If you’re looking for a good read that will refresh your understanding and especially your experience of the Lord’s Supper, the writings of John Calvin might not immediately come to mind. They are, admittedly, old and occasionally laden with arguments for or against (usually against) the views of certain contemporaries. But, ultimately, neither their age nor such disputation should be held against Calvin’s works, as they are also imbued with rich pastoral insight and devotional depth.
What follows is an attempt to draw out a few of these pastoral and devotional themes, in the good hope that a fresh read of Calvin may refresh our experience of the sacrament today.
In the interest of letting Calvin speak for himself, some passages from his most well-known work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, are quoted at length. Ponder these passages, and consider their significance for sacramental celebration. Perhaps these passages, along with the themes evoked here, will not only renew your experience of the sacrament, but also be an entrée into further reading of Calvin’s works themselves.
The Sacrament Is a Meal
In his discussion of the Lord’s Supper, Calvin’s first and last word is, tellingly, that the sacrament is a meal. In baptism God adopts us in Christ as children, and then, as any good parent would, God fulfills a basic need: nourishment. God gives us spiritual food for the spiritual journey lest our faith flag.
Immediately following his discussion of baptism and opening his discussion of the Supper, Calvin writes,
God has received us, once for all, into his family. . . . Thereafter, to fulfill the duties of a most excellent Father concerned for his offspring, he undertakes also to nourish us throughout the course of our life.
. . . [I]n baptism, God, regenerating us, engrafts us into the society of his church and makes us his own by adoption. . . . [In the supper] he discharges the function of a provident householder in continually supplying to us the food to sustain and preserve us in that life into which he has begotten us by his Word . . . [that] we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality. (4.17.1).
Truly Nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood
So the sacrament is preeminently a meal by which believers are nourished. But nourished with what? “Christ,” says Calvin, “is the only food of our soul.” This is the point of Jesus’ claim “I am the bread of life” (John 6). The sacrament is given “to seal and confirm that promise” that Christ is perpetually given to us as food for our souls (4.17.4). So, as Calvin says,
. . . when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden (4.17.3).
For Calvin, the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but they are not mere symbols. In the supper we are granted a true, profound, “integral communion of Christ” (4.17.7). Unless we mean to call God a deceiver, we dare not suggest “an empty symbol is set forth by him,” says Calvin. And so, “if it is true that a visible sign is given us to seal the gift of [an invisible thing], when we have received the symbol of the body, let us no less surely trust that the body itself is also given us” (4.17.10).
A High Mystery
That we are nourished with Christ’s body and blood is, as Calvin puts it, “a high mystery” (4.17.1), a mystery we cannot even hope to comprehend. His testimony may well be ours:
I shall not be ashamed to confess that [this] is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them (4.17.32).
So when we celebrate the sacrament, we should revel in an experience of profound, unspeakable spiritual mystery: Christ meets us at the table, and gives us himself—his body, his blood—as spiritual food for the spiritual journey, to nourish, strengthen, and gladden the children of God on our way.
A Great Mystery Accomplished by the Holy Spirit
Our souls truly “are fed by the flesh and blood of Christ.” Isn’t this absurd to say, given that Christ has bodily ascended to heaven?
So it would seem, says Calvin, but then “let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure!” (4.17.10). Christ himself seals the sacred partaking of his flesh and blood in the Supper, “not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises” (4.17.10). As Calvin puts it even more succinctly, Christ “feeds his people with his own body, the communion of which he bestows upon them by the power of his Spirit” (4.17.18).
The work of the Spirit is integral to our “communion of Christ” in the Supper. This is why, just before partaking of the gifts, we are bold to pray, “Lord, our God, send your Holy Spirit so that this bread and cup may be for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Don’t Miss the Mystery—Lift Up Your Hearts!
In the last thirty to forty years, many churches in the Reformed tradition have restored an ancient dialog to their celebration of the sacrament: “Lift up your hearts!” “We lift them up to the Lord!”
Calvin too enjoined his congregants to lift up their hearts and minds. His point was this: Don’t fixate on this stuff before you, on this bread and wine itself; instead, fix your eyes, your mind, your heart on Christ and what Christ here offers, namely, his body and blood as spiritual food for the spiritual journey. “In order that pious souls may duly apprehend Christ in the Supper,” he says, “they must be raised up to heaven” (4.17.36). When a believer sees the sacraments with her own eyes, he writes, she “rises up in devout contemplation to those lofty mysteries which lie hidden in the sacraments” (4.14.5).
So don’t miss the mystery! Lift up your heart! Lift up your mind! Believe—and experience—that we truly partake of Christ’s body and blood, not “solely by imagination or understanding” but enjoying “the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life” (4.17.19).
Medicine for the Sick
In the words of an old, pensive spiritual, “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Calvin, it seems, would assert this very balm is received in profound measure in the Lord’s Supper. “Let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine for the sick, solace for sinners, alms to the poor,” he writes. As poor, we come to the table to “a kindly giver; as sick, to a physician; as sinners, to the Author of righteousness; . . . as dead, to him who gives life.” Truly, the Lord’s Supper “is a sacrament ordained not for the perfect, but for the weak and feeble, to awaken, arouse, stimulate, and exercise the feeling of faith and love, indeed, to correct the defect of both” (4.17.42).
A Celebratory Meal of Thanksgiving
Even if it is solace for our sin-sick souls, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is no occasion for dour remembrance. The sacrament should be celebrated “at least once a week,” says Calvin, in order that believers might “frequently return in memory to Christ’s Passion, [and] by such remembrance . . . sustain and strengthen their faith,” and that they might “urge themselves to sing thanksgiving to God and to proclaim his goodness” (4.17.43, 44). In his first catechism, written in 1537, Calvin notes that the liberality of God’s grace is shown to us in the Supper, and that therefore we are obliged “to extol it with fitting praises and to celebrate it with thanksgiving” (Art. 29).
Personal and Communal
Participation in the Supper is a profoundly personal experience, because in the Supper we truly encounter the person of Christ. And in encountering Christ, we encounter one another. Our union with Christ is personal but never individual. To be in Christ is to be in common union—in communion—with all who are in Christ. Calvin delights in the fact that Augustine frequently refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as the bond of love: “For what sharper goad could there be,” says Calvin, “to arouse mutual love among us than when Christ, giving himself to us, not only invites us by his own example to pledge and give ourselves to one another, but inasmuch as he makes himself common to all, also makes all of us one in himself” (4.17.38).
So together with Calvin, let us “break forth in wonder” over the mystery of this sacrament (4.17.7). Let us be assured that Christ himself summons us to the table in order to nourish us, strengthen us, and gladden us with the only food for our souls. Let us not doubt that Christ offers us the gifts of his body and blood; let us not doubt that by his Spirit we receive them.
All quotations of the Institutes are from Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, ed. by John T. McNeill (Westminster Press). Parenthetical citations refer to the book, chapter, and paragraph where the quote may be found. Online, one can readily find Henry Beveridge’s translation of the Institutes, as well as his translation of Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Supper of the Lord (1541).