It’s a practice that began in the New Testament Church (Acts 20:7) and continued throughout the early church right up until the Reformation. And then, for lots of Protestants, it stopped. What is it? The weekly celebration of Holy Communion. How could something so embedded in the church’s worship for 1,500 years have been so quickly jettisoned?
The major Reformers were clear. Luther insisted on weekly communion; Calvin advocated it too. So how did it happen? Up until that time, the natural world was experienced as being alive with God’s presence. This God-created, God-infused world could not help but reveal its Creator. The spiritual and material were so deeply intertwined that material things not only pointed to their Creator, but God was experienced and known in physical things.
That sacramental view of the world was as biblical as rainbow promises in the sky, trees clapping their hands to God’s glory, and the Spirit blowing like the wind. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously put it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
But that worldview changed because of a philosophical and theological revolution in the late Middle Ages that seeped into the Reformation largely through the influence of Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Strongly opposed by both Luther and Calvin, Zwingli taught that material things such as the bread and wine of communion could not reveal or convey spiritual reality. They were merely symbolic, serving only as reminders of Christ’s saving work—a kind of spiritual visual aid. And if communion is merely a symbolic memorial, no wonder it loses its significance as an essential and regular means of grace.
Zwingli’s views gradually suffused even the Reformed churches, despite the fact that the Reformed confessions take a quite different view. For example, Belgic Confession Article 35 declares: “We do not go wrong when we say that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body and what is drunk is his own blood—but the manner in which we eat it is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith.” Reformed doctrine insists that in Holy Communion we do not just remember a long-ago event—we receive Christ and all the blessings of his redemption in and through the bread and wine.
Still, in my experience, many CRC folks tend to think of communion merely as a symbolic memorial of Christ’s saving work. No wonder we only celebrate it so infrequently.
For the last seven years I have attended a church where communion is celebrated every week. Now I cannot think of worship without it. I go to church hungry and thirsty not only for the Word of God but also for the physical confirmation of Christ’s gracious presence in the bread and wine.
It may take a while to fully realize how much we need it. Many report that for the first few months weekly communion may seem tedious or repetitive. It’s only after six months or so that you begin to realize how important it has become in your spiritual life, and soon it’s an indispensable part of weekly worship. (See “How Weekly Communion Is Shaping Our Church” and reformedworship.org/blog/weekly-communion-too-catholic.)
It’s time we Reformed Christians returned to our roots and restored the church’s ancient and continuous practice of Word and sacrament as the two regular and necessary means of grace for our spiritual well-being. As one Dutch Reformed theologian put it, a worship service without communion is like ending a sentence with a colon instead of a period. It’s not over yet.