More than a Feeling

My mother-in-law has a fondness for American peanut butter. It used to be hard to find in France. When she came to the United States for a visit, we made sure we had a supply ready for her.

She attributed her liking of peanut butter to her school days. After World War II, she attended a boarding school run by Roman Catholic nuns. Good food was scarce, especially protein. Every day she and her classmates would line up to receive a generous spoonful of peanut butter gooily dispensed from a 55-gallon drum. (I presume the shipments were part of the American Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe.) The way my mother-in-law tells it, as the girls would open their mouths and the spoonful was placed in it, the nun would whisper, “From your friends in America.”

I do not know if the nuns were so shaped by the sacrament that their peanut-butter distribution took on  sacramental overtones.

I do not know if the nuns were intentionally mimicking a sacramental encounter or if they were so shaped by the sacrament that their peanut-butter distribution took on sacramental overtones.

I wish that we were as fond of the Lord’s Supper as my mother-in-law is of peanut butter. I wish that our experience at the Table would be as unforgettable as my mother-in-law’s boarding-school memories. I’m not alone. All sorts of Protestants, Reformed and otherwise, have been seeking to elevate the importance of the Lord’s Supper (or, actually, both sacraments).

For more than a couple of decades, a broader worship renewal across American Protestantism has been experimenting with ways to enhance the Supper. Fresh and seasonally varied liturgies, a celebrative rather than sorrowful tone and more music and singing as part of the celebration of the sacrament are some common examples.

In my own experience, changing the way the elements are distributed has greatly increased appreciation for the Supper. Instead of the once-typical passing of trays with cubed bread and little glasses through the pews, intinction is now the favored mode of distribution – not unlike my mother-in-law and her peanut-butter-distributing nuns. Actions such as coming forward to receive or forming a circle around the Table are wonderful antidotes to passive worship. They give worshippers an opportunity to respond and to signal their commitment. That instant of personal encounter when the server offers the bread or cup, sometimes even calling you by name, is especially meaningful to many people. The communicant replying, “Amen” or “Praise God” completes the moment.

Of course the move toward celebrating the Supper more frequently also is noticeable. Congregations that once celebrated quarterly now do so monthly or even weekly. The cliché that more frequent partaking will cause the Supper to be “less special” never seems to go away (although no one ever uses that reasoning for pizza, sex or sermons). More significant are the glowing reports from congregations who have moved to weekly communion.

INCARNATION TAKES WORK

These changes – from frequency to method of distribution to concerns about gluten and more – always necessitate long conversations about logistics, hygiene and labor. Such discussions can seem a wearisome distraction. I can’t quite say I enjoy them, but I like to hope they are a reminder of the messy and incarnational nature of the Supper. Like everything incarnational, the sacraments require work.

The aim of all these efforts is to make the Supper feel more meaningful, for there to be a holy moment, for the sacrament to be a powerful experience. That’s a good thing – except when it causes the efficacy of the Supper to be measured by feelings.

When I was taught the sacraments, the Catholic thing was the bad thing, the superstitious thing. It was the irrational and idolatrous notion that the sacraments just “worked,” regardless. In the Catholic view of the Supper, you were practically producing superfood that would automatically do wonders for anyone. So in baptism, why not go out with a fire hose and spray down everyone, because all who got wet would be saved? We laughed at such silliness.

I’m not going Catholic. Moreover, I definitely do hope the sacraments will carry an emotional wallop. But if we make our feelings the barometer for the value the sacraments, we are headed for trouble. This is the plague of modern worship. Our emotions are at the center. Every Sunday, the bar has to be set higher. “Was it good for you?” becomes the big question.

My own personal experience of the sacraments is rarely emotive. I’m too consumed by the next face to appear, concerned that the service may run long, wondering if we will have enough bread, fretful that the child will be squirmy.

I have discovered a deeper feeling and greater joy – trusting that the Holy Spirit is always ahead of and bigger than our feelings. I eat the bread and drink the cup truly believing that very afternoon and on Monday and Tuesday, maybe even through Wednesday, I will be more a habitation of the Holy Spirit, more pious, patient and loving than I would otherwise be. Not because I feel something or will be more determined but simply because my soul has been fed.

Let’s imagine an exquisite dinner – wild salmon, asparagus, French bread and baby-kale salad. The lights are low; the music, quiet. There is a stunning table of flowers and linen, silver and crystal. But what if I receive that same food on paper plates, while standing in a dreary corner? Great atmosphere may delight me, but I am nourished regardless. Likewise with the Supper. I prefer a beautiful experience, but my soul is nourished either way. The Spirit works within me, without me. Yes, I believe that.

Our confessional statements say many things about the Lord’s Supper, but these are my favorite lines: Christ “nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 75) and “truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ” (Belgic Confession Article 35). The actor is Christ. The actions are Christ’s. I am nourished and refreshed with his crucified body. I simply receive the true body and true blood.

Snickers candy bars has a series of TV ads that show people acting exceptionally peevish, clumsy or selfish. Then they eat a Snickers bar and are instantly transformed back into their true and better selves. It may not be as immediate and obvious as in the candy-bar commercials, but increasingly that’s how I receive the Supper.

“Magic” is another one of those bad words I was trained to avoid in discussions of the sacraments. It isn’t really accurate, but it points in a helpful direction. “Miracle” is the better word. A wise colleague once observed, “Protestants believe in miracles everywhere, except in the sacraments.” I don’t want to be that kind of Protestant anymore.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell pastors Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa.

Image: PiccoloNamek at English Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons