Embracing Mystery and Receiving Wonder

The Lord’s Supper

Q

Our church has embraced a minimalist approach to the Lord’s Supper. We introduce it with very few words. We linger there, but only for about ninety seconds. Then we’re on to the offering or benediction. The meaning of the Lord’s Supper seems clear, but also strangely thin. What can we do?

Q

I’ve been reading books about how the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli gutted the Lord’s Supper of mystery and wonder, leaving so many Protestants with a fairly dry, intellectualist approach to the Lord’s Supper. Yet I can’t seem to track with the mystique that so many people attribute to the Lord’s Supper. What’s wrong with Zwingli?

A

These questions have helped me name and better understand one of the central dynamics I’ve discovered while teaching about the Lord’s Supper: the vast differences each of us brings to richly symbolic artifacts and experiences.

After graduation ceremonies, some graduates proudly display their diplomas while others toss theirs in a desk drawer. After a grandparent’s funeral, one cousin will cherish a small memento from his grandparent’s belongings while another will quickly donate hers to a thrift store. Some wedding ceremonies unfold with one poignant and symbolic gesture after another; others breeze by en route to the reception.

Some of us even from a young age seem wired with a capacity to perceive profound meaning in a given artifact or symbolic experience, but others aren’t that way and find it hard to imagine why other people would be. This helps me make sense of why some churches are content with quite thin celebrations and why some leaders are baffled by those who approach the Lord’s Supper with reverential, mystical language.

Theologians typically diagnose all this in terms of the different theological ideas about the sacraments that have shaped communities and how those ideas prime us to anticipate, notice, and affirm the different kinds of experiences we might have at the table. Across the spectrum of Reformed traditions, it is typically asserted that John Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is more evocative of mystery than Zwingli’s. Indeed, to be lifted up by the Holy Spirit to heaven, where we feed on the ascended Christ—Calvin’s view—is nothing short of an astonishing invitation. And yet anyone who has read what Zwingli said about the virtues of sacramental participation would also be astonished by the boldness of his vision, even if his focus was more on how the supper is primarily an occasion for our mental remembrance of Jesus. Personally, I hope we keep reading both theologians—and that we deeply embrace the profoundly mysterious vision of Calvin that is inscribed in the Reformed confessions. These ideas do matter.

Year after year, I discover people who affirm Calvin’s vision but then seem perfectly satisfied with rather casual, brief, and “not-too-big-a-deal” approaches to the Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but think that we all need some help when it comes to experiences of astonishment, wonder, and amazement. These emotive expressions are right at home in the Christian faith. Jesus’ parents (Luke 2:48), disciples (John 4:27), and Jewish contemporaries (John 7:15) were astonished by him. Jesus promises that we will be astonished by all the works God will do (John 5:20), echoing Old Testament prophecies (Habakkuk 1:5; Isaiah 52:14). Yet it seems as if in public worship we tend to squelch experiences like these or try to coerce them through contrived or inauthentic invitations.

I have been musing lately about all the ways that we humans, across cultures and time periods, experience amazement and astonished wonder. Colloquial phrases like “take our breath away” and “rendered speechless” begin to show us how embodied an experience can be. We stretch the English language to its limit, using words like “dumbfounded,” “flabbergasted,” or “gobsmacked” to convey experiences of astonishment. The more I look for this kind of experience, the more I see it: as people travel to a national park, hold a newborn baby, learn to notice an exceptionally compelling birdsong, or experience a stunning athletic accomplishment, musical composition, or work of art. Quite a few social media posts I see feature testimonies of astonished wonder about something.

If a really good theological vision is not enough to warmly invite people into amazement and wonder at the table, what can we learn from all this?

  1. One common element is that when people talk about amazing experiences, they can’t help but testify: “Now that is a remarkable rainbow.” “Holding that baby is pure joy.” “That high-jump performance was breathtaking.” And testimony seems to be a contagious form of speech. A rookie tennis fan sits in the stands perplexed by it all. After hanging around a while, she starts to notice remarkable serves or backhands and exclaims, “Now that was the most remarkable backhand recovery I’ve ever seen!” What would happen in our communities if we listened more deeply to the testimonies of those who truly experience amazement and wonder at the table?
  2. Another commonality is that these experiences all require people to slow down long enough to pay deep attention. Hikers on a park trail need to pause at a lookout spot to take in the vista. Fans in the baseball stands need to get off their phones and actually watch the artfully turned double play. Fly-by Lord’s Supper rituals do not linger long enough.
  3. A third common element is that while an astonishing experience is accessible even to those who have little knowledge to interpret it, such as very young children, the more we learn about it, the more the astonishment grows. Physicists gain knowledge about the light of sunsets. Midwives and doctors gain expertise to assist in childbirth. A pitching coach knows a lot about the mechanics of a curveball. All that knowledge can enhance their experience of the wonders that come their way—provided they pause often enough from all their technical tasks to hum a doxology.

So it is at the Lord’s Supper: contagious testimonies about trinitarian beauty, slowing down to behold the mystery of union with Christ, and continually learning from doxologically shaped theology all help to grow cultures of profound engagement.

In all of this, we may well need to pay renewed attention to those who struggle, suffer, mourn and grieve: a spouse who has lost a loved one and senses at the table a profound unity with all those in heaven and on earth who praise the Lamb who was slain; those who struggle with poverty yet stand side-by-side at the table in equal need and dignity with those who are wealthy; those who are addicted to work or substances or fame and come to the table in need of healing. So often the most contagious testimonies come from the margins.

A generation ago, these words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel were among the most cited inspirational quotes: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

I find myself praying more and more that congregations and their leaders will pray for a profound sense of wonder at the table and that they will seek to shape cultures of amazement. Ultimately, cultures of amazement and astonishment can’t be engineered or coerced, but they can be gently nurtured.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.