Lent – Finding Spiritual Renewal through Traditional Communion
I always look forward to the spirituality, solemnity, and gravitas of Holy Week. To me it is a deeply personal week, but one that I love to observe amidst a gathering of faithful. We often pause to imagine what life was like in Jerusalem in the first century A.D. In fact, many churches experiment with the traditions of a Jewish Passover Seder and strive to recreate the meaning of the Last Supper.
When Jesus served the first communion to his Disciples, he established a universal tradition, one which transcends all denominations. Practices differ between denominations, yet the meaning of salvation applies to all people who partake of the rite.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the denomination of the Orthodox Initiative – the partner with which I serve – a great emphasis is placed on the preparation of the individual taking Communion. Traditionally, parishioners are challenged to fast from Thursday evening until Sunday morning – remembering the structure of Holy Week throughout the entire year. The specifications of the fast differ for individuals. For many it means avoiding all animal products during the two and a half days. The final hours of the fast are stricter – participants are expected to avoid food and drink from Saturday night until Communion the following morning. The adherence to these rules depends on both the individuals and the priests, but there is a general respect for the tradition. While Communion is offered weekly, parishioners do not necessarily take Communion as often. However, even if one decides he or she is not prepared to take Communion, there is always the opportunity to partake of bread, which is distributed around the sanctuary during Communion. The actual elements of bread and wine are combined in a large chalice before the service and are administered by the priest by spoon.
These traditions differ from our practices in the UCC and DOC – traditions that are just as meaningful. There are times when I look forward to returning home to the Communion I grew up with – orderly trays of Communion cups and small squares of bread. Nevertheless, I am greatly moved by the emphasis on personal preparation that is inherent to the Orthodox tradition. I have often marveled at how nourishing such a small quantity of bread and wine seems when it is consumed in the context of the ancient Communion rite. Surely after a fast the impact of communion is even more powerful. In addition to modeling our Maundy Thursday observance on reconstructed traditions, perhaps sometimes we should experiment with traditions that have been carried on for thousands of years. Ultimately, though, Communion is most nurturing to our faith when we allow ourselves the time to consider and reflect on the sacrifice and love from which it originates.
Ariel Royer, member of New Goshenhoppen United Church of Christ, Greenville, Pennsylvania, serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem/Orthodox Initiative, Jordan. She serves as assistant for Refugee Response and Communications.