Communion and Community
We Unitarian Universalists have few rituals of our own. The Flower Communion, created in 1923 in Czechoslovakia by Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, is one of them. The church he founded was only a few years old, yet already he sensed discomfort among the members. Having left behind Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths, many of them struggled to open their hearts to something new. They didn’t trust one another.
Knowing that ritual touches hearts and spirits, Čapek thought some kind of ceremony would help, perhaps something like the Christian communion. For many of his members, though, this practice would bring up old wounds. How could he bring the benefits of the Eucharist to this interfaith community?
Communion is that which binds us together. We speak of a communion with the stars, a sense of connection with the peace and beauty of nature. In such a communion, communication is so intimate, we need no words. As we share deeply-held thoughts and feelings through this kind of connection, we bridge differences and cohere communities.
When we think of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, we often imagine individuals taking the body or spirit of Christ into themselves. What could be more intimate?
Of course, not everyone feels a deep connection during the ritual act, though I have seen people moved to tears as I spoke the words of a Eucharist ceremony and placed the wafer on their tongues. Apparently, they were communing with their god in a very personal way. This makes sense, as the Holy Communion celebration is often understood to be a one-on-one relationship of the worshiper with her god. 
The Last Supper
The ritual, however, has its roots in a communal experience, the sharing of a meal.  Before he was arrested, Jesus ate with his disciples. “Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:19-20 NRSV). This act became the basis of the Christian’s Holy Communion.
What this vignette signifies, and what meaning has been ascribed to the practice of communion that arose from it after Jesus’ death, is complex enough that numerous books have been written about it. To some, the bread and wine are symbols or metaphors. For others, the wafer and liquid contain the actual essence of Christ himself. Either way, the ceremony is private and personal ritual. It is, however, also political.
Back when Jesus lived, reclining was common during meals, at least for the wealthy, since they had space in their homes for the large couches on which diners would lounge. Commoners crouched wherever they could to grab a bite, and they weren’t welcome at the fancy dinners. Yet Jesus not only reclined with his disciples during the Last Supper, but also with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mk 2:15). In this very public way, he upset the standard social hierarchies.
As Yik-Pui Au puts it, when “socially marginalized people reclined together with the community,” they “challenged the ‘honor shame code’ of Hellenistic culture.”  Jesus turned honor into shame and shame into honor.
Sharing communion together reminds communities of their common humanity. Carmel Pilcher explains this in her article about the Eucharist when she cites Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In that letter, he encouraged those early Christians to break bread and share wine “in remembrance” of Jesus. His hope was that that he could “correct a situation of division that had developed in the community between the rich and the poor.”  He wanted to bind the church members, one to the other, no matter their social station. He hoped to help them understand that they were all one in Christ.
Starting a Church in Czechoslovakia
A similar problem developed in Čapek’s church. As we noted, the people were wary of one another. After the simple services, they might stay to talk a little, but they didn’t share pieces of their lives with one another. They didn’t dare be vulnerable or loving. We all have fears, of course, and we can all feel intimidated at times, but Čapek knew that if his congregants could not get past their caution, they would never be strong together. They would never become one. Community works best when we trust each other. It works best when we behave with compassion and kindness. But that wasn’t what Čapek saw.
That’s why he wanted to introduce a ceremony or ritual, one that would create a safe place for his congregants to be honest, to share their hurts, to reveal their inner being. To do this, Čapek hoped to help them understand that regardless of faith, ethnic background, or belief, they were all special. He hoped he could help bind his people together. Since the Christian communion ritual would not work for them, he had to come up with something else.
Seeing the Uniqueness in the Flowers
According to the story, Čapek was walking down a street, wondering how to help his congregants, when he saw a wildflower bravely sprouting through the rubble of a vacant lot. A few others bloomed nearby, the same, yet different, and all strong, brave, and beautiful.
Like these flowers, his congregants were the same, yet different, and they were beautiful. Čapek knew they could also be strong and brave. It came to him that he could help them see themselves this way by inviting them to exchange flowers as symbols of their own inner worth and dignity.
Apparently, his ritual worked to bind the church members one to the other, because Čapek’s church became the largest Unitarian community in the world.  In 1940, his wife Maja brought the flower ritual to the United States where we continue to celebrate it today.
It’s hard to remember this ritual, however, without also remembering that it is part of a ministry of resistance that led to Čapek’s death at Dachau. When the Nazi’s took over Czechoslovakia in 1939, they disapproved of Čapek’s message of love, hope, and freedom. They did not appreciate his proclamation that every individual has inner worth and beauty. Though they told him to stop preaching, he refused. Eventually, he was brought to trial. The court records include the statement that Norbert Čapek was “too dangerous to the Reich to be allowed to live.” 
Jesus also would not stop preaching, and he also was too dangerous to the powers of his day to be allowed to live. Back then, autocratic rulers made life miserable for the poor and marginalized. They did the same when Čapek was alive. Today, this injustice continues throughout the world.
In our own country, the incremental, yet significant, erosion of our democracy has escalated since Donald Trump became president. As with global warming, we may be close to the tipping point, if we are not already there. When Hitler rose to power, allies joined together to stop the atrocities. Today, there might not be enough allies to fight for us if our system of checks and balances morphs into a dictatorship. I still have faith that reason and compassion will prevail in our country and throughout Europe. I believe we will not fall into a new Dark Ages. Yet the times are precarious.
Resistance Is Not Futile
In spring, Unitarian Universalists celebrate the Flower Communion. We remember Norbert Čapek who would not stop preaching his message of beauty, respect, and love for all. Because of this, he was tortured and executed. Resistance can be fatal, but it is never futile. If nothing else, generations will remember you, as we do Jesus and Čapek and many others who have given their lives to protect our freedoms.
Whether we use bread and wine or flowers, communion is more than a relationship. It reminds we are one people, we are worthy and beautiful, and we must come together to build a world that is peaceful, joyous, and whole. Each of us is unique, and each is also the same. Communion honors both these truths, however we choose to celebrate it.
As we commune with nature, God, and one another, may we find the strength to continue preaching the message of peace, love, and dignity. May we act on that message by welcoming the poor and the marginalized into our communities and our hearts. In this way, we can stop the spread of hatred and domination, as others have done before us. Let us do this in remembrance.
In faith and fondness,
- See Acklin, Thomas, “The Theological, Spiritual, and Pratical Meaning of the Eucharist,” Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/catechetical-sunday/eucharist/upload/catsun-2011-doc-acklin-meaning.pdf, accessed 6/8/19.
- I don’t call the dinner a seder because there’s dispute about whether or not it actually was one. For more about this, you could read “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” written by staff at the Biblical Archaeology Society, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/.
- Au, Yik-Pui. The Eucharist as a Countercultural Liturgy : An Examination of the Theologies of Henri de Lubac, John Zizioulas, and Miroslav Volf, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017, 4.
- Pilcher, Carmel, “The Sunday Eucharist: Embodying Christ in a Prophetic Act, Reinterpreting the Eucharist : Explorations in Feminist Theology and Ethics, edited by Anne F. Elvey, et al., Routledge, 2014, 31-53, 34. See 1 Corinthians 11:23-25: “For I received from the Lord what I also deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
- Twenty years later, the church had grown to 3,200 members. See Harvey, Richard, “Norbert Capek,” Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society,” http://uudb.org/articles/norbertcapek.html, posted 2000, accessed 6/8/19.
- See Zottoli, Reginald, The Flower Communion: A Service of Celebration for Religious Liberals, https://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/zottolireginald/flowercommunion.pdf, accessed 2009.
Photo of lounging diners: From Foster, Charles, The Story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, Philadelphia: C. Foster, 1879, on wikimedia, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/Reclining_at_meals.jpg, accessed 6/8/19.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved