Czechoslovakia felt like home to me. Well, not Czechoslovakia exactly, but my mom’s large Czech family. Their love was a constant throughout all my TCK moves. I never fit in at school, but I never, ever doubted my belonging in the Musel family. And wherever I go in the world now, the memory of my mom’s relatives is a comfort that I return to again and again.
Nobody loved or accepted unconditionally like they did. Friends and significant others were always welcomed, no questions asked. It was mind-boggling, really, the inclusiveness they demonstrated, especially as I view it now through adult eyes. They are the ones who taught me my belovedness. That knowledge is a gift that sustains me anywhere I go (and one that the Church would do well to imitate).
Each Christmas we cemented our family relationships with a tradition that harked all the way back to the “old country”: The Apple. Every Christmas Eve after a special meal of noodle soup and hoska (traditional Czech pastry), we gathered around Grandpa (or the oldest living male relative) and listened to him tell the story. It was the same story year after year after: a story about getting lost and finding our way back again.
Grandpa would take an ordinary apple and cut it into the same number of pieces as the people present at the meal. One piece for each person, right on down to the fidgety toddler or the newborn baby. He would pass the plate around, and we would all take a piece, even the little ones who didn’t like the peel. Then we would each eat our piece of apple.
And as we ate, Grandpa would tell us that whenever we felt lost and alone in life, we could sit down, quiet ourselves for a few minutes, and remember eating apple together at Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. He told us that if we did that, we would find our way. He told stories of family members who had been physically lost in the woods who found their way home because of this communal memory. But the promise wasn’t limited to physical lostness. It was for metaphysical lostness too.
There is nothing magical about a shared meal, or even a ritualistic one. And there is nothing magical about finding peace through the memory of that shared meal. But there is something mystical about it.There is something calming about sitting quietly and remembering how very much you are loved, regardless of what you do or how you perform, but simply because you are part of a family.
Science shows that sharing a meal together produces the same hormone as that produced when you give or receive a hug or when a mother bonds with her baby: oxytocin. The first time I read about the physiology of shared meals, I marveled at the wisdom of a God who instituted a Church tradition that chemically bonds us together. This tradition goes by various names — communion, the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist. Regardless of what we call it, it’s been commemorated by the body of Christ for nearly two thousand years now. It goes back much further than my family’s life in the “Old Country.”
I grew up in churches that practiced open communion. Open communion means that anyone who was a follower of Christ could participate, no matter your history or church membership, no questions asked. It was customary to wait till after baptism to take communion, but over the years I witnessed actual open communion of both adults and children, pre-baptism.
I love this practice of open communion. God’s love and forgiveness are free for all, and open communion is a physical representation of that spiritual truth. The bread and the cup are offered to all; there is no judgment here. Everyone is welcome at this Table. We eat together, we gather people into our family, and we remember the love and sacrifice of Christ that created this family.
In the churches of my childhood we celebrated communion weekly, so I have literally a thousand memories of ingesting the bread and wine together with my brothers and sisters. A thousand times of remembering Christ’s sacrifice for all of us regular, ragamuffin believers sitting (and sinning) in those red-padded pews. It was a tradition much like my Musel family Christmas Eve Apple: capable of bonding us together and teaching us how loved we really are.
The Church is supposed to be that safe family atmosphere. And communion is meant to be our oxytocin-creating feast. It’s supposed to be a shared meal, a shared message, and a shared memory. It’s how God wants us to learn our belovedness. But we all know that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the church fails to live up to Christ’s dream for His Bride, and communion doesn’t become the inclusive, bonding event it’s designed to be.
If any of that is true for you today, let’s reclaim communion for our ever-wandering, never-belonging-anywhere hearts. Let’s remind ourselves that communion and other shared meals are an opportunity to rejoice in Christ’s offer of love to us. Let’s reframe time at the Table as a way to remember Jesus as the One who initiates relationship with us, over and over and over again. Let’s pick up the bread and reach for the wine. Let’s put them in our mouths and pass the plates on to the next person. Let’s remake communion into a time to breathe in our belovedness.
The promise offered to me as a child around the Christmas table is no stronger than the promise offered to us when we partake of the bread and wine. It is the promise of becoming one with Jesus and with His people. It is the promise that He is always with us, always welcoming us, always wanting us. So the next time you take communion or share a meal with your brothers and sisters in Christ — yes even the ones you don’t like or who don’t like you – may you remember that you are dearly and truly loved, and that you don’t have to do anything to gain this love.
Originally published here; reprinted with permission.