Thursday, December 23, 2021

Why Do We Celebrate Holy Communion on Christmas Eve?

For those raised in the church and especially for those of Roman Catholic or Episcopalian backgrounds, this is an expectation rather than a question.

But in American society, we have seen a rise in Christmas Eve candlelight services even in denominations that are not considered traditionally liturgical.  For those within the United Methodist tradition, the Christmas Eve service includes Holy Communion.  Fortunately, we feature an open table meaning that all are welcome to come and join us in receiving the bread and the juice.  At Christmas, we often have extended family members or friends join us which means they are welcome to fully participate in the service.

I always appreciated that we recognize God's invitation through this sacrament.

I think every generation wants community.
And every community has the potential of 
both healing and harm. Which will we choose?

But as our society becomes increasingly distant from organized religion, there may be some that attend that balk at participating in Holy Communion.  It may be too ritualistic for them.  It may be too spiritual.  In our particular time of spreading germs, it may be too communal!

While we'll have to leave it to the individual churches to address the safety concerns, I would like to share why we offer Holy Communion during this particular service.

Holy Communion has always included elements of eschatology which refer to the end times.  As we think about the end of time, we may think about all of our debts finally being paid.  We have finished the race.  We have completed all the work assigned to us.  We are able to put down our grudges and let go of our bitterness.  At the end of time, we imagine enemies laying down their weapons, whether these be physical or verbal.  At the end of time, we believe that peace will reign.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  This is an eschatological statement.  It is saying that eventually things will be better because God is at work.

As Christians consider the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ at Christmas, this is a punctuation in history for us.  It is a way that we make a statement that these end times characteristics are upon us now!

Within Holy Communion, we recognize that in history, Jesus met his own end violently.  Not only did he die horrifically, but his own disciples deserted, denied and betrayed him.  As a particularly perceptive person, Jesus seemed to know where his own actions were leading.  In other words, he was not surprised by the outcome of the cross.  Within our ritual, we recognize that Jesus precedes this violent end with a meal with said disciples.  Isn't this a statement of eschatology?

And so, as we gather on Christmas Eve, we participate by making our own statement that when we commune with Christ, we are punctuating history today.  We are acting out our own statement of laying down our judgments against each other.  We are setting aside our anger, our fear and our animosity.  We are choosing to break bread with one another in peace, saying at least for this moment, "This is who we are in Christ."

So, if you are nominally religious, agnostic or even atheist, you are still welcome to join us at the table.  All people need to eat, no matter what they believe.  On Christmas Eve, within the United Methodist Church, we are simply saying, "Why not choose the way of peace and eat together?"

I can't think of a better way to celebrate Christmas!

Photo by Ivan via  Used under the Creative Commons License.

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