Proclamation of the Gospel through preaching is incomplete without the celebration of the Holy Supper. It is like a tune that doesn’t resolve. It feels unfinished, incomplete.
When I was growing up, we celebrated the Holy Supper (Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist) once a quarter. That was the minimum required in the church order and I have a hunch that they would have celebrated it less frequently if it was permitted. The argument is often “if you do it too often it will be less special.” Which is really nonsensical.
Is embracing one’s partner once a month or once a quarter sufficient? Should we only pray or read the Sacred Texts only once per quarter, or once a month, lest they stop being special? Perhaps the organ should only be played once a month or a quarter, or the choir should only sing once a month or once a quarter, lest these things become less special. I think you can see the strange places where this argument leads.
The essence of the Holy Supper is not–at all–on our own ability to make it feel rare and special. In fact, this misses the point entirely.
The Sacrament was given to us by God so that we are able to experience the Divine promises in tangible ways. Word and Sacrament go together. The proclamation of the Word is when we hear about the divine promises, the sacrament is when they are sealed or confirmed to us.
Sacraments are a means of grace, that is, we experience God’s grace through experiencing the sacraments. In the Holy Supper Christ is truly present. In the Holy Supper, we have a real and deep experience with the living Christ.
So why, then, would we want to forego this?
Weekly celebration of the Holy Supper is biblical, it is the consistent practice of the early church, and it is theologically correct.
In the Acts of the Apostles, in one of the first descriptions of the life of the early church we read that those who were baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We can see that the “apostles’ teaching” and “the breaking of bread” occurs in the same sentence. While this is not an explicit command, we can see how these two belong together.
In the first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul addresses abuses at the Holy Table. In this discourse, he makes mention, several times, of when they “come together,” And thus they celebrated the Holy Supper whenever they gathered. Of course, frequent celebration of the Holy Supper was itself not the abuse that Paul was addressing, and never once did he suggest that they celebrate the Supper less frequently. The practice, then, was to celebrate the Supper every time they gathered which was, we also see in this same letter, that they gather on the first day of every week.
While it is true that there is no explicit command to celebrate it weekly, but all of the narrative evidence includes such, and there is certainly no instruction to celebrate it infrequently. And as with so many other things in history, we need to take the evidence that we do have and see if it has a trajectory, and the biblical evidence most certainly does: frequent celebration of the Holy Super.
The Consistent Practice of the Early Church
The evidence is clear and unanimous that celebrating the Holy Supper weekly was the normal practice, and not only was it only normal but it was also normative.
In the Didache, the earliest extant church manual which most scholars date to the first century gives this instruction regarding Christians assembling on the Lord’s Day:
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.Chap. 14, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm
Here we can see the clear command to gather together on every Lord’s Day and break bread which is a way of speaking of the Holy Supper.
In the sixteenth century, the French-Genevan reformer, Jean Calvin also speaks to this,
Luke relates that in The Acts that this [weekly celebration] was the practice of the apostolic church. …Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving. That this was the established order among the Corinthians also, we can safely infer from Paul [cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20]. And it remained in use for many centuries after.Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.44
Calvin’s assertion is strong here, “unvarying rule” that “no meeting of the church should take place without…partaking of the Supper.” Calvin, therefore, not wishing to break from this tradition but rather wishing to restore it, Calvin argued strongly for a frequent celebration of the Holy Supper, “at least once a week.”
the Supper could have been administered most becomingly if it were set before the church very often, and at least once a week.Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.17.43
I was unable to find a single liturgy from the first thousand years of the church’s existence that did not have the celebration of the Holy Supper as an integral part of it.
There are few arguments in favor of frequent celebration, largely because infrequent celebration was not a possible reality on their mind. Every piece of available evidence indicates that every time the faithful gathered for Liturgy, the Holy Supper was celebrated.
It is Theologically Proper
I note above that the efficacy of the Holy Supper is not our own ability to make it feel special. This cannot be understated.
The Belgic Confession presents a robust sacramental theology, and speaks at length about the fact that the Holy Supper was given to us to “nourish and maintain the spiritual life of believers” (Art. 35). Why would we want this nourishment and sustenance relatively infrequently? Furthermore, the Confession of Faith declares,
This banquet is a spiritual tableBelgic Confession, Art 35
at which Christ communicates himself to us
with all his benefits.
This is so because the Sacrament is not simply a symbol to help us to remember something from the past, as if we are to add the substance to the Sacrament. Rather, the substance is added by Christ who is truly and really present in the Sacrament, and Christ is communicated to us in a very real way.
Yet we do not go wrong when we sayBelgic Confession, Art. 35
that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body
and what is drunk is his own blood—
but the manner in which we eat it
is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit
As such, preaching of the Word without celebrating the sacrament, means that Christ is not as fully communicated to us with all his benefits. The sacrament is given to us for our life and sustenance, and we should enjoy and experience it regularly.
To return to Calvin, who has offered the Reformed tradition some of the most beautiful sacramental theology if we are willing to embrace it.
The Sacrament does two main things, according to Calvin. First, it brings us into the presence of Christ. Calvin writes beautifully about how, in the sacrament, Christ lifts us up to himself, into his very presence, for “this mystery is heavenly” and therefore Christ brings us to himself in the sacramental moment that we might have a true and real experience with the living Christ. He continues,
Now if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink [John 6:53ff.]. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.32.
It is this that reminds us that these are Holy Mysteries, things that we do not completely understand, and which we must experience. Which is not to say that we turn our brains off, but there’s something transcendently mystical about the Holy Supper, in which we have a real encounter with the Divine in ways that do not happen at other places and times.
Secondly, the Holy Supper unites us to Christ, but also to one another in a deep and organic way.
Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity. As it is made of many grains so mixed together that one cannot be distinguished from one another, so it is fitting that in the same way we should be joined and bound together by such great agreement of minds that no sort of disagreement or division may intrude. … We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is impressed and engraved upon our minds: that none of the brethren [or sistren] be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs that we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him.Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.38.
In this, we can see that the Holy Supper is so vastly more than our own ability to make it feel rare and thus, “special,” but rather, it is the thing which unites us with Christ and one another, which serves as an outward sign and seal of the promises of Christ, to help sustain and nourish us in our faith and life.
What we have so far said of the Sacrament abundantly shows that it was not ordained to be received only once a year [a minimum requirement established by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215)]–and that, too, perfunctorily, as is not the usual custom. Rather, it was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians.Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.44
Weekly participation in the Holy Supper is one of the important ways in which our weekly liturgies can regain a sense not of a lecture hall, but a transcendent experience where we are brought up into the mystery of the Divine life which nourishes us and sustains us for the life of faith in the world.
I hope we can see here that the Sacrament belongs with preaching of the Word. It is improper to separate them. Yet, for many Reformed folk, there remains an apprehension to the weekly celebration of the Sacrament. For some, there is a concern that the service will go too long. While I do think that a few extra minutes for God isn’t too much of a sacrifice, I understand this concern. However, the other elements in the service can be adapted and adjusted for the Sacrament.
If the only point of the Holy Supper is just to remember, then infrequent celebration is fine and proper. But our theological tradition does not say that it is only a symbolic remembrance, but that Christ is actually communicated. And if Christ is actually communicated in the Sacraments, infrequent celebration is not only improper, it is unfaithful.
But by far the biggest hesitation is that it feels too “Roman Catholic.” I hope that as we’ve seen, the weekly celebration of the Sacrament is not specific to Roman Catholicism, rather, it is part of universal historic Christianity. Word and Sacrament are two sides of the same proclamation coin. Furthermore, there is an implicit anti-Roman Catholic bias in that statement. To say that “because the Roman Catholics, do this we can’t” doesn’t make any sense. Roman Catholics also read Scripture at Mass, pray the Lord’s Prayer, and the Gloria Patri, and others. By the same argument, we should do none of these, either. Rather Roman Catholics celebrate communion at every Mass because they have (mostly) restored the ancient practice. Furthermore, Anglicans are also Protestant, and they celebrate the Sacrament weekly, so do many Lutherans. More and more Reformed and Presbyterians are also doing this, as well.
In the preaching of the Word, we hear the promises of Christ, in the Sacrament we experience Christ and these promises are confirmed and sealed. These two belong together, and it is incredibly important that we hold them together, each week for the people of God.
It is important that we remember the main point here. The point is not to just do it every week, but the point is to have a deep and meaningful experience with the Divine, in such a way that we don’t just hear about God, but that we can experience God.
Join in and share your thoughts!