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The Meaning of Holy Communion
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 13, 2009
Exodus 24:3-11 Luke 22:7-20
We take Holy Communion on the first Sunday of each month, here in Edmonton. Yet how often do we reflect on what the sacrament means? I thought that I would talk about the meaning of Holy Communion today.
First, let us consider communion from a Biblical perspective. We heard in Exodus about blood being sprinkled upon the children of Israel in order to consummate the covenant between them and God. It was called blood of the covenant. After this ritual, there was a sacred feast in which Moses and the elders of Israel ate in God’s presence. Then, in the New Testament reading Jesus talks about blood of the new covenant. He broke bread and served wine and called it the blood of the new covenant. The language used in the New Testament referred to Jesus passion on the cross. He refers to the bread as his flesh broken for humanity, and He refers to the wine as blood that he sheds for humankind. So the Biblical imagery of the Holy Supper is a remembrance of Christ’s passion on the cross.
Traditional Christianity teaches that by Jesus’ crucifixion we are redeemed from sin. They see the crucifixion as a sacrifice of atonement. The atonement sacrifice comes from the book of Leviticus. The Jews thought that if a person had committed a sin, they could sacrifice a lamb and the sacrifice would take away their sin. So traditional Christians see Christ’s crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of all humanity. If one believes that Christ was sacrificed for our sins, then one is saved.
But Swedenborg’s theology differs greatly from traditional Christianity. We do believe that Christ saves us, but we emphasize the risen, glorified Christ. It is Christ resurrected that fills us with His spirit of love and wisdom. To the extent that we receive Christ’s love and wisdom, we are in Christ and Christ is in us. This is salvation because the very atmosphere of heaven is God’s Spirit emanating from Himself. We are in that Divine atmosphere when we let God into our hearts and minds. So for us, salvation is not a matter of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but rather a matter of us allowing Christ’s spirit into us.
This brings us to a consideration of Holy Communion. Holy Communion derives its power from the power of symbols. Here on earth, we have both a material body and a spiritual body. Our material body takes care of our earthly needs. We are not conscious of our spiritual body, but it is living in the spiritual world all the while we are on earth. The spiritual world is connected to the material world. Our material bodies have life because they are filled with life from the spiritual world. The connection between the spiritual world and the material world takes place through symbols. The symbols that particularly bring spiritual life to us are the symbols in the Bible.
The Bible is God’s Word. As such, God is present in the words of the Bible. We don’t see the Bible as a historical document. Instead, we see it as a set of symbols. The imagery we read in the Bible conjoins us with the angels in heaven, and ultimately with God Himself. So when we read about heat in the Bible, for instance, the angels understand love. And when we read about light, the angels understand truth. So the spiritual world is connected with our material life here in this world according to symbols.
The power of Holy Communion is based upon this symbolic connection between the spiritual world and the material world. Like the words of the Bible, the symbols in communion connect our material world with the spiritual world. The bread of Holy Communion symbolizes God’s love, and the wine symbolizes God’s wisdom. When we live a life of love, and when our minds are perfected by truths of wisdom, then we are conjoined with God. When this is our nature, the symbols of the Holy Communion come alive. God is actually present in the symbols of Communion, and the ritual serves to bring us into God’s presence.
Perhaps I can make this clearer by a consideration of how symbols function in our lives. We have various rituals in our society that have symbolic power. Rituals are physical acts that stimulate spiritual states. By spiritual I mean the psychological part of our makeup, the emotional and mental aspects of our persons.
If you think about our social symbols, you can see that physical acts play an important role in our emotional life. Consider the handshake, for instance. When we want to express affection, or to let another know that we are glad to see them, we shake their hand. This physical act forms a bond between two people. We could just say, “Hi, it’s great to see you,” and leave it at that. But in our soul, or in our internalized social symbols, we want to shake hands to signify our friendship. Meeting someone has greater significance when we shake their hand. The physical act of shaking someone’s hand evokes an emotional response of friendliness.
Or consider the act of holding a door open for someone. As we look back at the person we are holding the door for, there is exchanged a brief pleasantry; there is an exchange of affection. By holding the door open, we are affirming the humanity of the other person. We are, in fact saying, “I care about you.” The physical act of holding open a door, communicates a brotherly love for another person.
Then there are symbols that communicate anger or rage. When people get into a serious argument they almost inevitably resort to symbolic language. When people have shouted at each other enough, and the argument concludes with a remark like, “I hate you.” Then they slam the door. Closing a door separates the two people from each other, even as their anger has thrown a wedge between them. But just closing the door, doesn’t contain the same symbolic power of slamming the door. Slamming the door behind a person says so much more than the mere words, “I hate you!” It is a symbol that contains all the emotion of the whole argument and finishes off communication with a powerful emphasis.
So physical acts can elicit emotional responses. Certain signs stimulate our psychological states. I have been discussing social symbols, and we all can see the power they have. But if social symbols have so much power, how much more do religious symbols have! Religious symbols, or rituals, bring out deep spiritual states in us. Spiritual symbols open up our souls and the religious affections we have cultivated over the years. But the power religious rituals possess depend on our spiritual condition. Religious rituals only work if we bring the internal mindset and heart to them. Religious rituals depend on whether we have been taught to respond to them by our religious upbringing and our life.
Eating a meal with someone is an intimate act. When we eat dinner with someone, we are sharing their home, their food, and their company. We are taking in nutrition that will feed our bodies. Eating the food of Communion is dining with God. It is like that sacred feast we heard about in Exodus, and it is like the feast of Passover that Jesus ate with His disciples. When we taste the bread and wine, our bodies respond to the sensual stimulation. Our souls also respond to the stimulation from our bodies. If we are conscious of God’s inflowning life, then God can flow into us through this particular set of symbols. But the bread and wine don’t plant God in us through magic. It is the way we live that gives the physical act of eating and drinking their symbolic power. If we are hateful and deny religious truth, then the bread is just bread and the wine is just wine. Eating the bread and drinking the wine doesn’t give us God’s love and wisdom. Rather, the ritual awakens the love and wisdom we have incorporated into our lives. And eating and drinking also brings our consciousness into God’s presence. The communion opens our souls, and stimulates these spiritual powers. If our life has been an encounter with God, then the material symbols of Communion bring God to us through our souls. Communion is a complete joining of our bodies and our souls. Our bodies take in the bread and wine, and the spiritual world that is running parallel to the material world fills our soul with God’s presence.
The physical act of eating the bread and drinking the wine has the power to bring God’s presence for those who have asked God into their lives. As with all ritual, the power of the sacramental symbols of the Holy Supper are only available if we approach the Lord’s Table with the proper internal mindset. But ritual does have spiritual power. The physical act we do in communion brings heavenly communion and actually brings God’s presence to us. If we approach holy communion with a holy life, then God is present as He was to the Israelites when the blood of the covenant was sprinkled on them and they ate the sacred feast in God’s presence. If we approach communion with a holy life, then God is present as he was with the Apostles at the last supper. Ritual is powerful. Doing a symbolic physical act brings to bear our whole emotional complex in a special moment. As with a handshake, a smile, or a wedding vow, taking the Holy Communion opens our souls to heaven, to God. When approached with the proper mindset and heart, communion brings God to us.
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