On Communion Table Kitsch and Advent Wreaths
Q. Just what may go on the communion table? Flowers? Offering plates? Open Bibles? Fake communion bread?
A. Let me begin by suggesting that you restate the question. When we speak about what we may or may not do, we are using law-like language to speak of worship practices. This kind of language (about what is “right” and “wrong”) may lead us to solid worship practices. But it may unwittingly suggest that worship is a chore to perform according to a set of rules. The result is right, but the spirit is wrong.
Instead, how about asking, How can our communion table communicate the meaning of the sacrament in the most profound way? That is a constructive way of asking the question that invites people to think about the details of worship in a new way. The answer to the question might turn out to be the same, but the spirit of the discussion will be more inviting.
So, fake bread is not a way to communicate the meaning of worship in a profound way. It suggests, if anything, that worship is fake, unreal, or plastic—somewhat like plastic flowers on a grave. Offering plates aren’t good either. They suggest that the table is a place where we do something for God, rather than a place where God does something for us. An open Bible certainly isn’t visually heretical—but the pulpit is the place that visually testifies to the importance of the Word. Why not have the table complement rather than restate the visual proclamation of the pulpit? Flowers may beautify the table, but they don’t add to the visual communication of what the table is all about. They may even crowd out the items that would communicate the meaning of the table.
Instead, let the table testify to the wonder of God’s provision for our spiritual nourishment. I would recommend the use of a simple cup (chalice), pitcher, and plate (paten). Whenever possible, let them be sculpted out of clay, the stuff of the earth. And whenever possible, include a short note in your printed order of worship that reminds worshipers of the provision that the table represents. Better yet, use your table frequently for celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Then the matter of what you have on the table during other services won’t be much of an issue!
Q. What do the candles on the Advent wreath really stand for?
A. You can walk into four neighboring churches during Advent and hear four different explanations for what the candles represent. One church may pronounce that the candles refer to four people or groups of people, perhaps Mary, Joseph, the Magi, and the shepherds. Another may associate them with four different angels, and yet another with four different Old Testament prophets. Another may say that they refer to four virtues—hope, peace, joy, and love. This virtues list may be the most common.
Candles are a sign of waiting. They are typically lit during vigils—times when we wait for significant events. The main point is not to dwell on these specifics, but rather to signal a great crescendo of anticipation and hope during the Advent season.
Q. Why is one of our Advent candles pink?
A. The pink candle requires that you understand the link between Advent and Lent. Despite our temptation to make Advent one big happy celebration, Advent and Lent have historically been seen as penitential seasons, times of quiet and sober self-reflection in preparation for the big celebrations of Christmas and Easter. The medieval church designated the fifth Sunday of Lent (called Laetare Sunday or “Joy” Sunday) as a purposeful interruption in this sobriety.
The same happened in the shorter season of Advent: the third Sunday was set aside as a joyful interruption in the quiet, self-reflective worship of the rest of Advent.
If your church practices Advent as a penitential season and recognizes the importance of the virtue of Christian joy in the midst of this vigil, then by all means light the pink candle. But if your church doesn’t observe these, then the detail of that pink candle may be too fussy to be genuinely meaningful. You might consider following the pattern of some churches by replacing the pink candle with another purple one.
We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).