Be What You See and Receive What You Are

Augustine’s Understanding of the Communion Table as a Mirror

What do you call that piece of furniture upon which we place the communion elements? A table? The Lord’s table? The communion table? Many worship traditions emphasize this connection to the Lord’s Supper by emphasizing some form of that name.

But another common name for that piece of furniture is altar. It’s a name that resonates with the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death on Calvary, not to mention his ongoing priestly ministry at the right hand of God in heaven.

Table or altar: those seem to be the two most common names. But I’d like to suggest another: mirror. The piece of furniture used in communion serves as a mirror in which the church can see—should see—a true reflection of itself.

You may be thinking, “How can that be? There’s no glass, no frame, and no metal reflecting the church’s image.” True. But there’s something else there that gives insight into the true nature of the church: bread.

Think about it: there’s a playful multivalence in the bread laid on that piece of furniture. We pray, then point to the bread and say, “Look, the body of Christ.” We tear off the bread (at least we did before the pandemic), hand it to one another, and say, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” However, ever since the apostle Paul, we apply the term “body of Christ” to ourselves too. Which is it? Is the bread the body of Christ, or are we as the church the body of Christ? The answer is “yes.” The liturgical way of saying “yes” is “amen,” which is what Christians in many traditions say both when the bread is handed to us and when we affirm the nature of the church in a creed.

Augustine of Hippo, that wise pastor of the fifth century, understood this. Drawing on Paul’s theology of the church as expressed in 1 Corinthians 12, Augustine exhorted Christians to understand who they really were—the body of Christ, member for member—and to realize, therefore, that “it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. . . . Be what you see and receive what you are.” Moreover, Augustine exhorted believers to live faithfully as the church: “Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” [when handed the bread] may ring true!” (Augustine, Sermon 272).

Indeed, there are parallels in how we make bread and how God makes us the church. As a loaf is formed from many grains of wheat, so the church is made up of many members. As the wheat has to be gathered in a harvest, so too the love of others has brought us in. By our repentance from sin, we are ground. By our instruction in the Word, we are leavened. By our baptism, we are moistened and molded anew.

And by the coming of the Holy Spirit, we are baked. Finally this loaf is set on the piece of furniture and the words are spoken: “The body of Christ.” We can see—should see—ourselves in communion as in a mirror.

In a culture steeped in consumerism, it is a helpful thing to come to communion expecting to look in a mirror. Without this perspective, we might reduce this holiest of moments to the base questions that drive consumerism: Did I enjoy it? What can I get out of it? But to perceive a mirror in that piece of furniture that is simultaneously table and altar allows us to step into expansive realities. As a table it becomes an occasion for offering ourselves as the body of Christ in love and service to each other and to the world. As an altar it becomes the setting in which we can offer ourselves in union with Christ, as members of his body, in praise and thanksgiving to God.

With such an abundance of deep truth resting on it, it is amazing that this piece of communion furniture doesn’t collapse under the weight. Altar, table, and mirror: may our contemplation of and participation in these mysteries bring us into closer communion with God and our fellow believers.

Dr. Lester Ruth is the Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School. He is passionate about studying the history of worship to enrich the worship life of current congregations, regardless of style. He believes that careful reflection on the worship of other Christians—whether past or present, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox—can serve to enrich the church today.

Reformed Worship 144 © June 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.