The Festive Meal in Christ's Congregation
1. Festive meal
Let me begin with a weak point, or rather with what I consider to be a weakness in our celebration of the Lord's Supper. I mean the lack of a festive character. I think back to the Thirties, to the somber resignation which reigned during a Lord's Supper Sunday. However, even today some say quite honestly that they do not understand the somberness of these services. They do not impress them as being festive. And they are not the only ones.
That is why in the first place it seems good to me to accent that which the Bible does whenever it speaks about the Supper of the Lord, namely that it is a feast, a festive meal. How could it be otherwise, especially for Easterners. An Eastern meal is always a festive happening, let alone a religious meal before the face of the Lord. We read of the Passover: "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast (!) to the Lord" (Exodus 12:14).
We find the same thought in the New Testament, in Acts 2. There, in verses 42 and 46, the meals at home and the Supper of the Lord are mentioned together. It was not a somber event. Joy and simplicity marked this fellowship.
Let me return once more to the old covenant, to the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophecies about the deliverance of Zion from Babel, about the return to Jerusalem. He sees how the Lord of hosts prepares a festive meal "of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees" on Mount Zion.
The feast is preceded by God's judgment (!) of the whole earth, the end of the world on the day of judgment (see chapter 24). The worldly feasts come to an abrupt end. "The earth mourns," writes Isaiah, "the world withers, all merry-hearted sigh. The mirth of timbrels is stilled, the mirth of lyres is stilled. No more do they drink wine with singing; strong drink is bitter to those who drink it." Singing has become impossible and all merry-making died down.
But precisely at that moment God's feast begins in abundance, a festive meal in Zion for all those who say:
"This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
Well then, when we read Isaiah 25 in the New Covenant today there is no other way than to think of the Lord's Supper. And consequently the joy of the meal and the festive celebration of it. Our Lord's Supper is also a foretaste of the abundant joy of the marriage feast of the Lamb, guaranteed to us in Revelation 19.
That last bible book also describes how all festivities of Babel come to an abrupt halt and the merry-making of the world dies down. But God's feasts can never end.
The more our churches and church members become convinced of that joy, the more our Lord's Supper celebration will be drastically freed from all somber resignation and more and more acquire a festive character. Article 35 of the Belgic Confession also speaks about a "spiritual banquet" where "we together commemorate the death of Christ our Saviour with thanksgiving." I believe it was Rev. J. C. Sikkel who said in a sermon: "Congregation, why do we not fly flags today?"
The blessed memory of the bitter death
It is, we again must remind each other, a very remarkable feast. We commemorate the death of Christ, our Saviour. Is that a festive occasion? Certainly, for we commemorate Him who offered and humbled Himself on the cross. In doing so He loved those He loved in the world to the end. It is a feast of the bitter and shameful death on the cross. This feast of the cross is, for those who will perish, a foolish feast, for the Jews a stumbling block and for the Greek foolishness. But for us it is the power and wisdom of God.
The unique and seemingly foolish character of the Lord's Supper as a feast is impressively expressed in the prayer from the Form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper: "We thank Thee that in this supper we cherish the blessed (!) memory of the bitter death of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ." In one sentence the secret of the feast is put into words. God gave his Son, his only one, his beloved one, over unto death, a bitter death. And our commemoration is glorious, precious. Yes, we celebrate this precious memory.
He who offered Himself up to death is today the Living one, the Kurios! Our celebration is not a commemoration of the dead and not a funeral meal. We do not regard the signs of bread and wine with sadness and sorrow as snapshots of a departed loved one. If I am not mistaken, this could be why in former days the Lord's Supper had its somber character and why people quietly got up from the table in tears. It is the dark Good Friday atmosphere of the house of death. However, the congregation of Jesus knows Him as the Living One and confesses Him to be the Highpriest who offered Himself and today lives and prays for her. His love did not end there but broke through into our daily lives. That is why it is a feast. The road of His suffering and death became the highway to life.
But, someone may ask, what about sadness for our sins? Should it not become apparent in our celebration that we are broken in spirit because of our sins and accursedness? Were the tears not caused by self-examination? Of course, those who do not experience sadness because of their iniquities, cannot celebrate. And those who do not repent will be thrown out of the banquet hall, Those who detract from that sadness violate the secret of the feast: Jesus receives sinners and eats with them. But it is equally true that the sadness over our sins in no way can diminish the joy over the forgiveness of sins. The feast only becomes more profound, because the joy is precisely sanctified and purified.
So the festive event of which the apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 11:26, takes place at the table: So "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." This proclamation is a telling of the Good News: Jesus is the death of our death and the life of our life. The words of praise alongside the bread and wine, the Christian hymn, the proclaimed confession, the sacrifice of praise of the thanksgiving — all that resounds as a word that enters the world, and that everyone must hear whether they like it or not. "Together," Article 35 of the Belgic Confession states, "we confess our faith and Christian religion," at the table and afterwards do it as well.
When the congregation, collectively and individually, proclaims and celebrates in this way she enjoys the profound life giving tie with Christ, her Head, her Bridegroom, in faith. He, the Living One, is present, for her, for those who belong to Him. The manner in which He is present is the subject of much dispute in the past as well as in the present. Church and dogmatic history give much evidence of this controversy. Calvin, too, wrote much about the sacred hiddenness of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper. However, at the end he confesses that this hiddenness is too lofty for man to understand.
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 his drink, I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food ... I do not doubt that He Himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.
Institutes IV, 17. 32
A fellowship meal
The festive character of the Lord's Supper finally also consists of the fact that we receive and experience communion with each other; we share the one bread and drink from the one cup. The church was a long way removed from the fellowship character, when during the Thirties, every communicant member prayed his own private prayer during the celebration, or even immediately thereafter left the church and went home. As if the church was some kind of spiritual McDonalds, where everybody can obtain his portion of religious vitamins. Such individualism clashes with the community to which Christ binds us with His Spirit as members of one body. Precisely at the Lord's Supper table, the community finds its highest expression, it is visibly experienced and expressed by words, in deeds and songs. In this age of individualism with its cold, hardness, egotism and loneliness, we would do well to praise and recommend the community at the table of the Lord not only in words but also in deeds.
In contemporary daily life the single serving heated in the microwave oven is more and more preferred. Why should you wait with supper until everyone is home and share a meal together? In this cold society lives the congregation of Jesus. She may be a hearth of love and community. The table with the one bread is its festive proof, as the congregation brings its diaconal offering there and afterwards. For the feast continues. The Lord's Supper, so to speak, is open-ended. The feast points forward.
It points towards the marriage feast of the Lamb as well. The Lord's Supper is the feast of the perspective, of the expectation. Jesus, the Bridegroom, will drink the wine new with us in the kingdom of His Father. The word "Maranatha" from 1 Corinthians 16:22 became a fixed prayer during the celebration of the Lord's Supper in the early church. The congregation of Jesus calls for the coming of the Bridegroom and for the beginning of the marriage feast. Of that feast we read in Revelation 19 as the musica sub communion: twice "Alleluia." A double chorus. An Alleluia-chorus above and an Alleluia-chorus below. We, communicants with bread and cup on this old earth, are encouraged and are urged to keep on the move filled with this festive perspective.
Enough said about the essence and character of the Lord's Supper. I dealt with it at length because the deficiency in our liturgical celebration can be blamed on the absence of this festive character.
My first liturgical wish I'll formulate as follows: let the local churches and communicant members honour and verify this festive character. Then possibilities for an optimal celebration of this sacrament will come about. That will become apparent when we pay attention to some aspects of the celebration.
2. The place of the Lord's Supper
Next, we will pay some attention to the liturgical place of the Lord's Supper celebration. In the early church, as well as in the church of the Reformation, this place is dear. The celebration follows the sermon and the prayers and is directly connected with the offerings. That is proper too. The administration of the Word comes first. In this connection, the culmination in the Lord's Supper follows it. The Lord's Supper does not exist on its own and is not independent in the worship service. The celebration follows the ministry of the Word.
On this point we as churches made gains when we adopted the B Order of Worship. In it the celebration in principle follows the ministry of the Word, Prayer and the Offertory. But at the same time, as far as the new text of the Church Order is concerned, we have taken a step backward. The phrase that the celebration shall take place after the ministry of the Word and the prayer, has disappeared.
The new article does not speak of it at all and the A Order of Worship does not speak about the place of the celebration either. The result (if not the cause), is that the morning service of a so-called Lord's Supper Sunday is restricted to the celebration of the sacrament: no sermon, no ministry of the Word, only the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the reading of the form included. At least that is the situation in many local churches. All the available time is needed for the many tables (the plural is already a monstrosity). There is no time for the ministry of the Word. That would have been unthinkable in the early church and in the church of the Reformation. It would have been considered a liturgical absurdity. The sooner local churches return to a celebration that follows the ministry of the Word, the better it would be.
My second liturgical wish then is the reformulation of Article 69 of the Church Order and the A Order of Worship and to order the Lord's Supper services accordingly: the ministry of the Word before and resulting in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
3. The frequency of the celebration
Must the congregation of Christ commemorate His death every Sunday? It is clear that something has to be said about the frequency of the celebration. In many local churches it is kept at the prescribed minimum "at least once every three months."
I think that there is a certain unease and guilt about this state of affairs in the churches. Some churches have gone to a monthly or bi-monthly celebration. That is correct! The minimum ration the churches have adopted is in shrill contrast to what the Good Shepherd wants to give to His flock, namely "life in abundance." We may not justify this abuse with the argument The Word and the proclamation is of the greatest importance in the church, the sacrament as a sign, is second and is subordinated to the preaching. That argument degrades the Lord's Supper to an incidental ornament of lesser significance.
Dr. C. Trimp exposed that as a hollow argument, "The Word is indeed more than the sign, but Word plus sign is more that the Word. We should tell each other that sometimes on the Sunday of the Lord's Supper."
Will we remember that this sign is nothing less than the festive meal of the redeemed in Christ's Church? Does that, in conclusion, mean that we ought to have Lord's Supper every Sunday? As you know, I have pleaded for that on several occasions. You will also know that I base myself in this on the remarks made by Calvin. It appears from his Institutes that Calvin was an ardent advocate of weekly celebration. He writes in 1536: "It should always be this way that no meeting of the congregation takes place without the preaching of the Word, prayer, the distribution of the Lord's Supper and alms."
Here Calvin fought against the established Roman custom of centuries to celebrate communion only once a year. He calls that an "invention of the devil." In Geneva, they began to celebrate the Lord's Supper three times a year: at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Calvin pleaded for a weekly celebration.
However, the nature of ecclesiastical life in Geneva proved to be more refractory than expected. He was not able to achieve this more frequent celebration and reluctantly resigned himself to the final rule of four times a year. Before we enthusiastically pick up Calvin's liturgical thread in our ecclesiastical life and start to promote a weekly celebration, we have to take into account Calvin's view as he later expressed it. For me it is questionable whether Calvin only relinquished his wish because of the situation and the opposition in Geneva. In my opinion there are sufficient indications that Calvin later took the position of a monthly celebration.
In an advice (concilium) of 1561 (decades later) he writes, after having denounced the bad custom of three times a year, that he was in favour of a monthly celebration. Not wanting to force the issue, he thought it wiser to "respect the weakness of the people rather than stubbornly fight for it." Just before that he had written:
We would rather invite the congregation every month than only four times a year as is the custom here.
For our present day ecclesiastical life we, in my opinion, must strive for a monthly celebration, not for a weekly one. The latter needs a little argumentation. Why do I consider a weekly celebration less desirable and difficult? I will not use routine and habit as a decisive argument. That danger exists for all liturgical acts. Calvin correctly stated that the frequent use of the Lord's Supper would promote carelessness. He meant that people would loose sight of the specific character of the Lord's Supper should it be celebrated too frequently.
The Lord's Supper is a festive meal, we have emphasized that already. That theme can serve us as a guideline. If a feast is to remain a feast, it ought not to be celebrated every day. When God gives something extra-festive, we do not need to neutralize that "extra." Life is a whole, liturgical life as well, but it is not monotonous.
Compare it with the Sabbath. According to the Heidelberg Catechism we may enjoy the Sabbath "all the days of our life" (Lord's Day 38). That does not take away from the fact that we celebrate this Sabbath especially on the first day of the week. The seven days are not monotonous. In comparison I pose: every Sunday feast around the Word, but not every Sunday the extra of the festive meal around the table.
So we arrive at Calvin's view and we need not be ashamed. Then we also find ourselves, with a monthly celebration, in the company of other Calvinistic churches. In practice we could celebrate the Lord's Supper in the morning services in even months and in the afternoon services in odd months. In any case, our third liturgical wish is that Article 60 of our Church Order will be changed as follows:
The Lord's Supper shall be celebrated at least every month in the public worship service.
4. More liturgies
When the churches indeed change over to a monthly celebration, and for certain when the celebration takes place more frequently, this will have practical consequences. One of them is that the church must draft and approve more Lord Supper liturgies. Since 1975 we fortunately have a so-called shorter form. That is our gain. Yet in essence it is nothing but a shortening and contraction of the so-called long Form, plus a new paragraph about the eschatological celebration.
Besides these two forms (which may not fall in disuse), it would be desirable to have other shorter Lord Supper liturgies. Simple liturgies, which keep the essential and historical elements, could be of service when, after the ministry of the Word, the supper of the Lord is celebrated monthly. Examples from the Calvinistic tradition are available to us.
These simple liturgies could be drafted from a certain perspective: the church year, the reading of the Gospel, the reading of the epistles, the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As my fourth liturgical wish I like to see: the ecclesiastical adoption of simple Lord Supper liturgies which will encourage a more frequent celebration.
5. Manner of celebration
Lastly we will consider the manner in which the celebration takes place. Do we sit at a table or do we "come and go." That in itself is not a principle matter but in practice it is very important. When we pay attention to the European Calvinistic tradition then we are struck by the great variety. Recently Dr. W. F. Dankbaar published an instructive study entitled "Communion Practices in the Age of the Reformation." Geneva, Strasbourg, Zurich, London, the Palatinate, Basel, the Netherlands, East-Friesland all pass the revue. It shows a great variety in celebration: standing, kneeling, sitting in the pews or around the table, the bread is handed out or one can serve oneself, first the men and then the women, etc. Indeed a great variety!
The leaders, as well as ecclesiastical assemblies from the time of the Reformation, again and again emphasized that the form of celebration must be left in the freedom of the churches.
Calvin writes: "We must accommodate each other in all these ceremonies which have no decisive influence on the confession of our faith."
The variety in Lord Supper customs belongs to the so-called neutralia.
As stated above, coming forward and receiving the bread and wine either kneeling or standing was the most popular form in the time of the Reformation. Luther and Calvin maintained this form. These Reformers did not totally do away with the Roman custom.
Dr. W. F. Dankbaar concludes: "The tradition of the Roman Catholic Church continued in the churches of the Reformation, at least in the outward form. The Reformers did not wish to oppose the attachment the people had to the old form, nor did they wish to break with the continuity of the tradition of the church on this point because to them it was not of principle importance."
The origin of sitting around a table must be sought with Zwingli. It was adopted in Zurich and from there it spread to East-Friesland and the Dutch refugee congregation in London. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper while seated around a table, which to us today is so familiar and biblical, was something new in the time of the Reformation. It was almost revolutionary. In the course of time it gained acceptance. Under the influence of the refugee congregation in London, led by Micron, it entered the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands both customs lived peacefully side by side. In the nineteenth century only the seated celebration remained. In European eyes this is a typical Dutch custom. But, and I emphasize that, it is a very good and responsible custom. Even though Zwingli was somewhat one-sided, he correctly ascertained and elaborated the biblical facts as found in the Gospels and the Epistles. At the first supper, Jesus and His disciples lay around a table.
The sacrament is not only a feast but also a meal. Together around a table the congregation shows its unity in the celebration. At that one table they enjoy the fellowship with bread and wine. It is a family supper at the table of Jesus.
However, a plea for seated communion does not mean a plea for the customary number of tables. On the contrary. I consider that the worst possible manner of celebration. In a service with many tables, as we know all too well, many liturgical ground rules are broken: the ministry of the Word is pushed aside, the formula for distribution becomes a monotonous affair, the unity around the table is broken into segments and the worship service becomes unnecessarily long, especially for children.
That is why each local congregation must search for improvements. The solutions will be different for each congregation because of the difference in the number of communicant members, available space and the make-up of the congregation.
A particular beautiful form of celebration deserves our attention: a part of the congregation (the elderly), is seated around the table and the rest stand in rows around the table and hand each other the bread and the wine. The Scottish celebration is also liturgically preferred over the so-many-table-services. Bread and wine are passed on from a table to the congregation seated in the pews.
The fifth liturgical wish I'll summarize as follows: consistories and congregation should give serious thought to the form of celebration, particularly when it at present involves many tables.
That brings me immediately to my closing remarks and that is this; we as church members must address our congregations and consistories about the desirability or the necessity for improvement in our celebration of the Lord's Supper. A conference can stimulate and start an ecclesiastical re-examination. But in the final analysis we must follow the indicated ecclesiastical procedure if we are to reach our goal.
We spoke about the festive meal in Christ's congregation, the congregation where we locally proclaim the death of our Lord and Saviour. We do so according to His command and mandate until He returns. For almost two thousand years the church obeyed the command of her sovereign Host. She did it in beautiful church buildings and in small halls, in cathedrals and jungle huts. She used silver cups and wooden dishes, bamboo beakers and tin plates. To them we join ourselves as often as we celebrate the banquet of our Lord and Saviour.