After several years living in Kupang, the provincial capital of West Timor, Indonesia, John and I moved several miles east to a farming village that is now no longer small or quiet. In our village home we attended Gethsemane Church, the closest congregation of Global Ministries’ partner, GMIT, the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor. It was at the Gethsemane Church that John and I first had communion ‘round the cross.
In keeping with its Dutch Calvinist roots, GMIT observes communion four times a year, open only to catechized members in good standing. Communion is never integrated into a regular church service, but is always a stand-alone event, preceded the afternoon or evening before by a special service of confession and cleansing for those who plan to attend communion. In preparations for a communion service at Gethsemane Church, the janitor, with help from the church youth, would rearrange the wooden-slatted pews into a u-shape several rows deep, leaving a large open space in the center of the sanctuary. Several long tables—the size and shape taking me back to church basement dinners of my childhood—were then arranged in the shape of a cross—about four tables long, with a table on each side of the second table to form the arms of the cross. The top of the cross would always face the chancel; the foot always pointed to the front doors of the sanctuary. A wooden pedestal, on top of which was a wooden collection box with a slot in its hinged lid, was placed at the foot of the cross. Chairs were closely arranged around the entire circumference of the cross, with only about two feet of space between the “cross” and the snaking row of chairs.
GMIT churches are not built with narthexes, so when we would arrive for communion, we would be greeted by a church elder and deacon at the door and, upon crossing the threshold, would immediately see the giant cross and wooden box where we would place our special offering before finding a pew seat, set back from the cross. O yes, and there was, and still is, a self-imposed dress code: white shirts and blouses, black skirts and trousers. Congregants dare not arrive late for communion, and when it was time to begin, the doors would be closed and we would sit quietly in a sea of black and white, meditating on color-coded sin and redemption.
The cross was already prepared when we arrived. The tables were covered with crisply-ironed white cloths reaching almost to the floor and candles were strewn down the middle of the cross, as much to keep the flies away from the bread and wine as to symbolize the light of salvation. One large chalice, filled with terribly sweet imitation wine, and a whole loaf of bread resting on a tin platter were placed at the head of the cross. Trays of small communion glasses, filled with the same wine, and trays of de-crusted white bread cut into cubes were placed between the candles. All the bread and wine was covered by, again, crisply-ironed white squares of cloth, one cloth for each pair of trays.
The liturgy would begin as usual with a call to worship, introit, confession and pardon of sin, an invitation to the table, the Nicene creed in unison, etc. When it was time for partaking of the sacrament, assigned elders and deacons would approach the table to neatly fold and set aside the cover cloths. Rev. Koli (since deceased) in his flowing black robe that reached to the ground would carefully descend from the pulpit with an air of magnificent solemnity he conveyed so well, walk slowly past the altar and down the steps of the chancel, to stand regally at the head of the cross. With silent instructions from elders and deacons, congregants would quietly rise and gather around the cross, led by an elder or deacon who entered from the foot of the cross and walked up both sides until the cross was encircled by worshippers who were invited to sit with a hand gesture by Rev. Koli. I remember this gesture, perhaps because Rev. Koli’s personal mystique, polished as it was via communion, included immaculately manicured nails.
A Bible passage was read, the words of institution recited to bless the sacrament, bread eaten, wine drunk (either separately or from a common cup passed around the cross). Then the first group returned to their seats while the rest of the congregation sang a hymn and the next group took their seats around the cross. The ritual and words of institution remained the same, only the Bible passage changed with each round.
I remember grumbling more than once about the amount of time this drama required as the congregation grew over the years. Towards the end of our time at Gethsemane Church, before several branch posts became full-fledged congregations (including Hope Congregation where John and I now worship) I remember counting the rounds of worshippers around the cross—nearly 25 rounds that required a three and a half-hour service. Even now I remember the sweat running down my forehead, arms, and legs; the loss of concentration; how singing in unison became a welcome reprieve from the words at the table that had become monotony as the hours passed.
Communion ‘round the cross is a fading ritual. We have attended a number of such services at Hope Congregation, based on the practice learned at the “mother” church, Gethsemane, but they are now seldom. However, there is one communion service I remember with poignant clarity. John and I were amongst the last to arrive so that the only remaining seats were “front-row” close to the cross. As we sat singing while others in their black and white approached the table, my eyes were cast down to read each hymn’s lyrics. This was when I began paying close attention to those who passed in front of me as people found a seat at the cross. There were dirty trousers frayed at the end, with cracked heels and calloused toes splayed over the tip of worn flip flops; there were elegant heels and the latest style in skirts; a couple of skirts were held closed at the waist with safety pins; there were leather shoes polished to a shine; there were jackets and ties; frayed and dirty collars; black and white, black and white passing in front of me, but noting the marks of class I was painfully reminded of the vast economic divides within my own congregation, with the vast majority of those at the table cash-impoverished tenant farmers.
I do not know the actual origins of communion ‘round the table in GMIT, but I do know that Gethsemane Church under Rev. Koli’s leadership was one of the few that nurtured this form. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine Rev. Koli was inspired by tableau images of the Last Supper.
Those years of sitting together around the cross for communion have not resulted in any redistribution of wealth or needed jolts to structures that provide economic security to some and rob it from many others. I once grumbled often about the time required for communion, but those moments of sitting side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder around the cross, to face each other across the divisions of class were fleeting. Writing about the past, I now recognize the loss. Although we still commune together, the ritual that crossed divisions through an act of symbolic redemption, theologically intended for ongoing solidarity, has faded. Communion today more closely approximates the communion of my youth in Nebraska. We still gather for a special service, but we almost always sit in regularly-spaced horizontal pews, facing the chancel, taking our bread, then wine in unison as one body. We see the pastor, church elders, and deacons at a distance and above us, with only the backs of heads of those sitting close in front of us to ponder. We have traded intimacy for efficiency, compressing meaning into the framework of a “modern world”.
I miss communion around the cross, but at the same time must be honest: I do not miss the hours of sitting in a hot sanctuary with slowly-rotating wall fans that don’t work half the time. So I preserve and share my memories to commemorate what was valuable, and to invite us to move beyond the form to the meaning, freedom, and ethics of true Christian community.
Karen Campbell-Nelson, member of Upland Presbyterian Church, Upland, CA, serves the Evangelical Christian Church of West Timor as a professor in the Faculty of Theology of Artha Wacana Christian University. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, Week of Compassion, One Great Hour of Sharing and your special gifts.