Sunday, October 10, 2010

Communion in the tomb

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3-4).

"But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thes 4:13).

Historically, what Scripture teaches us about the Lord’s Supper has been co-opted by raging debates over the real presence. Whatever it actually signifies in Scripture has shifted to the extraneous significance which Lutherans or Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox (among others) impute to the rite.

But if we consider the intertextual parallels, the significance of the Lord’s Supper is analogous to the significance of Christian burial.

In 1 Cor 11:26, communion has a twofold significance: it commemorates a past event while it also anticipating a future event. And it does so in light of a present absence. A contrast between what was, what is, and what will be.

Communion commemorates his death and burial, but does so with a view to the second coming of the Risen Lord. An emblem of memory and hope. Reverence for the past, and faith in the future. Commemoration and celebration.

In that respect, the Eucharist has a function similar to a cemetery. For Christian survivors, who bury Christian loved ones, the grave is a present emblem of a present absence (the departed), which, in turn, commemorates the life of the departed while it also anticipates the future reunion.

This is why survivors often remain in the area, and frequent the cemetery. The grave is both a backward-looking and forward-looking symbol. It reminds them of the life they shared with their loved one. And it prefigures the restoration to come.

A cemetery is a waiting place. A place where survivors come to pray, to reminisce, to give thanks for the years together. To grieve for the years apart. But as well, a place that foreshadows the renewed presence of the present absence.

Of course, the grave is only significant to the survivors. A friend. A sibling. A spouse. A son or daughter–or grandson or granddaughter. A hidden significance.

It is special to them because the departed are special to them. For them, the marked grave is nothing more or less than a tangible token or outward pledge of what once was, no longer is, but shall be again.

That stands in contrast to those who have no hope. For them, the grave is only backward-looking, not forward-looking. An ending, rather than the promise of a new beginning.


  1. BTW, I'm not addressing the pros and cons of burial over against cremation. That's an individual judgment call. There is no right or wrong in that respect. It's a matter of what is feasible (e.g. expense), and what best suits the emotional needs of the survivor(s).