By Dr. Mike Graves, Scholar in Residence and Minister of Spiritual Formation
If you look up the word communion in the dictionary, the first entry simply reads “sharing,” whereas other entries have the usual religious overtones. Turns out, sharing is precisely what the Greek word means as well, only with definite religious overtones. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are sharing in a meal with God. But there is also a horizontal dimension, sharing with one another, a sharing of food as well as our lives.
Historically, the meal pattern of Jesus and his followers was influenced by Greco-Roman banqueting, even the so-called Last Supper. These banquets lasted the better part of an evening, and included a full meal, not just bread and wine. Sharing life together was an integral part. The one Greek word used to describe that kind of social sharing is best translated “festive joy,” which seems redundant. Isn’t joy always festive, and festive always joyful? And yet that’s the term used to describe what we now call Communion, festive joy.
Change is hard of course. For many of us, Communion is a time for prayer and silent reflection, which would have made no sense to our ancestors in the faith who gathered in the spirit of a dinner party. Times change, but thankfully in all of our services we have time not just for greeting one another but also silent moments for prayer and reflection because this is a cherished tradition for many of us.
Since this is the 300th anniversary of the carol “Joy to the World,” we adopted that as our theme for Advent this year. And with joy in the title, it seemed that joyful Communion made sense. If you have never experienced it, joyful Communion happens best not with the passing of trays but with stations where worshipers take a piece of bread and dip it in the cup. That’s because instead of worshipers silently passing trays (which doesn’t exactly promote sharing in the fullest sense of the word), people make their way forward and back to their seats, talking with one another as they do. Some people call that “fellowship,” which by the way, is another translation for the Greek word called sharing. In other words, for these few Sundays of Advent, we are sharing bread and cup together, but also our lives.