I heard an argument recently about nonbelievers receiving holy communion in church. In Catholicism, it is explicitly warned against giving communion to non-Catholics. In other types of Christian churches, the rule varies, but widely.
The case in favor of giving communion to all rests on the welcoming and hospitable nature of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Full stop. Yet, referencing the apostle Paul, I read one pastor’s opinion that giving communion to nonbelievers is not only wrong, it’s cruel.
Might that be a starkly anti-Jesus rendering of Paul’s intent? Paul says that we should be “worthy” to receive it, not necessarily be a “believer.” Now define worthy. (I’ll wait …) Now define believer. (I won’t bother to wait.)
This, however, is not a bash at Catholicism. Even knowing its conflicts and crimes, there is also elegant and meaningful theology there and a sense of belonging, comforting tradition. I am speaking of individual interpretations that need some fine-tuning and to be nudged toward a greater respect for teachings over traditions. There is room for everyone at the table. Make room.
The act of communion, as we recognize it in western culture, comes primarily through various denominations of the Christian tradition representing Jesus’s last supper. But the act of ritually breaking bread and the passing of the cup is a longstanding ceremony of blessing across cultures and times. It is something we are many of us subconsciously missing out on in our lives because we’re familiar with only one predominant version of the tradition, and happen to find it not to our taste. But there are other ways of considering the table.
If we are to celebrate spiritual diversity, let’s turn some rocks over and understand them better. Let’s ask questions and invite people in. Let’s use our intrinsic human need to gather together to encourage one another. Across differences. To connect with the divine. To slow one’s heartbeat and breathing for a little while. To be at ease. And safe.
Rituals are ingrained in our DNA, poetically speaking. (Perhaps.) They are hardwired into our culture. Rituals comfort us and encourage us. They remind us of our inherent belonging. We are one tribe. Let’s break bread together as an act of friendship and mutual blessing. May you never hunger. May you never thirst. Blessed be. Amen.
I’m spending some time lately on this ritual in my congregations. In Lancaster tomorrow it will be a new version of the bread and wine, in Fitchburg in June it will be pinecones representing the seat of consciousness. Last week, Lancaster had a sea glass communion that was very moving.
I outline this because I want to point out there is more than one way to ritually commune with our neighbor. Seek one for yourself. Break bread. Share yourself. Listen to others. Get out there and mingle. If you’re looking for Jesus’s permission to be innovative with the action of loving your neighbor, you have it.
But there is also a message in the bottle of the communion ritual, intrinsic to all of its various traditions. It is the lesson of hospitality. The rituals give us a reason to come together. The invitation and welcome to the table is a reason to reach out to others. The purpose of these actions is to enhance our ability to be hospitable. Then, possibly a bit empathetic. And then, just maybe seeing your neighbor as yourself. It’s all a plot.
When you share a moment, you share your spirit. When two or more gather in the name of love, the love is there, manyfold.
All communion rituals have the same two objectives: to bless and to create belonging. Say a prayer before dinner, just words of belonging and love and gratitude. Make it your own. Give someone a smooth stone and show them you have one that matches it. Give someone a sandwich and wish them well. Shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye. That is all communion.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div, is the minister at the First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of the First Church of Christ, Unitarian in Lancaster. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.