Serving the elements in the Reformed tradition
Our celebration of the Lord's Supper in the Reformed tradition is sometimes touched with uncertainty. Is there something sacred about wine, or is grape juice an acceptable option? Are there rules about whether the bread should be leavened or unleavened, store-bought or home-baked, white or wheat? Is a single chalice more meaningful than a tray full of small cups? Who should bring the elements to the table—and when? Does it make any difference what we do with leftover elements?
On the following pages Howard Hageman addresses some of those questions.
What Do We Serve?
We must begin by determining what the eucharistic elements are in Reformed practice. Of course, everyone realizes that by New Testament example they are bread and wine, but that simple statement requires a good deal of further definition. Christians from various traditions have developed different ideas about what is appropriate to the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper.
The Reformed tradition has always rejected the unleavened bread that was introduced in the Western church around the tenth century and is used to this day in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran churches. In keeping with early church practice, the Reformers used ordinary leavened bread, as have the Eastern churches throughout their history.
Most of our churches have traditionally used ordinary, white bread, cut into cubes. But recently that choice has drawn some criticism as a custom that emphasizes the individual communicant rather than the community.
Today more and more Reformed and Presbyterian congregations are passing around a loaf or two from which each communicant can pull off a piece—a more fitting symbol of the fact that being many, we are still one body because we are all partakers of one bread.
As many congregations have discovered, however, the bread purchased in a supermarket is often not appropriate for passing and breaking. It is too soft. Instead, select a crusty loaf that's easy to break. If possible, make the communion together even more meaningful by asking families of the congregation to take turns baking the bread for the sacrament.
In the American Reformed tradition, customs involving the cup have been greatly influenced by two developments: the late-nineteenth-century discovery of a method of bottling grape juice and the invention of individual cups. Today many Reformed communion tables hold trays of individual cups filled with grape juice rather than a chalice filled with wine.
This is not the place to enter into a discussion about the use of alcohol in the Eucharist. People's minds have generally been made up on that question and are not likely to change. No matter which side of the argument we fall on, though, we must concede that in our society "the fruit of the vine" may be either fermented or unfer-mented (though in our Lord's time it was probably the former).
The use of individual cups creates another set of problems. Much as we may deplore it as a symbol of the individual rather than the community, the individual cup is likely here to stay—especially now that AIDS has become a common fear. The flu epidemic of 1918 introduced the individual cup in many congregations, and the AIDS scare has certainly tended to make it a permanent feature. But the fact that these tiny cups have driven the chalice from many of our tables is one to be deplored. The lifting of the cup following the breaking of the bread is an important Reformed custom that lifting a little glass (or a whole tray of little glasses) hardly satisfies. The minister should lift a chalice of some size and beauty as he repeats the words of the institution—and there is no reason why he should not drink from it. Many congregations also possess a pitcher, from which the minister pours the wine into the chalice as he says the Lord's words. This certainly is a very fitting symbolic action.
In some congregations the practice of intinction has been introduced as a way of preserving the use of the common cup. After the communicant has torn off her piece of bread, she dips it into the cup before consuming it. Intinction, an adaptation of an Eastern Orthodox practice, can be effective in congregations who are (or become) accustomed to the practice.
When and How Do We Place the Elements on the Table?
Interestingly, the custom most Reformed congregations are familiar with—placing the elements on the table before the service begins—is not one that Calvin followed. In Calvin's churches the congregation sang the creed as the minister brought the bread and wine from a small table at one side of the chancel and placed them on the communion table. This custom was probably a last remnant of the former offertory procession.
The one Reformed tradition in which the offertory procession has been preserved is the Scottish. To this day, elders in Scottish churches carry in the bread and wine in a procession while the congregation sings the metrical version of the twenty-fourth psalm: 'Te gates, lift up your heads on high."
Today the practice of the offertory procession seems to be growing in other churches of the Reformed tradition. Those who bring forward the monetary offerings of the congregation are accompanied by others who bring forward the gifts of bread and wine that will be used in the eucharist. Usually the church officers carry in the elements. However, if one family has baked the bread or made the wine for the sacrament, it is certainly fitting that they be the ones to bring these items to the table as part of the offertory procession.
What Actions Accompany the Sacrament?
Our Reformed theology of the eucharist has always insisted that Jesus Christ is really present in the Holy Supper. But we believe he ispresent in the action of the sacrament rather than enclosed in the bread or wine. The sacrament is not a thing but an activity. To symbolize this conviction, we have emphasized the breaking of the bread and the lifting of the cup. But some of our congregations have forgotten that these actions must be visible in order to be meaningful.
If a congregation chooses to use small cubes for the sacrament, they should make sure that the minister has a larger piece of bread on the table—a loaf that he can break visibly before the congregation. The symbolism of breaking the bread becomes even more apparent when the congregation passes the loaf, each person breaking off a piece.
We have already spoken of the need for a chalice for the minister's use. Again, its importance stems from the standpoint of visibility, something that a small individual cup cannot provide. But it must be stressed that the chalice should contain wine and not be on the table merely as an ornament.
Many Reformed and Presbyterian congregations have attempted to enhance the symbolism of communion in the sacrament by asking the congregation to retain the bread and wine until everyone has been served. One can easily appreciate the need for this symbol of community in a time when so much of our eucharistic symbolism has become individualized. However, the symbolism in this case can sometimes seem a little forced—especially when all the members of the congregation lift their little glasses and drink at the same time!
What Do We Do with the Leftover Elements?
Any bread and wine that remains is simply bread or wine. These elements were set apart for a holy and mystical use during the celebration, but once that use has ended so does their distinctiveness. Our theological tradition knows nothing of treating the elements as sacred.
At the same time, we would do well to treat them reverently. The possibilities are numerous. Share the loaf with the birds, for example, and spill the wine reverently on the ground. Or share the loaf with those in need. Disposing of the elements reverently simply requires a little imagination and a little thought about what would be best for a particular congregation and celebration.
A Simple Celebration
The sacrament of Holy Communion does not have to involve an elaborate liturgy; the words of institution, a prayer of thanksgiving, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit are all that are needed. We simply follow our Lord's pattern: we give thanks, break the bread and share it, using the words that he used in the upper room, certain that he will be there eating and drinking with us.
In a time when churches of the Reformed tradition are seeking to recover their Calvinistic heritage of more frequent celebrations of the Lord's Supper, we may have to consider simplifying our methods of preparation. A loaf of bread and a cup of wine are really all that is necessary, however we choose to share them. These elements and the Word of the Lord lift us up into the heavenly places where we share the life and victory of Christ.
In A Word
Christians have used many names to refer to the sacrament instituted by Christ the night before his crucifixion. Some of the more common include Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, Holy Supper, and the Eucharist.
Eucharist, a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving and gratitude," has been used as a name for the sacrament since the second century. The eucharist or eucharistia refers to the tradition of Hebrew prayer originally offered before meals, in which Jews blessed God, giving thanks in remembering, confessing, and proclaiming what God has done for his people. When the early Christian church gathered for the sacrament, they did so in the context of a meal, which included a eucharistic prayer for the work of Christ. Eventually Christians used the term eucharist to describe not only the prayer but the entire sacrament as well.
The word eucharist emphasizes the spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude with which we come to the table of the Lord. We express our unity with the Christian churches of all times when we begin the sacrament with the ancient words of the eucharistic prayer: "Lift up your hearts" "We lift them up to the Lord."