One of my favorite communion moments came last year.
I was blessing the elements in a barn as the sky was slowly turning towards its dusky hues. There was a large gathering of people, larger than some had expected, and we were sitting on bales of hay and folding chairs, bundled in our warmest jackets. We had sung songs, lit candles, and celebrated how Jesus came to bring hope into the world.
It was Christmas Eve, and it was beautiful and holy.
Throughout my ministry, nothing has given me more joy as a pastor than to lead the congregation in the celebration of communion on Christmas Eve. It is a holy and sacred meal that connects us to the full ministry and life of Christ, and how we are to be transformed by his life at work in us. Is it appropriate, however, for Christmas Eve worship?
That is a conversation that is a relevant question for many in the church pews A lot of this deals with both the practical side of communion, as well as the lack of theological understanding of why communion is important in discipleship. While we read passages where regular celebration of communion is important to faith (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), we are still comfortable with an infrequent and, at times, haphazard celebration of this sacrament due to historical practices.
In the past, I’ve written on the importance of communion and how we should take it more frequently than we do. While I won’t repeat a lot of those arguments here, what this essay will focus on is the importance of communion on Christmas Eve.
First, let’s unpack some of the practical conversations surrounding communion on Christmas Eve. These conversations typically revolve around two main questions. Will it add too much time to the service, and how do we incorporate people who do not come regularly so they understand why it is important?
I’m not one that ignores the practical for the theological. I believe both have value in understanding how we live out our faith in Jesus Christ. I also recognize that in order to have permission to talk about the theological, you have to engage the practical.
When done in a holy and proper way, the practice of communion at any service is a natural flow from the proclamation of God’s word into its response – how we seek to live out our faith. From a practicality standpoint, when communion is not properly shared or made a natural flow in the service, it becomes disconnected and, unfortunately, seen as an add-on and of little value. Regardless of the day of the service, this happens when communion is rushed or handled in a way that shows a disengagement in the holy connection to God available in this moment. When the clergy show a lack of care regarding the sacrament, it creates a perspective that communion is not important. Communion should be built into the service as the crescendo to the worship experience.
What about new worshipers and those who are unfamiliar with the sacrament? How can we celebrate communion when we have new people in worship? It is my belief that there is no better time to celebrate communion than when you have new people who are hungering to experience God.
Part of the celebration of communion is an invitation for all to come and experience the grace of God, which symbolized by the bread and juice. That invitation, though expressed by the pastor, is offered by Christ to “come and see” what God is doing in their lives and around the world. It is the same invitation that is offered to anyone to “come and see” what God is doing in worship, Bible studies, or any other act of faith. We are an invitational body that is brought into a deeper connection with God through our shared life together. There is no better expression of that than in this invitation to come and dine with God at the communion table.
That invitation is not extended to a few select people, but to all people. Every person, regardless if they are a member of the church or even a follower of Christ, are invited to “come and see” what this life of deeper discipleship is all about at the communion table. This invitation is for those who come every Sunday, to those who come one Sunday a month, and, yes, even those who only come at Christmas and Easter. All are welcome to come, taste, and see that the Lord is good.
So, why the focus on communion at Christmas Eve now? In many ways, the church is in a process of recovering our liturgical and sacramental heritage, which sees worship tied to our shared life at the table. The church has always been centered around a deep sacramental life – early converts to the church used the practice of Lent, for instance, to prepare for baptism on Easter. The larger church got away from that as the church moved into America. In part, this was due to the necessity of circuit riders who went from church to church to serve communion, which was often only once a month or quarter. Today, clergy are now stationed in one church or a combination of closely-located churches, so there is more availability for communion, which leads to a more regular celebration.
What about the theological questions? What does it mean to celebrate communion on Christmas Eve?
At Christmas, we celebrate that Jesus came as the light of God’s holy love to a broken and hurting world. That light of God’s incarnation brings hope into the world and awakens us to a new life defined by hope, peace, joy, and love. Christmas is also one of the two central moments of faith, and it points towards Easter and the resurrection.
We believe that the Living Presence of Christ meets us in the shared celebration of bread and juice. With the bread, we are reminded of how Christ came as a real person, in a real body, living among us, to be broken for our sin and redeem our lives. With the juice, we are reminded that Christ seeks to be incarnated into our very lives to transform us in such a way that we continually reflect the life of God’s love.
Communion brings us into a deeper connection with the life of Christ and the meaning of Christmas. It is a holy meal of renewal, remembrance, and commitment to connecting our heart and lives with the meaning of Jesus’ birth and presence. There is no holier way to celebrate than around the table of communion fellowship as we celebrate Christ’s incarnation and seek for Christ to be incarnated in us each day.