“Communion is a family meal with special symbolic significance.”
Up until a few days ago I would have disagreed with that sentence so vehemently that I wouldn’t have even been able to type it for this post. I hate the word “symbol”. It seems to me that people these days equate it to “trinket” or at best “expression”. But perhaps I have been too harsh in my judgement. Perhaps there is something to this whole symbol thing.
If I say that my college ring is a symbol, I’m sure most everyone would think I was just saying that it is a ring clearly associated with Aggies. I bought it so that I could show in a visible way how proud I am of graduating from my particular university. Wearing this ring doesn’t earn me any particular privilege. It doesn’t get me any respect that I wouldn’t get from just telling someone that I graduated. If I attach any particular meaning or importance to it, that’s just because I feel like doing so, not because it really has any meaning or importance on its own.
Things change a bit when you start talking about wedding rings. During the ceremony, it’s tradition to say of the ring something along the lines of “as a symbol of wedded love and faithfulness.” And I’m pretty sure that most people take that to mean that it’s supposed to be a reminder of your wedding day. So when you look down at your hand and see that particular gold band on that particular finger, you should remember how great that particular day was and how much that particular person really looked like they meant what they said. So, if any special meaning is attached to that ring, it’s just because those two people remember that particular day fondly, and should that memory become tarnished, then the meaning attached to the ring will obviously change.
Now let’s consider signet rings from the middle ages. If a noble were to give you his signet ring, he has enabled you to act and speak with his authority. In other words by bearing the symbol of authority, you bear the authority itself. This ring has special meaning to more than just the two people involved. Failure to acknowledge the authority of the bearer of this ring can have dire consequences, and for the bearer of the ring, there is the responsibility to act and speak as the representative of the owner of the ring.
So we have three definitions for symbols. First, a symbol can serve as a declaration. Second, it can serve as a reminder. Finally, a symbol can serve as the guarantee of a promise.
So why can’t my university ring serve as a reminder? I’m not saying it can’t, but it’s not something that I received for any particular reason. I got it because I could and because I felt I should. I wear it because I’m proud of having graduated from A&M and because I’m not ashamed to tell everyone that I did. But this ring wasn’t given to me, and it doesn’t serve as a guarantee for anything. So if I ever had to give it up, I would only lose a piece of gold and a public declaration of my pride in being an Aggie.
Why can’t a wedding ring serve as a guarantee? Again, I’m not saying it can’t, but it’s hard for me to imagine a judge saying, “I don’t see why you think you can get a divorce, she’s still got the ring.” The ring’s meaning changes when the marriage ends, not the other way around. The ring isn’t guarantee of the wedding vows these days, and frankly I think I’m being a bit generous in saying it’s a reminder of the wedding vows. From my perspective it seems to be just another piece of jewelery to the majority of the populace.
So along with the three definitions, there seems to be three conditions. To be a declaration, a symbol must be an artifact which takes the place of something else. To be a reminder, a symbol must be given in honor of a specific event. To be a guarantee, a symbol must be given with intent and received in good faith.
I didn’t get my college ring in honor of any specific event, so it is not a reminder. It may remind me of graduation or ring dance. I may be reminded of my mom driving down to bring my proof of purchase so I could get my ring. But none of these things are the reason behind getting the ring. I have it because I want the world to know I’m proud of who I am and why I’m this way.
A wedding ring is rarely if ever given with the true intent of guaranteeing the wedding vows, though I would believe it is often received as such. In other words, I doubt seriously anyone really ever says “As long as you have this ring, I am bound by my vow, and will eternally love and be faithful to you.” I would be surprised to find a person who, even though they do believe they are bound by their vow, believe it is attached in any real or true way to the ring.
Communion though, is a guarantee. “Take and eat, this is my body. … Drink from it, all of you. This is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Is the bread and wine a symbol? Of course it is. It doesn’t physically turn into the body and blood of Christ, no matter what the pope tells you. But let’s look at the properties of these symbols.
They are clearly meant to take the place of something. The bread and wine are clearly given to take the place of Christ’s body and blood. Not for redemption, it’s not the bread and wine which save me. But it is the bread and wine which I eat in the place of eating Christ’s body and blood.
And too, these symbols are clearly given in honor of a specific event. His blood was certainly “poured out for many” the very next day. It is obvious that these symbols are given to remind us of his sacrifice and his death. It would be foolishness to claim otherwise.
But notice, “the blood of the covenant.” A promise is being made here, and the bread and wine are being given as a guarantee of the promise. Christ is promising that his body is broken and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. And he has given this bread and wine as a guarantee that his promise is true.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. - John 6:53-57
I eat the bread and wine of communion. I believe that because he keeps his promises, and because he has promised I am eating his body and blood, I am eating his body and blood, even though I’m only putting bread and wine in my mouth. Just as I eat that bread and wine, I eat the body and blood of the man who is, was, and will always be the one and only God. And because I eat his body and blood, this eternal life is already mine.
So is the bread and wine a symbol? Yes. The bread and wine are offered by Christ as a guarantee of his promise, that he has provided himself, his own body and blood, for the feast, and that we are welcomed to the table. But make no mistake, it is not in any way a symbol from me to God. It is not an expression of how much I am thankful or how much I remember his sacrifice. It is a guarantee of the covenant.
Posted with : The Way