Some time ago I used the article ‘Rediscovering the Eucharist as Communal Meal’ written by Matthew Kustenbauder in my course on African Christian Worship. I thought the article gave some good insights on how Holy Communion is understood in Africa. Here is a summary.
A meal is perhaps the most basic and most ancient symbol of friendship, love, and unity; food and drink taken in common are signs that life is shared. In Africa it is rare for people to eat alone — meals are communal activities. Eating a meal together is the most basic way of sharing common life; it restores what has been lost and gives strength for what lies ahead.
(1) A Meal of Covenant
Perhaps the greatest problem of the church in respect to its mission has been its endless fragmentation. The desired unity among Christians has become an illusion. By sharing in a final meal with his disciples, Jesus united them in a covenant relationship with himself and with one another. Sharing in the sacred meal establishes unity and communion with the one Lord. Africans think of relationship in covenantal terms as well. When two or more persons eat or drink together from the same bowl they have entered into a covenant.
In the Eucharist, we affirm our covenant with Jesus Christ and with others. Practices that exclude Christian members of other denominations from partaking in the Eucharist are a serious hindrance to establishing authentic Christian community.
(2) A Meal of Unity and Peace
African Christianity insists that the Eucharist must be understood communally, not just in terms of Christ and the individual.
In his book, Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan relates how he “rediscovered” the gospel message among the Masai in Tanzania. Their faithful observance of the Mass moved him deeply. Donovan recalls how he never knew if the Eucharist would be done during his visits to the villages. The elders were the ones to decide. “If life in the village had been less than human or holy, then there was no Mass. If there had been selfishness and forgetfulness and hatefulness and lack of forgiveness in the work that had been done and in the life that had been led, there would be no Eucharist. More often than not, however, there was the will to overcome the community’s weaknesses. By the power of the Holy Spirit they could say together, “This — not just the bread and wine, but the whole life of the village, its work, play, joy, sorrow, the homes, the grazing fields, the flocks, the people — all this is my Body.”
(3) A Meal of Reconciliation
Another aspect of the African celebration of the Eucharist is the way in which sin is understood communally. Western definitions of sin are often focusing on self, salvation, and one’s own relationship to God. African notions of sin are focused on relationships with others in the community.
In the Zion Apostolic Church in Zimbabwe people are not allowed to participate in the Eucharist until they confess their sins to the elders. The belief is that those who do not confess their sins will be enemies of God for an entire year.
In African traditional understandings, the public naming, condemning, and breaking of sin emphasises the relational aspect of human moral behaviour. Broken relationships are made whole again, a concrete symbol of people’s daily struggle against sin within the community.
(4) A Meal of Mystical Power: Experiencing the Real Presence of Christ
The African tradition offers the West an new sense of the real presence of Christ as mystical power. Africans tend to find spiritual forces actively at work in the world for good and ill.
The Eucharist, however, is not to be considered a thing endowed with mystical power on its own. Instead, its significance lies in the action of an assembly filled with the presence of Jesus. What the assembly does with the elements representing Christ’s body and blood conveys the deepest meaning of the Eucharist. This is because, in the African consciousness, a strong sense of mystical power is attached to the human action of sharing a meal together.
The Eucharist is a communal meal in which Christ is celebrated, and in which Christ gives himself in the form of food and drink. The Eucharist is not just a meal, but a communal act of joyfully celebrating the Risen Christ in our midst and giving thanks to God the Father.
(5) A Meal of Participation
The African church may also enrich world Christianity’s notions of who participates in worship.
During the Eucharist, members of the assembly often bring the elements to the table with celebration, dancing, and rejoicing. The Eucharist meal is not something that the priest or minister prepares alone. The Eucharist is centered on the active participation of the entire community. The real presence of Christ – “This is the Body of Christ” – becomes true only through full participation. African Eucharistic celebrations have a way of preserving individual distinctions while maximizing the participation of all in common worship of God.
(6) A Meal of Hope: Proclaiming Christ’s Resurrection until He Comes
The African church celebrates the Eucharist as a communal meal of hope. A bold proclamation of Christ’s resurrection and firm hope in his return may be found in The Anglican Church of Kenya’s A Kenyan Service of Holy Communion (1989).
Excerpts demonstrate creativity and freedom in adapting the Anglican prayer book using traditional African forms of communal address and tribal prayer.
Is the Father with us? He is.
Is Christ among us? He is.
Is the Spirit here? He is.
This is our God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are his people. We are redeemed.
Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.
All our problems We send to the cross of Christ.
All our difficulties We send to the cross of Christ.
All the devil’s works We send to the cross of Christ.
All our hopes We set on the risen Christ.
Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path and the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always. Amen.
The Masai of East Africa express their Christian hope in even more concrete terms. In their African Creed the Masai speak of a journey of faith and hope in God. They speak of how they once knew the High God in darkness but now “know him in the light […] of his word.”
The creed continues with God’s promise in Jesus, “A man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God,” until finally “he was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave.”
The creed concludes on a note of joy and hope, “We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
(7) A Meal of Transforming Love: Serving the Poor and Oppressed
A final important component of the African communal meal is the way in which God’s love compels Christians everywhere to help the poor and oppressed. No one should go hungry while others feast. From the provision of Christ’s common table, the African church delivers a wide range of social services where crumbling government institutions are incapable of addressing people’s most basic needs.
The fact that world Christianity’s vitality is inversely proportional to material affluence is provocative and convicting. Bishop Joseph Ukpo (Nigeria) reminds Western Christians that Christ’s love in the Eucharist must make a difference. He asks, “You who have received Holy Communion… what have you done and what will you do as a result of your participation? Remember, the Eucharistic Imperative is simply LOVE.”
The communal meal of love means that we cannot tolerate poverty, injustice, suffering, religious bigotry, ethnicism, immorality, and hatred in our midst.