I think I was four years old the first time I wondered about what was going on in church when my mom and dad left Danny and me in the pew with strict instructions to “sit still” while they walked up to the front of the church in an orderly line with all the other adults. I tried to see what was going on up front, but we were sitting in the back pew, and I really couldn’t see anything except the heads of all the people in front of me. In a couple minutes my mom and dad came back and my mom gave me a few of those little pink and green and yellow pillow mints – the kind you used to get at weddings. Oh, that was it – they went forward to get some candy, and my mom brought some back for Danny and me.
That’s my earliest memory of what “Holy Communion” was all about. Communion didn’t happen very often in our church back then – maybe three or four times a year. It took me a while to learn that “communion” was about something other than getting candy, but I eventually caught on, especially when my mom stopped bringing back those pillow mints, and she looked for whatever candy she could find in her purse to reward me for “sitting still.”
When I was a kid, we didn’t take communion until we were confirmed, which was in eighth grade. By that time we had learned that communion was a time to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, a time to remember how much Jesus loved us.
One of the most memorable times I took communion was when I was in high school. I was with a group of ten kids and a youth pastor (my brother-in-law) in Mexico at the jungle base of the Wycliffe Bible Translators Missionary Training Camp. We were on a week-long trip to learn about all the different kinds of jobs missionaries held. We happened to be at the jungle base on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For our communion service we sat on stumps in a small clearing in the thick jungle growth. For the bread and wine we had tostados and grape Kool-Aid. It was a very moving experience. I thought about God’s love for all people, including people all around the world, some who lived in the jungle and didn’t even have a written language – which meant they had no way of reading the Bible, or anything else. What was God like for them?
More recently, I’ve been thinking about communion from a little different perspective. For the past thirteen years I’ve been a church organist. In the Presbyterian church, we had communion once a month. In the two Lutheran churches where I play now, we have communion every Sunday. Usually I’m “working” (playing the organ) during communion, and the main thing on my mind is: How can the music I play prompt people in the congregation to think about how much God loves them? Sometimes it’s by trying to set the right tone and tempo for a reflective hymn that the congregation is singing. Sometimes it’s by playing an old familiar hymn that has words that might bring Jesus’ love and suffering to mind.
This Thursday is Maundy Thursday, the day we commemorate the original “Last Supper.” I’ll be “working” double duty that day. I’ll play the piano for the women’s worship service at the county jail in the afternoon, and I’ll play the organ for the Maundy Thursday service at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church in the evening. I’m looking forward to both services. This is my first year playing at East, so I don’t know quite what the service will be like, although I expect it will follow the traditional Lutheran liturgy fairly closely.
I know what to expect for the service in jail. Based on my experience the last couple years, I expect the service will be quite informal and very meaningful for everyone involved. There will probably be about ten of us sitting on wooden chairs arranged in a circle in the jail chapel. After the chaplain explains what communion signifies, she may invite us to share with the group what communion means to each of us personally. After this time of sharing, the chaplain will bless the bread and “wine” (grape juice); we will pass the cup and bread around the circle; and we will offer communion to each other. As the inmate sitting next to me holds the bread and cup for me, she may say, “The body of Christ, given for you; and the blood of Christ, shed for you” – or something similar. I will pick up a small piece of bread, dip it in the cup of juice, and eat it. Then I’ll take the bread and cup and hold them for the inmate sitting on the other side of me and offer the bread and “wine” to her. The process will continue until everyone has offered and received communion. Then I’ll go back to the piano and we’ll sing a hymn.
Of all the weeks of the year, this is the one to especially remember how much God loves us. Jesus gave us an important tip when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The important thing that happens whenever we take communion is that we are prompted to remember how much God loves us – even more than my mom loved me when she showed her love by giving me pink and green and yellow pillow mints.