I went to a retreat over the weekend where Father Brendan Purcell presented 4 reflections on different aspects of communion. One distinction that came clear to me was that community and communion are both essential human activities but not the same. A community is any group of people who share a common purpose and basic set of values. Communion is a Christian community with the real presence of Jesus among them. Communion can be as small as two people — Jesus was with the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. Thus a Christian marriage can be a communion if husband and wife sincerely recognise His desire to be part of their marriage.
Going beyond community
In my book Imagining Rama, I talk about an underlying “Game Plan” for the universe. From a purely secular viewpoint, many are beginning to see a trend toward recognizing the value of mutuality, concern for the other person and community. In the age of the Internet, for example, we are beginning to sense that all humanity is part of a global village or community. People in church, in my experience, often say that they like being part of the church community. This is good, and the way it should be.
But, in a way, as a church community shouldn’t our “eyes be opened” like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus? Shouldn’t we believe (and sense) that Jesus is really present? Not just have a good feeling when we think about Jesus but actually believe that He is right here, now, participating, teaching, guiding our church in everything it does. Isn’t that what He promised? If that is so, shouldn’t we use the term “communion” to express this reality rather than church ‘community’? Otherwise our church risks becoming just a “club” or social experience.
The mystery of communion
I can hear you wondering how can we know that we are in communion with Jesus? His test was simple –“They will know you are my disciples if you love one another.” Let me give you a few personal observations about love within a church communion that signals Jesus’ presence. There is a retarded man who wanders into our Sunday service occasionally. When he approaches the altar, a man goes and sits with him and gently explains what is going on and why he must be quiet during the service. Another example. An homeless man who is an alcoholic attends services. Various people make him welcome and give him money from time to time. Another example. People actually smile and reach out to touch one another during the exchange of peace in our service.
The mystery is that Jesus unites with us as we do these simple things. They don’t seem to be significant enough to attract the attention of the Lord of the entire universe. And, unfortunately, we are not always loving. We criticise people. We erect barriers with other churches. Father Purcell said, “Every division, every discord is a barrier to love flowing out.” We must admit that our church has such barriers because we are sinners. Nonetheless, Jesus said unconditionally that he would be with us. Shouldn’t we be grateful more often for His presence as the healer of our sinfulness? That is the mystery of communion — that, somehow, Jesus is there before we are ready and makes us ready to see and be like Him. That is the lesson of Emmaus.