We did, prompting others to come over and share.
As we cleaned up after the service we munched on extra bread in the back room. An older gentleman on the tear-down team named Bob asked if he could have some, and we gave him half of the small loaf that the pastor breaks in front of the congregation. He sat and ate it, and he marveled, saying "This bread is just so good. Does anyone know where it came from?"
"Well, yes," I said. "I made it."
"Get out of here."
"Really, I did. There's nothing special in it."
Bob had the rest of his bread in silence, and then even some more of the remaining fragments. On his way out he thanked me as the rest of us continued eating while washing, drying, and sipping wine from the little cups.
My takeaway from the experience was not that I must be a great baker. As the baker, I know that is not true. There is nothing special in the bread, and nothing special in preparing it. The ingenuity belongs to Hamelman and to centuries of European bakers. It is freely available. What amazed me was that despite the common nature of the ingredients and the practices, that the flour and the books are just sitting on shelves waiting to be made much of, my bread was received as something wondrously new or rare, as an awakening to taste buds that did not know they had missed it.
Even in a land of abundance such as our own there is a famine for true bread, though it is for anyone, anytime, for the asking and for the taking. It is truly common. Nothing need prevent all from having it.
Such is the bread of heaven.