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Adding Significance to a Symbol

Posted by on Dec 28, 2010 in books, ordinances/sacraments | 7 comments

Adding Significance to a Symbol

In The Sacred Meal, Nora Gallagher seeks to explain the significance of Communion – the Eucharist – the Lord’s Supper – the Agape Feast. She writes as one who has served the bread and the wine at many communion services primarily in the Episcopal denomination.

I must begin this review with a couple of confessions. First, I grew up in a different Christian tradition with a different understanding of the Supper. Second, I have since come to understand Communion as a completely different “practice” than either of these two traditions (the author’s or my own).

This book is part of a series called “The Ancient Practices Series.” Gallagher explains her understanding of the difference between a “practice” and a “habit”:

To engage in a practice is to show up and not get attached to the outcome. Unlike a habit, like driving down the same street from work to home every day, the purpose of a spiritual practice is to help us stay awake. Hidden in this kind of repetition is the chance that on any given day, the mind or soul will connect with what is waiting to connect to us. (pg xix)

The practice to which she refers is, of course, Communion. In her practice, Communion consists of standing in line with strangers (per the author’s description) to accept a wafer of bread and a sip of wine (or perhaps to dip the bread in the wine).

The book, then, is her attempt to add significance to this practice. She does so by retelling several episodes in her own life around the event of communion. The stories are told in a vivid and easy-to-read fashion which causes the reader to empathize with the author and the other characters in the story.

Gallagher divides her book into eleven chapters and a study guide. She invites her readers to consider the “waiting,” the “receiving,” and the “afterward” of a communion service. She also wants her readers to connect to God through various experiences, including experiences of communion.

The author does manage to attach significance to the symbol of a meal. She attaches significance from the life of Jesus, and from her own life. She presents the symbol of a table that is open to anyone, from alcoholics and drug addicts to the religious elite.

The problem with this book is actually not the author’s problem. The problem lies in the traditional understanding of “Communion.” The author does not tie the significance of “Communion” back to scriptural passages about “Communion.” Why? Because the taking of a wafer and a sip of wine cannot be connected to the meal that we find in the pages of the New Testament.

Thus, today, we must find significance in the symbol of a table, instead of gathering around a real table. We partake of a symbol of a meal, instead of sharing in the Lord’s Supper. We share the elements of the Eucharist, instead of thanking God for the food that we share with one another. We stand in line with strangers for “Communion service,” instead of actually sharing fellowship with our brothers and sisters. We call a wafer and a sip a feast, instead of truly sharing a love feast (Agape feast).

I’m not blaming Gallagher. This search for significance in the “Supper” or “Communion” or “Eucharist” has been going on for many, many years. And, it will continue until we put away the symbols and start sharing in the supper itself… a supper that is a real meal with real people with whom we share real relationships with Jesus as the real host.

(I received this book for free from in exchange for this review.)


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  1. 12-28-2010

    Not having read the book, I think I understand the problem. Most of what I have read about the Lord’s Supper has to do with tinkering around with the ritual rather than asking if our ritualistic tradition is what was practiced or intended.

  2. 12-28-2010

    Thank you Alan for your example of loving and gentle correction/redirection towards the proper focus.

  3. 12-28-2010

    I have been studying this issue rather intensively lately, and with all the covenant meal/passover/sedar/agape feast implications considered, the overwhelming evidence in 1 Corinthians seems to have tore the veil of mystery for me.

    I have been considering the issue surrounding “Some of you are sick and dying because of the abuses going on” and looking at how TWO times Paul addresses the Corinthians as waiting for one another (during the meal context). Makes one wonder, if poor folks are a majority in the church, and poor folks aren’t eating because the rich folks are gobbling it all up and abusing everything, then one could surmise, not eating=sick and dying. Interesting. Mysterious? I think not.

    A Common Meal, most definitely.

  4. 12-28-2010

    Thanks for the review. I was thinking of getting this book for my next review copy from BookSneeze, but after reading your review, decided against it.Instead, I opted for Defiant Joy, a biography of G.K. Chesterton, who is one of my favorite authors.

  5. 12-28-2010

    I am glad you addressed the essence of what is being presented in this book…

    The line that stuck out to me was, “She also wants her readers to connect to God through various experiences, including experiences of communion.

    This is probably the main reason why I am so resistant to the idea of making “communion” into anything resembling a ritual, anything that might rise to the level of being able to be called a “sacrament” or whatever else. Jesus simply said, “Do this, remembering me.” The whole point is that we are not to forget the cross, not to forget what Jesus was actually doing on that cross… It was not meant to be some esoteric or experiential vehicle through which we try to “connect” with God! God does not rely on rituals or ceremonies or any sort of special, magical scenarios to help us “connect” with him. The whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is that we have Him IN us, ALL the time! The bread and wine are simply given to help REMIND us that through His sacrifice, we are truly and fully “connected” to the Father!

    All in all, it serves as just one more example as to how religious rituals are typically little else than a way of introducing pagan/occult concepts. The “eucharist” is in reality a magikal ritual or “working” which (depending on the tradition), claims to produce some sort of effect that is not possible through any other circumstances. If you follow the prescribed steps, say the right words, have a priest bless the wafer, etc., etc., then *poof*, you get a magical “Christian” event… In it’s “highest” form, it is simply witchcraft topped with a cross…

  6. 12-28-2010


    I like the description “tinkering around with the ritual.” It is most amazing to me that so many believers separate from one another based on different “tinkerings” without recognizing that the ritual is so much different than the common meal found in Scripture.




    Apparently, “Christ in us” is not mystery enough. We need to create our own mysteries. :)


    I almost picked Defiant Joy.


    Wow… great comment and commentary!


  7. 12-30-2010

    I once heard someone say, “It’s the Lord’s Supper, not the Lord’s Snack.”