Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, with thanksgiving, making confession of our faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself. In a word, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love of God and our neighbor.
-From Article 35 of the Belgic Confession of Faith
We had the privilege of celebrating the Lord’s Supper at my church last Sunday morning. The next time we will enjoy the bread and wine together will be in April. This infrequent celebration of the Sacrament at our church is the result of many decades of a weak tradition in the Dutch Reformed churches, an unfortunate habit that seems nearly impossible to break ourselves of despite the efforts of many brave souls. What the Word of God proclaims and what the confessions teach concerning the Sacrament loses out time after time to the old, “but this is the way we’ve always done it.” I think the practice of celebrating Communion less-than-oft has programmed many people into thinking that the Table is on some level far higher up than the preaching of the Word. It has become a ‘special occasion’ one must get ready for far ahead of time because of its ‘specialness.’ The reason it is so rarely celebrated, some say, is so that it doesn’t become a common thing resulting in apathy.
I don’t know exactly how we got to the Dutch Reformed ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ communion from Calvin’s weekly communion, but one thing that isn’t helping us get it back is the notion that we are required to undergo a special week of self-reflection and ‘the old college try’ at holy living for a week before we can partake. Most of my fellow Dutchmen will know that I’m taking about the so-called ‘week of preparation,’ a ‘holy week’ that takes place four, six, or sometimes even twelve weeks out of a year in our churches, a week that begins with a preparatory exhortation during a preparatory service.
Six Sundays from next we will once again read a preparatory exhortation form from the back of our Psalter Hymnals to help us prepare for the Lord’s Supper which will be celebrated in seven Sundays. The preparatory exhortation form itself isn’t all bad, it directs our thoughts the way the Heidelberg Catechism does; in the knowledge of our sin and misery, in how we have been delivered from our sin and misery, and how we are to thank God for such deliverance. The exhortation is also right when it reminds us that “we do not come [to the Table] claiming any merit in ourselves” but clinging only to the merits of Christ. But why do we need a special form to direct us to these things? Did we lose our confidence in the preaching of the Gospel? Does the form communicate something that can’t be communicated in preaching? And why do we think we need this special instruction a full week before we come to the Table?
We’ve adopted an unhealthy and quite un-Reformed practice in setting aside a ‘holy week’ to prepare to come to the Lord’s Table. Even though the preparatory form itself does not blatantly tell us to try as hard as we can for a week to make ourselves worthy partakers, we almost can’t help but come away with this impression. I sometimes wonder how many people come to the Table the next Lord’s Day thinking, “I’ve done my best in the last six days, and I’m as good as I can be right now.” God forbid that I ever come to the Lord’s Table with “my best.” I also wonder how many people are driven to the point of deep despair during the week of preparation because they just can’t seem to get out from under the weight of the law, always looking inward for ways to make themselves right with God rather than looking outward to the all-sufficient Savior.
Was a week set aside for inward reflection, self-loathing, and keeping a tally of one’s evil deeds and good works what Guido had in mind when he penned the words of article 35 of the Belgic Confession? Is this what Paul meant for us in I Corinthians 11? When I read the words of Article 35 of the Confession I wonder who wouldn’t want to be fed at the Lord’s Table and partake of Christ and all His benefits every week, and thus be moved week after week to ‘a fervent love of God and our neighbor.’