Communion & Ascension
Debate concerning the communion service has gone on for centuries. The question has been; how is Jesus present in Holy Communion? There have been a several attempts at the answer. Here are the three “big ones.”
1. Jesus is present in the bread and wine
Do the elements, when consecrated, in some mystical way become the carriers of the presence of Christ? Do the bread and the wine get transposed or metamorphosed into the very body and blood of our lord? Or, does the presence of Christ so infuse the elements that they now “contain” the presence of our Lord? Some of the great traditions within the Christian Church believe that is how the presence of Christ comes to us in the moments of a communion service. He is present “in” or “with” the elements
2. Jesus is present only in memory
At the other end of the spectrum there are those who do not like the magical connotations of having the presence of Christ inside or even connected in any physical way with the elements. They are much more comfortable with the presence of Jesus being only in the memory of those who remind themselves of what Jesus once did. The elements of bread and wine return us in memory to the last supper and to the cross where Jesus paid the ultimate price for our redemption. We participate in this service “in remembrance” of him.
3. Jesus is present in the heart of those with faith
There are others who are not happy with either magic or memory as the answer to the question. They say that Jesus is “spiritually present” in the hearts of those who take communion “in faith”. Those who take communion without faith receive no benefit; they have just eaten bread and drunk wine, and nothing more. But those who come with penitence and trust, find in the taking of the bread and wine that the presence of Jesus Christ is experienced as well.
4. The Ascended Presence
May I suggest another way to understand the “real presence of Jesus” in Holy Communion? Two thousand years ago, Jesus was “really present” with his disciples during their time together in Palestine. Between his birth in Bethlehem and his resurrection he was localized. He could not be in two places at the same time. He was subject to all the limitations of the flesh. During those months there was no doubt that Jesus was really present. He was not in the food they ate, not in their memories, not in their hearts, but he was really present in their lives.
But the day came for Jesus to return to the father in his ascension. (By the way on May 29th this year, 2014, we celebrate Ascension Day.) He said to the disciples, “It is better for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the comforter will not come, but if I go, I will send him to you.”
But what gain would that be? We want Jesus, not another! In some way that we cannot fathom, the presence of the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus Himself. On the day of his ascension the very last words that he speaks to the disciples are, “All power is given unto me… and I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He had just commanded them to go all the nations of the world. They are going to be scattered around the world and from one another. If they are scattered how can he with them all?
The gift of the Holy Spirit was to make the person of Jesus universally present with every member of his church. In the ascension, Jesus Christ was released from his self-imposed bondage to space and time, with the result that Jesus himself could now be fully present in every moment of time and in every location in space.
That does not mean however that now the presence of Jesus is spread out like a thin veneer through space and time that has little resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth. His ascension does not provide us with the wispy presence of an ephemeral Jesus. Because he is no longer subject to the limitations of time and space, he is actually and fully present to each and all of us.
But how does that affect our understanding of Holy Communion?
We know that Jesus is present everywhere with all persons. He is the omnipresent Christ.
We also know that he is present with the believer in a different way. The connection is more intimate. The believer is “in Christ” and in fellowship with him.
But beyond the presence of God with the individual, Jesus infers an even more acute form of his presence. Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” He is present with the world, he is present in the believer, but he appears to be even more intensely present when the church gathers together for His purposes. When the church is met together as the church, the Jesus who was present with the twelve, will be just as present with His gathered church.
So, how is Jesus “really present” in a communion service? I do not think that he is present simply in the elements, or in the minds or hearts of the faithful. He is actually and fully present, with his feet under our table. (or is it our feet under His table?) He is the host who is present at the meal in which we share. He is meeting with us at the trysting place where we had pre-arranged to meet. It is the place and time, when putting aside all distractions, we engage in a conversation where heart meets with heart. It is the time when people who share a very busy and often distracted life, “go out for a meal together” and re-engage with each other. It is, as Horatius Bonar writes in his great communion hymn, “Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face.” This is what we mean when we say that the real presence of Christ is experienced in the hour of Holy Communion.
Think it Through…
Read through the following passages of scripture that turn our focus to the event and the significance of the ascension of Jesus. Ask yourself, do these passages teach us of “the Real Absence” of Jesus, or the “Real Presence?”
Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:49-53, John 20:17, Acts 1:8-11
Ephesians 1:20-23, 4:8-10, Hebrews 4:14, 9:24, 12:2.
Next time you participate in a service of Holy Communion, ask yourself, in what way is the Lord Jesus actually present in these moments, and what response should I be making? Try prepare yourself the day before you next take communion by reading the passages in the Gospels and in I Corinthians, chapter 11 that give focus to this experience in the lives of the early church.
For the Small Group Leader…
Most of us participate in Holy Communion at least once each month. Most of us, I suspect, do not know what is “supposed to happen.” Discuss with your group their understanding and experience of taking part in this celebration. You may find that people in our culture may find the event strange, disconcerting or of no apparent value. But others may reflect upon the deep solace and joy they experience during this event.
Published in Light and Life, May-June, 2002.