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In defense of Drive-by Communion

January 7, 2008

Wayne City Sanctuary, Christmas Eve

I grew up in a United Methodist Church where we traditionally celebrated Holy Communion on Christmas Eve.  The sanctuary was candle-lit, soft reverent Christmas hymns were playing, and the members of the church could come and partake of the elements anytime during the designated hours.  Many Christmas Eves were spent gathered at my grandparents’ house.  After supper and before presents were opened, we walked the three blocks to the church and gathered in the narthex.  Dad would quietly peek into the sanctuary and if another family was gathered at the altar we waited quietly for them to exit.  We hugged them, shook hands and wished them a merry Christmas as they left, then we would go kneel at the altar.

“The body of our Lord, broken for you.”

“The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Elements were shared.  Prayers were whispered.  But more importantly, the Holy Spirit was there.   Christ was there.  Christmas was transformed from a family gathering with a gift exchange to a genuine celebration of the birth of Christ, a holy moment in the life of my family.  Partaking of the elements in that way enabled us to express our love for Christ and for one another in a way we usually did not.

So I was surprised when I read this passage in This Holy Mystery, the official United Methodist document on Holy Communion.

Both “self-service” Communion, where people help themselves, and “drop-in” Communion, where the elements are available over a period of time, are contrary to the communal nature of the sacrament, which is the celebration of the gathered community of faith.

Okay, I see their point, but I’m not sure it’s theologically consistent, especially when the same document advocates taking consecrated elements from a worship service to the hospitalized and homebound.  But my strong belief here is one of anamnesis.

David Greenhaw of Eden Theological Seminary illustrates anamnesis (essentially a recollection or remembrance far more powerful than mere reminiscence) by describing his grandmother’s perfume.  She always wore it, it had a very distinctive scent, and was popular among ladies of her generation.  Even though she has been dead for many years, he says, “I will be in the mall and someone else will be wearing that perfume.  I catch a whiff of it, and my grandmother is right there.  I can almost touch her.”

And in some mysterious way when we eat the bread and drink the wine Christ is right there. It’s not only a memory, he really is there in a way we can’t really explain or fully understand.

But so is the community of faith.  In that sanctuary I still feel the presence of the elderly barber who led the singing, often far faster than the organist and pianist, and sometimes in his own time signature.  So is the little old lady who used to sit directly behind me, singing every note of every hymn off-key but with deep faith and vigor.  So are the pastors who accompanied us to church camp every year and engaged us in deep conversation and prayer.  So is the best doggone church piano player I ever heard (man, she was great!)

I’m not knocking This Holy Mystery.   It’s a great document, and it does what a document can do.  But there are limitations to what words can adequately describe.  It’s often difficult if not impossible to describe with the head what happens in the heart.
I can only speak to my belief that “drop-in” communion is not really contrary to United Methodist theology.  I knew the words of institution as a layperson, and I always had absolute trust that my pastors had prayerfully spoken the words of institution and consecrated the elements.  And every time I had what can only be described as “strangely warmed” experiences.

Now I’m appointed to a charge where Christmas Eve drop-in communion is also their tradition.  I enter the sanctuary, start the soft music playing, kneel at the altar, raise my hand over the elements and say the words of institution.  And I offer the elements to anyone who enters the sanctuary.

And Christ really is there.  And so is the community of faith.   I can’t explain it, but they’re there.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. The ArachNerd permalink
    January 7, 2008 3:09 pm

    Like you, I understand what the document means concerning the communal aspect of the sacrament. However, I think that on one night per year it’s achieved by communing with our individual families. We gather for communion with the community of faith the whole rest of the year, what’s wrong with mixing it up a bit on Christmas Eve? (Forgive the use of ridiculously poor language there.) I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but that seems to be the one season when I need precisely that kind of spiritual moment with those who I’m closest to. And I cherish that opportunity each & every year.

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