Tonight I went to my church’s candle light service, which is a service that is very meaningful to me. It has now been close to ten years since I remember leaving a candle light service in tears because I was so disenchanted with everything I had grown up believing. How could one man who lived 2,000 years ago be a light to the world? Did that even make sense, and did it really matter? From what I observed (and I admit, I was blinded by immature cynicism), it didn’t seem like it mattered to a host of people sitting next to me in the pews. On this night we light our candles to represent not only the light of the Christ child, but also of the light that he has put into our hearts, and it is on this night that so many Christians leave that service with only a charred candle wick to show for it.
After a nearly making a shipwreck of my faith, Christ had grace on me, and has shown me a thing or two about how his life really is light, and why the radiance of his countenance makes a difference in our lives, and how we are all growing in glory as we partake of the splendor of his image. Ten years later, I stand amongst a crowd of people, amidst rows of burning candles, enchanted by the beauty of God’s grace.
How appropriate it is then, that the practice of First Baptist Niceville is to have communion before they begin the candle light service. Just as we share in the light of Christ, we share in the meal that is a symbol of our fellowship with him. If we do not share in this meal, we cannot partake of his light, and as John teaches in his epistle, we do not have fellowship with each other. Table fellowship with our Lord and with each other is the prerequisite for sharing in this glorious light that is symbolized by our candles. Those candles represent the integrity of that fellowship.
Now on to the point that I want to make. It is about communion, and the way we speak about it in Baptist circles. This word “symbol” is a funny word, and I often hear the word “mere” attached to it. No doubt, this attachment is added to stress that nothing happens to the bread and win. . . er, I mean grape juice. No substances are being transformed here. It is just bread, and it is just grape juice. The mere ingesting of these elements do not confer to the one who eats some special status before God. However, in the act of taking communion there is a transformation that takes place (albeit, it is not a necessary transformation, nor does this transformation take place in the vicinity of the altar). When we take take communion, we remind ourselves of the status that has already been conferred to us, and also remind ourselves of the glory that will be ours when our Lord returns. Communion is a reminder, and it is therefore a means of grace.
Now, if you are a Baptist reader you may feel like I have lured you into something that smells suspiciously sacramental. I must admit, it is sacramental, and I’m not going to hide the fact that I feel strangely sacramental when I take the Lord’s supper. I have no problems calling the communion a means of grace. What I do have a problem with is calling the Lord’s supper a “mere symbol.”
I have thought this term over for some time now and it remains to me to be the most opaque of terms. For I know what a “symbol” is, but I lose its sense of meaning the moment I attach the word “mere” to it. It has to do with my understanding of a symbol. Right now at this very moment, right before your eyes, you are presented with thousands of symbols, and everyone of them represent a reality that is very real. If I type the word “horse,” I type a symbol that represents a very real substance that exist outside my mind and my computer. If you tell someone, “I love you,” then this statement is a symbol, and I feel like it would be very insulting to the person you said it to by saying that that statement was a “mere” symbol.
Is it really? Is the way in which you express love to someone a “mere” symbol? What does that even mean?
Symbols are not mere anythings. They are signs that signify a reality about which we speak of. If I kiss a woman, this is no mere lip service. If it were, then I would have been disingenuous. A kiss may be on one level the brushing of two lips together, maybe the exchange of saliva, but on another level there is a reality to it that makes my stomach flip, my heart beat wildly, and a feeling of joy that overwhelms the senses- a feeling that very few things can surpass. A kiss is the sign of my love- yea, not love itself, but what it represents is very real, and the reality of that love is as much a gift to me as it is to the one I give it to. And this is what grace is: a gift. Grace is a gift that cannot be reduced to a mere symbol. Symbols convey grace, and it is through symbols that we encounter reality. It is through symbols that we are reminded of a reality that reaches out to us- a reality that is itself a gift from God.
Bread and grape juice are gifts. This is why we thank God for them. But what makes the Eucharist so special is that it is a gift stacked upon a gift. It is a gift that represents the most valuable gift of all.
“This is my body, this is my blood.”
This is a gift, and it is through this gift that the gift of bread and juice, through the eyes of faith, are seen to be a reminder of Christ’s life being given to us. In the communion, the elements are a physical means through which we are reacquainted with grace, and when we respond in worship, this grace (not the bread and juice) transforms us.
Communion is a symbol, but there is nothing “mere” about it. It represents something very real, and when the elements are presented to me, I choose to recommit my life to the very foundation that makes that bread and juice meaningful. Through the Communion, I am presented with grace upon grace, and it is a grace that reconnects me to Christ and his Church, as well as a grace that causes me to be a light to a world that Christ came to redeem.