The Lord's Supper: How Often?
In most Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the typical Sunday morning worship service is a preaching service in which the sermon is regarded as the centerpiece. The Lord's Supper, or communion, is celebrated infrequently—perhaps four to six times a year—and is viewed by the congregation as something of a special occasion. Such occasional celebration is so much a part of the life of Calvinistic churches that it is probably not widely known that Calvin himself favored weekly celebration of communion.
Why did he favor freqent celebration of the sacrament, and why were his wishes not followed?
Scripture and the Early Church
As is the case with the mode and time of baptism, the Scriptures are not clear about how often the Lord's Supper ought to be celebrated. Jesus himself gave no direction on the matter, nor did the apostle Paul. But Luke reports in the book of Acts: "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread." (20:7) Luke was describing his seven-day visit to the city of Troas in Asia Minor. The passage implies that the breaking of bread was not an unusual occurrence, but the normal practice of the Christians in that city.
Several extrabiblical sources report more explicitly that the early church celebrated the Lord's Supper whenever it met for worship. These include the late first-century Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Apology of Justin Martyr, which was written in the middle of the second century. In The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, which was written around A.D. 200 and is the oldest surviving Christian liturgy, the author documents the normal worship service at Rome, which included the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, as early as the fourth century the laity had already begun to participate in the supper with decreasing frequency.
Calvin and Late Medieval Practice
In the centuries prior to the Reformation a number of serious abuses crept into the life of the church, some of which affected the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The medieval church continued to celebrate the supper (in the form of the Mass) whenever it met, but with the passage of centuries, fewer and fewer people were able to partake of the sacrament. Often only the "celebrants," that is, the presiding clergy, received the bread and wine, while the vast majority of parishioners watched the ceremony passively from a distance. Laypersons who wanted to participate in the sacrament were required to do penance before partaking of the sacrament, and that proved to be a burdensome obstacle to regular participation. As a result, ordinary Christians often received the sacrament on an annual basis only, the absolute minimum permitted by church authorities. This was the situation the Reformers found at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
John Calvin was clearly disturbed by this unbiblical practice and tried to change it in the Genevan church. He used surprisingly strong language in condemning the custom of his day:
Plainly this custom which enjoins us to take communion once a year is a veritable invention of the devil, whoever was instrumental in introducing it...For there is not the least doubt that the Sacred Supper was in that era [the early church] set before the believers every time they met together; and there is no doubt that a majority of them took communion...
Calvin regretted that worshiping Christians were ordinarily prohibited from receiving the sacrament and urged reform:
It should have been done far differently: the Lord's Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually.
[Inst. IV. XVII. 46, emphasis mine].
Unfortunately, the prevailing tradition of Calvin's day reasserted itself. The city fathers of Geneva were unwilling to see the Reformation go this far, at least partly because they felt obligated to examine and approve prospective communicants—a gigantic task that would have made weekly celebration impractical. Consequently, they forced Calvin to settle for a compromise: The people would receive the Lord's Supper four times a year, and the other worship services would become preaching services at which the sacrament would not be celebrated at all. This second-best solution was preferable to a weekly celebration in which most people did not participate.
Calvin could scarcely conceal his disappointment, but he nevertheless foresaw a time when matters might be put right. Towards the end of his life he wrote:
I have taken care to record publicly that our custom is defective, so that those who come after me may be able to correct it the more freely and easily.
[Bretschneider, Corpus Reformatorum, XXXVIII, i, p. 213].
Unfortunately, even defective traditions are not changed quite so "freely and easily." In our celebration of communion, we in the Reformed churches have inherited not the more Reformed practice urged by Calvin, but the less-than-Reformed compromise imposed on him by a city used to the old ways. Is it at last time to think about changing our custom?
The Benefits of Weekly Celebration
Why celebrate weekly? It is impossible to answer this question without understanding why we receive the sacrament in the first place. In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus tells his followers, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (6:35).
This is only one of several places in Scripture where Christ is said to nourish us and we are said to feed on him. At the Last Supper Christ instituted the sacrament as a visible reminder of this nourishment and as a means by which to communicate his grace to us. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it beautifully:
He wants to assure us, by this
visible sign and pledge, that we,
through the Holy Spirit's work,
share in his true body and blood as
surely as our mouths receive these
holy signs in his remembrance (A. 79).
But won't a weekly celebration of communion cause this sacrament to lose its special character? Won't it become routine and humdrum? This is probably the most frequently voiced objection to weekly communion.
First of all, it should be pointed out that we rarely hear anyone object to sitting through sermons on a weekly basis. Yet what we receive in the sacrament simply confirms in a vivid and direct way what we have already received in the proclamation of Scripture in the sermon. Both sermon and sacrament are means of grace that affirm and enrich our faith.
Moreover, it may be that we shall have to reconsider, in a rather basic way, our attitude towards Sunday worship itself. In the Russian language Sunday is called Resurrection Day, underscoring the fact that each Lord's Day is intended to be a "special" one in which we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. If we have come to see normal Sunday worship as routine, then perhaps we need to recover this celehrative character.
As for the Lord's Supper itself, we should begin to think of it as it was meant to be: a meal. We eat meals three times a day. And the most pleasant and meaningful of these are eaten in the company of family and friends. Fellowship at table does not lose its significance simply because it is repeated two or three times daily. The same, I would argue, is true of frequent reception of communion.
Because we are frail human beings plagued with the normal doubts that beset everyone, we need this tangible confirmation of our salvation in Christ's body and blood. Far from being burdensome, our nourishment in the Lord's Supper should be cause for joy and gratitude. In some Christian traditions the Lord's Supper is even known as the Eucharist, from the Greek word meaning "thanksgiving."
One more issue perhaps ought to be addressed: Are we not, by holding the Lord's Supper so often, flirting with a sacramentalist view which sees the sacrament as conferring salvation on us in some magical, automatic way?
No, not in the least; the sacraments themselves do not save us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord's Supper, rather, "nourish[es] and sustain[s] those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church" (Belgic Confession, Article 35).
How Shall We Celebrate?
Some people might point out that the use of lengthy formularies inhibits frequent celebration. This is probably true of the Lord's Supper forms inherited from the sixteenth-century Palatinate by way of the Netherlands. These were in a sense liturgical "training wheels"—didactic monologues used by the Reformers to educate their parishioners concerning the true meaning of the sacrament and to dispel superstitions connected with it. The element of lay participation was almost entirely absent.
Fortunately, this has been largely rectified by many denominations in recent years. The worship edition of the new Psalter HymnaKpp. 972-5) of the Christian Reformed Church contains a Lord's Supper form, approved by synod in 1981, which builds on a much older liturgical tradition that goes all the way back to Hippolytus and that incorporates the congregation as a whole into the liturgy. The Reformed Church in America has a similar "Order of Worship" in Rejoice in the Lord (pp. 560-70) and Worship the Lord (pp. 2-12). These are much more appropriate than our older forms for frequent use.
Some congregations have taken it upon themselves to adapt and vary these forms in accordance with the church year. For example, Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrates weekly communion, and its members have created liturgies that are specifically fitted for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so forth.
As a denomination the Christian Reformed Church also publishes a loose-leaf Service Book, which includes seasonal variations of its 1981 form. Examples of comparable liturgical variations in other traditions can be found in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Episcopal Church's revised Book of Common Prayer (1979), and the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services. A more frequent Lord's Supper need not imply monotony or sameness.
In churches where the Lord's Supper is celebrated weekly, the people have generally come to treasure this opportunity to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8). Far from becoming mundane and ordinary, the supper has come to enrich the faith of those receiving, who increasingly find themselves looking forward to each Resurrection Day with eager anticipation.
For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.