Saturday, January 14, 2006

Meal Prep

We do not presume to come to your table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eath the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and so to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us. -- Prayer Before Holy Communion, LBW

How do I prepare to participate in the Eucharist?

Back in the day when I was but a fuzzy li'l LutheranChik in Another Lutheran Denomination, self-examination before Holy Communion was serious business, because we had to at all costs avoid communing "in an unfit manner" -- a somewhat vaguely defined state that might encompass everything from an unacknowledged/unconfessed sin to doctrinal incorrectness of various kinds to maybe being preoccupied by something (or someone, in the case of hormonal 14-year-old catechumens) preventing one from receiving the Sacrament in an appropriate state of mind. Our pastor intimated to our confirmation class that one could become physically ill -- or worse [cue ominous organ chords] -- if one committed the sin of communing in an unfit manner.

And, actually, this is pretty tame compared to the way it used to be in Lutherland. When my parents were young adults, most Lutheran churches celebrated the Eucharist (and they would have never used either word in describing what they were doing) only infrequently -- to avoid it becoming routine, the story went, and causing occasion for spiritual and other harm to "unfit" communicants who didn't properly prepare themselves. Prospective communicants had to announce a week in advance; if the pastor didn't think someone was up to it, he or she didn't make the cut. Then, on Communion Sunday, communicants had to all sit on one side of the church before the service and go through a special confession and absolution with the pastor. Not all communicant members communed at every opportunity; in fact, that might raise a few eyebrows -- either that person must really -- nudge, wink -- need it for some reason (probably to be speculated upon through the neighborhood grapevine throughout the following week), or else s/he must be engaging in an attempt at [cue additional ominous organ music] works-righteousness. (Most Lutherans, by the way, are unaware that Martin Luther himself advocated communing as often as it was available -- daily, if possible.)

And, actually, this is pretty tame compared to churches mandating total fasting beforehand -- the household water faucets tied shut lest children be tempted to -- my God, the horror -- sneak a drink of H20 before mass; the fainting communicants. Or the catechetical protocol in the early Church, where non-communicant members of a congregation were dismissed before the Eucharist even began, and where it might take years for a catechumen to be declared fit to partake.

All this fear, all this negativity, all this turning of what literally means a thanksgiving into an occasion for guilt and condemnation and exclusion, because the Apostle Paul got very angry at some clueless Corinthians who had corrupted the weekly church agape feast into a rowdy first-century wings-and-pitcher night at Hooters, while hogging all the food and drink so that poorer members of the community were going home hungry. That's where his warning about the spiritually unfit "eating and drinking damnation upon themselves" came from.

The liturgical renewal movement of the last few decades has helped to change people's understanding of Holy Communion and in fact reclaim its sacramental significance as a gracious gift to the people of God -- a gift of palable Divine presence, of forgiveness, of renewal, of fellowship; a "foretaste of the feast to come." I know I never really experienced real happiness or joy in communing until I was a grownup, far away both physically and psychologically from my childhood church. I never really understood Lutheran sacramental theology until I left home and had an opportunity both to read Luther's works unfiltered and hang out with people of faith whose concept of God's goodness and grace was far wider than what I had been led to believe.

So -- having said all that -- how do I prepare to participate in the Eucharist?

It's taken me several decades to finally get this, but -- as much as I appreciate fixed prayer and ritual as an aid to my ongoing spiritual formation, when it comes to receiving the Sacrament, I keep it simple. My pre-Eucharistic prayer of choice is: Help. My prayer upon having communed is: Thank you. I mean it when I ask for help; I mean it when I give thanks. I honestly can't think of anything better to say, or do, around the Holy Meal.


P. Softly said...

Although I have relatives in the Lutheran branches where they have to "announce" for communion, I've never belonged to those branches. However, I do relate to the more solemn mode you describe, because that is how communion was "celebrated" 30 or 40 years ago. If you can call that a "celebration."

My childhood best friend was Catholic, so had to "fast" before communion, which was every Sunday. I'm not sure what they did at the daily services at their Catholic school. I can see that fasting would at least make a person think ahead to the communion, and thinking ahead might lead to some spiritual preparation.

I belong to a twice a month communion church. I know in advance which Sunday will be communion because I'm in the choir. We may prepare some communion hymns. But we really have to know if it is a feast day because we wear the festive side of our stoles for communion Sundays.

I can see that if I was a pew-sitter only, I wouldn't be thinking ahead, mentally or spiritually preparing at all.

As in many things in life, there are advantages to be found, picked out, of every way of doing something.

But overall, I would choose the approach of Jesus saying, "Come unto me...."

ps I was participating in a discussion of communion on a blog of your old denomination and felt scolded, shunned, and unwelcomed.

bls said...

I do fast before Communion; if it's in the a.m., I fast from any food at all. If in the evening, it's one hour before.

I say the Prayer Before Communion in the BCP, too: "Be present, be present, Lord Jesus, our great High Priest...."

And just before I get to the Communion rail, I say the other one: "I am not worthy to receive you...."

"Help" and "Thank You" are shorthand for all that, though, I'm pretty sure. I'm just neurotic, I guess, and really, really stuck on fixed prayer.


(It's true, though. It's really an effort these days to pray extemporaneously. I get all tongue-tied....)

Ruth said...

Maybe it's having grown up in New England and a few decades later..that my communing experience in the LCMS was quite a bit different. I didn't even realize that they practice so called "closed communion" (not quite Wisconsin Synod style) until I had one foot into the ELCA. We communed every other week.....and of course only after we were confirmed around 8th grade.

I was so pleased to learn that ELCA in general practices first communion at a younger age. Frankly I think the young kids in my new church receive better instruction on it than I did as a confirmant.

Where I am now, we find any excuse to celebrate the eucharist :) I'm making up for past years it seems. The smaller wednesday night services are conveniently just before choir practice....and so special.

As I am now, my preparation before communing is embracing that all of us gathered are there together as one participating. Actual prayers..well more like organic thought with no assigned language.

I still commune when visiting my parents at their LCMS church....I bet technically I shouldn't be served..being an ELCA heretic and all :)