Before arriving in the Middle East, I knew very little about the Christian community here. I had studied Arabic in college, taking several courses on the politics and culture of the region but, in truth, I had a 2-dimensional understanding of the region. Like any large swath of land, it cannot be reduced to a single ethnic or religious or linguistic group. In Lebanon, a plot of land dwarfed by larger states like Iraq or Egypt, there are 18 categories of official religion according to the government. Of these 18, many are various Christian denominations (considered very distinct from one another), while a handful of varieties of Islam comprise the remainder, augmented by several less-known religions. As I grew aware of my shallow understanding of the Christian communities in the Middle East, I made the effort to discover what made them so distinct. The results are too many to simply list, but reflect a great depth of diversity, particularly concerning the ritual of Communion.
The rituals and services of some churches, namely the protestant churches that stem from a common tradition as the United Church of Christ, are nearly indistinguishable from our own. Bread and wine might be served through intinction or in small communion cups passed around the rows. This ritual was accessible & manageable for a North American expatriate to handle.
Other traditions were more difficult, like those of the Anglican Church I attended in Jordan. While the priest was a very relaxed individual, I always felt a certain amount of anxiety when it came to communion. Kneeling at the banister, we were served pieces of bread and offered to drink from the communal silver chalice. I often wondered how to behave: should I submit even though this method made me nervous (not least because I always worried about drips!) or was I allowed to override the system by saving my bread and dipping it in the chalice? Should I conform to the tradition in which I was participating or stay true to the ritual which brought the most meaning and nourishment to my spirit?
In more historical traditions, I was spared this anxiety: the non-reformed Orthodox and Catholic churches I attended had strict rules concerning who was afforded access to communion and I never fulfilled the requirements. In the Greek Orthodox tradition of Jordan, the communion meal must be the first meal of the day; some individuals even fast from Friday night until Sunday morning to ensure thorough preparation for the sacred ritual.
Communion traditions represent fundamental differences in our approach; the open table of protestant denominations allows welcome for all to share while Catholic and Orthodox traditions ask participants to thoughtfully prepare for the meal. The diversity of the region reveals its layers over time and I suppose I have only scratched the surface. But what I have seen affirms the beauty of each tradition, be it traditional or new. However, all traditions lift up the mystical gathering of joining each other at the table, one in the spirit.