I greatly anticipated the end of January, 2009. In the November before, I phone interviewed with Mercer University for the position of Coordinator of Orientation. That interview led to an interview on campus as a finalist for the position, scheduled for late that January.
For the year and a half before that, Dana and I had lived a wonderful life in Harrisonburg, Virginia, while I attended graduate school at James Madison University. We loved Virginia, we loved the Shenandoah Valley, and we loved our friends, but we felt a longing to return to Georgia, where both of our families lived. That year, much as with the rest of this country, jobs were harder to come by because of the economic downturn just a few months earlier. So to have a finalist interview in Georgia, at a great university, for a job that sounded made for me, led to great excitement and eager anticipation.
My great anticipation in the days leading up to the interview turned to great anxiety. The weather forecast showed a blizzard coming in. The night before I traveled to Macon, I waited, watching the night sky, hoping for the best. The morning of my travel day came with no snow, no ice, no precipitation. So I left Harrisonburg, headed down Interstate 81, and turned eastbound on Interstate 64, headed toward the airport in Charlottesville.
If you know the Shenandoah Valley, if you know Charlottesville, you know that to get to Charlottesville from the valley, you must cross the Blue Ridge Mountains. I started up the mountain climb and encountered snow. I worried a little, but I pressed onward. As I climbed the mountain, the snow picked up, and traffic slowed. I found myself boxed in, cars all around me, all of us moving more and more slowly.
As we all, together, reached the summit, the snow fell even more heavily and a dense, thick, fog, set in. I was behind a pick-up truck on the way up the mountain, about a car length behind. In the fog, I couldn’t even see that far in front of me. On the way up the mountain, I was in the middle of three lanes. As I crested the mountain, the fog was so thick, I couldn’t see cars to my left or to my right.
I was stuck. The fog was so thick that I felt trapped. The snow falling in front of my headlights started turning to ice on the road. The heat on my window defogger could barely keep up with the moisture coming through my car’s vents. I couldn’t see to my right, to my left, to my front, or to my back. I couldn’t stop, because cars behind me couldn’t see me and I’d start a chain reaction of accidents. I couldn’t speed up, because I’d hit the truck in front of me. Being in the middle lane of three, I couldn’t pull off to the side of the road because I would run into a car. And besides, even if I’d been in the right or left lane, I wouldn’t have been able to see the guard rails and would have run the risk of driving off the side of the mountain. All I could do was hold my speed, pay close attention, and hope for the best.
I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t care if I made it to Mercer that day. I didn’t care if I made my flight. I just wanted off the mountain.
For what felt like hours, I’m not sure how long it was exactly, I held my speed, paid close attention, and looked desperately for the faint red glow of tail lights to tell me if I was getting too close to the car in front of me. I knew those taillights were there, just like I knew the road was there and the mountain was there, but I couldn’t see any of it.
I looked blindly for what I knew was there, but couldn’t find. The fog was too thick.
In our scripture from Luke, Jesus takes the bread and the cup, holding them up, declaring them to be his body and blood of the new covenant, broken and poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Every month, at least, we as a church “do [communion] in remembrance of” Jesus, remembering not only Jesus’s actions here at the Passover meal, but what they represent: the crucifixion; the breaking of Jesus’s body and the shedding of his blood. We remember that, in this act symbolized at the Table, Jesus instituted a new covenant, for you and for many.
We remember. At many tables at churches, including at my first appointment, the communion table reads “Do this in remembrance of me.” Certainly, we recall Jesus’s sacrifice and death whenever we approach the table, especially on this evening in particular, when we remember that Last Supper so many years ago.
Communion has an aspect of remembrance, but why does Jesus command us to take of bread and wine regularly? We certainly can remember the Last Supper and the crucifixion without the act of taking the bread and wine. Furthermore, why do we as a church do this act so often? We remember the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus only one time per year. Why, then, do we have communion so much more frequently? Why does Jesus ask us to do this often?
I didn’t grow up methodist. When I started attending a methodist church, I was surprised by how often methodists took communion. Why monthly?
I didn’t know, but as I received communion at Martha Bowman United Methodist, where we attended church before I joined the ministry, I knew communion was something special, because I felt it doing something inside of me. Perhaps I sensed it working within me because of my journey away from faith and then back to it; perhaps it was just because I matured; perhaps it was simply the movement of the Holy Spirit. But at Martha Bowman, receiving the elements often made me feel as though something more than remembrance, something meaningful and deep, was occurring as I participated in the liturgy and took of the bread and wine. Something special, something meaningful, something deep, something powerful, occurred every time I took communion.
I imagine you have experienced communion like that in the past. So maybe this is why Jesus asked us to do it often, to experience the depth and meaning and power of the sacrament.
But what happens during communion? What makes it meaningful, deep, and powerful; more than just remembrance?
It took me a while, but eventually I found an answer. At the communion table, in the midst of this sacred moment, I would catch a special glimpse of the divine.
As a people created by God, we carry around the image of God; we have God’s imprint on our heart. One Jewish tradition calls this reality a divine spark that exists within all of us. God is there, in our innermost being, inscribed on our hearts.
But too often, we’re blind to this fact. Our spiritual lives are much like my trip across the Blue Ridge mountains. Before we know Jesus personally, around that imprint, around that divine spark, exists a fog; a fog that’s so dense, we might only occasionally catch fleeting glimpses of the divine within, on our hearts; like catching a fleeting glimpse of the red tail lights on my mountain drive. We can try as hard as we might to see the divine within us, but try as hard as we might, we almost always miss it, because the fog of sin around God’s imprint on our hearts is so thick.
When we come to the table, the fog clears for a moment. We receive a special imparting of God’s grace through this act of communion into our lives that helps clear the fog. Wherever we are on the faith journey, whether we have made a personal commitment to relationship with Christ or not, God’s grace comes in and clears the fog, even if for a moment, so that we can see God’s imprint on our hearts.
For me, this clearing of the fog makes the moment of communion feel holy, sacred, special, deep, and powerful. For others, communion can feel like a joyous celebration. How we experience communion can be as varied as humanity itself, and sometimes we may feel nothing at all.
But God’s grace remains at work through communion, clearing the fog of sin, no matter how, or if, we experience it. God’s grace is such that we have a guarantee to receive it when we partake of the elements.
When we partake of these elements, the body and blood of Christ, we participate in Christ’s new covenant; one marked by a grace that goes before, justifies our sin, and makes us holy. That’s the nature of the new covenant we remember, and experience, when we come to the table, on this Maundy Thursday and every time we partake; the new covenant of God’s grace extended to all people so that all might recognize God’s imprint on our hearts and God’s desire for relationship with us all.
The fog of sin is blinding, but God’s grace, received at the table, gives us sight of the divine imprint within each of us. God is there, through the fog, longing for relationship.
As I came down the mountain, the fog gradually lifted and traffic started to speed up. We were still careful, knowing that the snow was starting to form ice on the roads and the fog might return. In fact, for the rest of my drive, the fog came and went; never as thick as it had been on top of the mountain, but ever present, always a reminder to be careful and stay alert, in case the fog became blinding again.
That’s how our spiritual lives go. The fog of sin is always there, clouding our judgment, keeping us from fully seeing the divine imprint that lies on our hearts. Each time we receive, however, whether we’re not yet a believer, are a new believer, or have lived a careful life with Christ for decades, God’s grace clears our sight of the divine imprint within.
In that moment of clarity, we see what God has intended for us all along: deep and meaningful relationship with God. We are God’s creation, made in God’s image. Our divine creator longs for relationship with us. That’s why God sent Jesus, that’s why we remember Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection. It’s why we spend time during this Holy Week preparing our hearts for the depths of crucifixion and the heights of resurrection.
And it’s also why we take communion so often. The fog of sin clouds our hearts so much that we can struggle to maintain that relationship with God. We need to catch sight of the divine imprint on our hearts to be reminded, to remember, that we are God’s creation, made by God for God; that our loving God longs for relationship with us, so much, that God put Godself on the cross for our sakes.
When God’s grace clears sight of the divine within for us, it gives us a moment of choice: to respond with awe and wonder and thanksgiving that God desires relationship with us, or to simply let the moment pass us by. To respond with awe and wonder and thanksgiving is to choose to deepen our commitment to the God who already loves us deeply.
Why did Jesus command us to take of the elements so often? To remember, though catching sight of the divine within, that God longs for relationship with us. This evening, as with every time we approach the table, we have a choice before us: to choose to deepen our commitment or let the moment pass by.
We cannot clear the fog of sin on our own; we need God’s grace to do that for us. This is the wonder, the mystery, of the table; this is the wonder and the mystery of the sacrament, this is the wonder and mystery Christ’s sacrifice for us.
The fog is blinding, but God’s grace, received at the table, gives us sight of the divine imprint within each of us.