The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is throughout aspiritual exercise. This must be emphasized because, unless we eat and drink at the communion table in a spiritual way, our celebration is nothing but an empty formalism. If we in a physical way only partake of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we eat and drink condemnation unto ourselves, for we have not then discerned the Lord’s body. In the true sense of the word there is no celebration of the Lord’s death except through faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” By it we transcend all that is visible in the sacrament, and penetrate into a hidden world, where we lay hold of unspeakable riches of communion with Christ.
It is for this reason that, immediately before the celebration of the sacrament, we are enjoined “to lift our hearts up on high in heaven, where Christ Jesus is our Advocate, at the right hand of His heavenly Father, whither all the articles of our faith lead us.” We must not “cleave with our hearts unto the external bread and wine.” That will not profit us in any way. We have come to the table of the Lord with a spiritual hunger and a spiritual thirst. We desire to be fed with the Bread of Life, which we cannot find in the earthly, physical bread that is before us. That Bread is in heaven at the right hand of God, and we attain unto Him only through faith. All the elements set before us are but signs which point to Him, and through which the truth as it is in Jesus is unmistakably set forth. These signs we must read with spiritual discernment, and understanding them through faith we shall experience the elevation of our hearts to the sphere where He dwells in communion with the ever blessed God.
In this activity there must be no doubt. To be fed with the heavenly bread, Christ Jesus, we must be assured that the sacrament has been instituted by Him, and that, therefore, He will also work through it applying the benefits of His redemptive work unto our hearts. He will certainly feed and refresh our souls through the working of the Holy Spirit, with His body and blood, as we receive the holy bread and wine in remembrance of Him. If we lack this faith we are unfit to celebrate His death, and we will fail utterly to grasp the meaning of the various elements that belong to this celebration.
The beauty of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper lies in the simplicity of the sacrament as observed in Reformed Churches. There is nothing ostentatious about it. Neither do we need to apologize for any lack of superficial ritual that aims only to make an impression upon the observer. The clamor to add gaudiness to the ceremony in order to make it more appealing and impressive must constantly be suppressed, and we must remain satisfied with the simple institution as Christ gave it to His church. The criticisms that our simple liturgical practices do not fit in the “modern age” and the insistence that these “outdated customs” be discarded may not dissuade us from obedience in observing this sacrament in the manner Christ taught us. We maintain in our Confession, “Therefore we reject all mixtures and damnable inventions, which men have added unto, and blended with the sacraments, as profanations of them: and affirm that we ought to rest satisfied with the ordinance which Christ and His apostles have taught us, and that we must speak of them in the same manner as they have spoken.” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35)
The simplicity of the service aims to put the emphasis where it belongs. All the elements and procedures in the ceremony must point to and direct the faith of the church to CHRIST. It is His Supper, and everything connected with it must be designed to bring the communicant into conscious fellowship with Him. Any superficial additions which do not assist in realizing this end may, without loss to the sacrament, be profitably omitted. Such elements are not needed but are also not desired in the spiritual communion of the body of Christ. With this in mind we will make a few observations of the ceremony under separate headings.
Bread and wine constitute the proper elements of the Lord’s Supper. We are aware that in some circles these are substituted with wafers and grape juice or wine diluted with water. This, however, is improper in spite of various practical arguments that are raised in defense of this practice. The substitution of bread by the wafer stems from the erroneous and superstitious notion that in some mystical way the bread of communion is actually transformed into the real body of Jesus Christ, and to then avoid the possibility of part of that body being wasted through the crumbling of the bread the wafer is used. The substitution of wine by grape juice is no doubt motivated by so-called temperance reasons and considers the use of any fermented wine to be sin; a consideration which can not be maintained in the light of Scripture. When the Bible speaks of wine, it does not mean grape juice but fermented wine.
Bread and wine therefore are proper symbols. They are physical elements taken from the world of our experience and designed to direct our faith to heavenly and spiritual realities. Bread is the staff of life. It is a basic food in our daily diet. In Scripture it is spoken of with a broader connotation denoting all the necessities of our natural life. Thus when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we ask God for such things as we stand in need of in the present world so that we may continue to live and serve Him as long as He is minded to have us here. Without bread we die. This basic essential of our physical existence is chosen by the Lord to signify our deepest and only spiritual need, the Bread of Life, Christ Himself. Without Him we die. Having Him we have all that is necessary. We lack nothing.
Wine in Scripture denotes joy, prosperity and luxury. As such it is the proper symbol directing us to the truth that all our joy, our eternal prosperity and our luxurious riches of grace are inherent in the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the flowing of His blood we, who are poor, are made rich. Through His blood we have the forgiveness of all our sins and to us is imputed perfect righteousness, which is the implication of all the blessings of eternal life.
Not only therefore are the bread and wine proper symbols to set before our consciousness the blessings of our salvation as these are all in Christ Jesus, but in the celebration of the Supper the bread must be broken and the wine poured out. This is essential because it proclaims to us the truth concerning the manner in which those blessings were obtained for us. The breaking of the bread signifies the breaking of the body of Christ on the cross, and the pouring of the wine represents the shedding of His precious blood as the atonement for our sins. It is not through any “whim of the will” or “works which we have done” that God saves us but the sole ground and foundation of our salvation is the cross of our Lord. Because His body was broken in death and His blood was poured out in payment of our guilt we have eternal life in Him. Believing this we receive the broken bread and poured out wine in which the truth is signified to us and sealed in our hearts, and we are assured of the blessings of God.
THE COMMUNION FORMULA
In the breaking and distributing of the bread and in the giving of the cup of communion the minister speaks the words taken from I Corinthians 10:16. In our communion form we find very brief statements. “The bread which we break, is the communion of the body of Christ. The cup of blessing, which we bless, is the communion of the blood of Christ.” To these formulas we usually add the words: “Take, and eat (or drink) ye all of it, and do so in remembrance of Christ.” This is more in accord with the longer formulas as they appear in the Dutch. We quote those too for the benefit of those who still read the Holland language.
“Het brood, dat wij breken, is de gemeenschap des lichaams van Christus. Neemt, eet, gedenkt, en gelooft, dat het lichaam onzes Heeren Jesus Christus gebroken is tot een volkomen verzoening van al onze zonden.” “De drinkbeker der dankzegging, dien wij dankzeggende zegenen, is de gemeenschap des bloeds van Christus. Neemt, drinkt allen daaruit, gedenkt en gelooft, dat het dierbaar bloed onzes Heeren Jesus Christus vergoten is tot een volkomen verzoening van al onze zonden.”
At this point of the ceremony we must avoid superstition, and must refrain from injecting into the proceeding some kind of mystical operation. Through the pronouncement of the minister there is not physical transformation of the elements taking place. The operation is entirely spiritual and is performed by the Spirit of Christ through the Word. In this same vein, the expression “cup of blessing” must not mislead us. The cup needs no blessing through the minister, and he must not leave the impression that he is blessing that cup by putting his hand over it. The blessing is from God, not from man. Besides the Holland rendering indicates clearly that the expression means “cup of thanksgiving” rather than “cup of blessing.” By the operation of the Spirit our hearts are lifted up from the visible elements unto Christ on high and as we see Him, our crucified Lord and Savior, our joy of thanksgiving runs over. We eat and we drink Him, appropriating unto ourselves through faith the benefits of His redemptive work.
THE MANNER OF COMMUNION
The communion form suggests that “during the communion, there shall or may be devoutly sung, a psalm, or some chapter read, in remembrance of the death of Christ.” In this connection several passages of Scripture which are appropriate are suggested. This practice is more desirable than the custom that was followed by some in the past, when the minister would deliver a short sermonette during the communion. In some instances there is silence by both the minister and the congregation while the organist plays softly upon the organ. The thing of importance here is that whatever is done must be conducive to directing attention to the death of Christ and anything that would divert from this must be avoided. These most solemn moments must be devoted to deep meditation and contemplation of the Savior whose death is being observed.
In the communion proper different churches follow different customs, none of which are to be condemned. Some observe what is called “standing communion,” while others prefer “sitting communion.” In some churches the bread and wine are passed out to the communicants, while in others the communicants come to the table to receive these elements. The “common cup” which used quite generally not too many decades ago has largely been replaced today by the “individual cup.” Sanitary considerations, perhaps more than anything else, has led to this change and since the matter is adiaphora and there can be here no violation of the ordinance of Christ, the change is a desirable one. In some churches the communicants partake of the bread and wine as soon as they receive it, while in others there is a waiting until the whole congregation can eat and drink in unison.
All of these practices are determined by each church for itself. There is no hard and fixed rule governing these matters and it is proper that this is so. One danger we might point out here is that a congregation gets so imbedded in a certain way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper that it begins to look upon all other ways as being wrong. We must not be slaves to tradition but we must understand the “whys” of our liturgical practices for an intelligent observance of the Lord’s Supper is much to be preferred to a traditional one. And then some changes with understanding may also prove to be spiritually beneficial.