I’ve long been a fan of Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. A few years ago, soon after I’d started attending church again after a 20-odd year hiatus, I grew particularly enamored of Krista’s interview with Martin Sheen. It seemed strange to me at first, not knowing anything about Sheen’s faith life, that he’d be on the show. After I listened to the interview once though, I went back to it again and again, mostly to experience the child-like liveliness and apparent joy of his belief.
During one section of the interview, Sheen talks about communion, and the way he describes the sensation of love in taking that meal together gets me every time.
“Whoever the crowd is I’m getting on line with, you just look at the people who are on that line, that community. That is the greatest and simplest expression of… trying to explain this mystery… I never ever can get over it. It’s just something you have to surrender to. And just saying yeah, I’m with them. That’s the community of saints” (www.onbeing.org. 12/16/2015).
It’s the way he talks about “the community of saints,” that I want to hear over and over, the warmth of connection in his voice – there’s almost a chuckle underneath, a well-doesn’t-this-just-beat-all kind of chuckle. It’s an expression of clear and grateful wonder at being a part of a body much bigger than ever we can see.
Tish gets at this when she writes about her former priest who, “asked us to imagine the communion table stretching on for miles, to remind us that when we take communion, we mysteriously feast with all those who are in Christ” (119).
There is something overpoweringly connecting about it, about standing eye to eye with a person sharing the bread and the cup, about the long string of us, all together, all the same in our humanity and our humility, stepping forward to receive what is offered in grace.
The Gathering is the church I was active with in St. Louis, the church I came to after that long hiatus; they celebrate communion every week. For the first five or six weeks I attended church there, I stepped carefully to the side as the other congregants made their way forward to receive the bread and wine. I didn’t go myself because I wasn’t sure what I believed, and I understood fully the importance of this act, the symbolism and power of it.
The day I chose to participate was so average and so momentous. I walked into church and found my way to what was becoming my usual spot. I hadn’t yet decided whether I’d take communion when it was time. Later in the service, as people began to proceed, since I sat near the back, I had some time to think. Part of the liturgy that was spoken and, at that church sung, every week as a lead-up to communion included this:
Pastor: And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mysteryof our faith(emphasis added).
Congregation: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
As I stood there trying to puzzle out whether to step aside again or move into the line, I thought, Do I believe this? From deep inside, I felt a simple, Yes. Then I asked, Do I want to be a part of this? And by “this,” I meant, this following Jesus thing, this being a part of the “community of saints” thing, this not doing life alone, but in kinship with people who believe in the inexplicable divine mystery that doesn’t make a lot of practical sense thing. Yes, I thought. Solidly, quietly, calmly, Yes. I wanted to proclaim, with these people, the mystery of our faith. I went forward, surrendering to the unknowability.
This is one of the things I love about communion, the understanding that what we’re doing there together is mysterious and also powerful. It doesn’t make head-sense, but it makes so much heart-sense, so much in-this-together sense, so much we-are-not-doing-life-alone sense. We are, together, part of a body; in community, we are so much more than our own little parts.
We are, as I can hear in Martin Sheen’s voice during that On Being interview a mysterious, joyous, childlike wonder.
A reflection on Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren. “Chapter 9, Calling a Friend: Congregation and Community”