Monday, October 1, 2007

God, Coming and Going

I read the following words yesterday on a blog:

"I love it when I remember to watch people streaming into worship. It's always beautiful."

Indeed. This line took me back to a time when I was still straddling denominations. I had been reared in a high liturgical tradition, and one in which communion was always taken by rising and going to an altar to receive it from a priest. The first time I went to a mainline Protestant church (which happened to be on World Communion Sunday, probably 13 years ago) I wondered at the many stacking trays on "the altar" (not, I later learned, the correct terminology). They looked to me like those food dehydrators one used to see on infomercials. When communion was served to me in the pew, I had a powerful sense of the wrongness of it... and I wondered at that. As I pondered, over the next days and weeks, why it was that receiving communion seated seemed to wrong, I realized that the experience of watching people rise and go forward to receive, the movement of bodies, the flow, was a visual icon for me of the body of Christ. The people were the blood flowing through the body of Christ.

Some time not too long after that I was having lunch with a Presbyterian minister, and I asked him about the tradition of receiving communion seated. He paused and thought for a second, then he asked me this:

"Which would you say is more true: that God comes to us or that we go to God?" I grinned and conceded that, given what we believe about Jesus, I would have to say that God comes to us.

But I am not so sure about that any more. I do believe that God comes to us, in Jesus and in others. But I also believe that we reach out and take steps to bring ourselves closer to God. I know that the Reformers would argue (Calvin most strenuously) that we can do no good of our own accord, the image of God in us is so defaced by sin. And I take sin seriously. (How can one not, reading the news?) But I also believe, as Fox has pointed out, that an original blessing preceded and was not obliterated by the sin.

I am now at ease (and at home) receiving communion in both ways (and giving it in both ways as well). But my friend More Cows stirred my memory of the beauty of that visual icon for me yesterday. I don't think it hurts to be reminded that we are that one glorious body, and that we are less than we could be if that body were unified.


more cows than people said...

nice... yes... wow... the blood flowing, I get that. For some reason sitting in the congregation watching as people go forward for communion is more powerful for me then serving. I don't think the movement is as evident from that upfront position.

When I sit still and watch the people coming in all entrances at the beginning of worship, watch the folks helping a woman in a wheel chair transfer to a pew and get settled, watching kids gather distractions for the hour ahead, watching hugs, and knowing glances, and busyness, and stillness, seeing people who've been ill walk through those doors, seeing people who've been angry walk through those doors, seeing people who've just been missing walk through those doors, God it's beautiful.

Jan said...

Cecilia, thank you for this thoughtful post. I chucked at the food dehydrators analogy! There is an odd similarity in some churches.

I think it FEELS like we come to God, but God is already closer than ourselves, as Augustine wrote somewhere. It certainly is the image I need though.

klady said...

Thank you. I had similar feelings this Sunday when we had a Sung Eucharist, incense, and processing galor for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. My voice was shot from being sick earlier in the week so I got to see the full procession from the nave instead from up in the choir stalls. I forgot how lovely it is for everyone to be flowing up the aisles on a feast day with sunshine and color and light and song.

Obviously my liturgical world is different from yours currently. Thanks for the lesson. I really had no idea that there were any mainline denominations that served communion in the pews (only experienced the Methodists and the Lutherans who go up front, along with us pesky Piskies). I googled a bit and found out that at least the Presbyterian style originated with some radical Scots way back when. Don't know about anyone else.

Fascinating. I guess I'd have a really hard time with it myself, but anything done with love and intention surely must be right in the end.

I just had a funny image of God as a visiting pastor or bishop trying to figure out how the locals do the service and just going with the flow (well, he is the flow, of course, but it reminds me of those kinds of visitors who seem to step into things seamlessly). What a motley crew we Christians are!

Diane M. Roth said...

I believe that God comes to us, even though we "go up" for communion (instead of taking it in our seats).
I think the sense in coming up to the table, is a response to the word. we hear the word, and it's an irresistable invitation. so then, I guess, we do go to God.

Barbara said...

God is waiting for me. Always. And so it is up to me to go to God. And so I do. Always.

Jennifer said...

What a fascinating post...having grown up an American Baptist, I'm very comfortable with receiving communion in the pews. While I will "go up," it feels very Catholic to me, and I'm forever worrying about whether it's left hand over right, right hand over left, or if there is a particular "way" to do things. What I love about being in the pews is that we serve one another. Passing the tray to my spouse, we become ministers to each other, and to the neighbor just beyond us, and so on. Having been nurtured by the communion scene at the close of the movie "Places in the Heart," communion in the pews is when I feel God's healing power, forgiveness, and the incredible miracle of being a community of belief despite all our differences and flaws. It's a miracle no matter how we receive it, is it not?

More cows--I love your description of the gathering. Since I'm perpetually distracted by my own kids settling in with their distractions, I don't often notice enough. Thank you--I'm going to look up more this Sunday.

June Butler said...

Cecilia, I love to watch the flow to communion, too, and I love going up towards the altar to receive.

I have also had communion in the pew that was quite reverent and moving, however, I prefer going forward.

Anonymous said...

"I realized that the experience of watching people rise and go forward to receive, the movement of bodies, the flow, was a visual icon for me of the body of Christ. The people were the blood flowing through the body of Christ..."

Beautiful! Can I use that imagery some time in the future? I'm sure there is a use for it.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Well, if God does it all, then shouldn't the communion servers be forcing communion down our throats? :)

I'm all for liturgy and theology that reflect one another. But really, doesn't every moment in the service reflect God's initiative in some way and our grateful response in another way? Even going to church in the first place is about the one who made the invitation, and our grateful response of getting our butts there.

I like having to get up and move for communion. God gave me salvation without my having to do thing one to earn it... but to build a life with a community, to act in service to Christ and other people, to participate in love--all that takes my active participation, it doesn't just come to me while I sit passively in the pew.

Cecilia said...

I so love all these responses... I think Heather captures it, every moment in the service reflecting some part of the dance of God's initiative and our acceptance.

Chris, sure, of course, feel free.

Pax, C.

janinsanfran said...

I'm a "going up" Episcopalian, but what I really love is that in my parish we form a circle around the altar to receive. The priest and chalice bearer work their way around -- and then the circle bows slightly to each other, recognizing each other as icons of Christ. Then that set sit down and a new circle (roughly 45 people) come up and repeat the ritual. It is lovely.

Unknown said...

I'm from an Anglican church in Canada, and we "go up". I love the movement, and the gathering together at the rail. When I'm not serving, I sit up near the front of the church, and I love to see people come down from receiving, seeing their faces and being greeted and smiled at and touched sometimes in their state of grace. There's something of ballet in how it works in my parish.

I like Jan's story, about the gathering in the circle. It's the gathering that touches me. I most love the days when we're invited all to go up together, and stand two or three deep at the rail together. We don't do that naturally -- we're all very polite and wait for each other to take our turns, and that has its loveliness too.

Gay, Married, with Cat said...

I read this post with a smile. I'm sure that God is fine with either way of taking communion.