Mental Health and the Healing Sacrament of Holy Communion
By Rev. Doctor Sarah Lund
At the heart of the sacrament of holy communion is the coming together as the Body of Christ. In communion we unite as the people of God with God, the Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. In communion we experience radical belonging and the wholeness of the Body of Christ. Communion is a tangible, tactile, full bodied way to manifest the truth that we are not alone and we are loved.
One of the most common experiences of people living with mental illness, mental health challenges and conditions is the experience of feeling alone and unlovable. In the sacrament of holy communion, we experience the embodiment of the very presence of the sacred and the unconditional love of the divine. As a person living in recovery from a mental health condition (post-traumatic stress disorder) holy communion is a powerful spiritual tool that supports my health and healing. My recovery is most supported when I partner professional mental health care with spiritual care provided by the faith community.
I am not alone in discovering the power of faith in partnership with science to bring hope and healing. Before the global pandemic, research from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) reported that one in five people lived with a mental illness. Now reports suggest experiences of depression and anxiety have doubled since 2020. The demands for mental healthcare (therapy, medications, inpatient and outpatient treatments) are increasing beyond current capacity with growing waiting lists for appointments. Faith communities can come alongside people on their mental health journey and provided spiritual and social support which is just as important. More than ever, faith communities are invited to expand our mission and our worship to include ministering to people’s spiritual mental health needs.
I dream of a church that incorporates mental health awareness and ministry into everything we do, including worship. Specifically, in the sacrament of holy communion, we have the opportunity to provide hurting people with hope and healing. I’ll never forget the times as a child when I attended church and received the sacrament of communion. As an elementary school child in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, I was too young to receive the blessed elements (confirmation was for middle schoolers), but I was invited to the altar railing, to kneel down on red velvet cushion, place my hands across my chest, bow my head and received a laying on of hands and blessing from the minister.
I can still feel the Lutheran pastor’s gentle and big hand covering my head, warm and kind. It was a healing touch representing God’s love for me. While all the big kids and adults took the body and blood of Christ, I took this blessing into my body and soul. It renewed me, even if just for that moment. This gentle and healing touch came into my life during a time when I lived in fear of my father at home because of his serious and untreated mental illness that caused him to experience paranoia, delusions, and grandiose thinking that harmed me and my family. As I grew up in the church, the faith community would become the one place where love was communicated and made real to me.
Every time we gather to celebrate the sacrament of communion, let us honor the mysterious and sacred power it holds to bring hope and healing. Mental health challenges create feelings of isolation, loneliness, despair, and hopelessness. In the sacrament of communion, we are reminded of our belongingness, of our belovedness, of our hopefulness. We take what was once broken, Christ’s body, and we re-member it, we make it whole, we make it belong to us and us to the body of Christ. In the cup of forgiveness, love, and grace, we are filled with hope, we are filled with sustenance for our spirits to continue especially when we feel weary.
Our words at the table and our prayers of consecration and prayers of thanksgiving can be powerful witnesses to God’s presence with us in our difficult times of mental health challenges. We can offer a liberative interpretation of holy communion that will bring hope and healing not only to people experiencing mental health challenges, but also to their loved ones. We know that mental illness in one person impacts all those who are in relationship with that person. Imagine the kind of spiritual healing we could provide by inviting our whole selves, including the parts of us that live with mental health challenges, to the communion table.
Stigma and shame keep us silent about our emotional and psychological paint and struggles. Breaking the silence about mental health challenges in the sacrament of holy communion in radical, liberative, and transformative. There is power in naming God’s presence in the midst of mental health conditions and there is power in offering people experiencing mental health challenges tangible, tactile, and visible signs of God through the sacrament of communion. This sacred act says, “You belong, you matter, you are part of us, the Body of Christ, you are loved.”
So what would it look like to incorporate mental health ministry into the sacrament of holy communion? It will look different for each faith community, and it will be shaped by your context. Ideally, you include in your worship leadership team and planning team people with lived experiences of mental health conditions to help shape the liturgy and rituals so they can be authentic and meaningful. There are over 300 mental health conditions, and no one person experiences the same diagnosis the same way, so having multiple people involved is important.
I once wondered what it would look like to have a “crazy cross.” This is because so often in our places of worship the cross on display is perfect, shiny, bright and sometimes even gold. Yet, the places where God meets us in the most profound and transformative ways is most often not perfect, not shiny, not bright, and not gold…but the hard, rough, broken, and dim places…what I’ve called “crazy” based on my personal lived experiences with serious mental illness. Before I had the words, as I child, all I knew was this word, “crazy.” I wanted to see images of God in this crazy cross.
So what would it look like to have a “crazy” communion table? In other words, what would a communion table look like that authentically represented the lived experiences of people with mental health challenges? What does recovery from addiction look like at the table? What does recovery from eating disorders look like at the table? What does recovery from PTSD look like at the table? What does recovery from bipolar disorder look like at the table?
Stigma and shame keep mental illness not only silent in our churches, but also hidden. It’s time to break the silence and it’s time to come out of hiding. Just as Jesus came to the disciples after the resurrection, Jesus comes to us in persons living with mental illness. We need people with mental illness to openly preside at the table, to speak the truth of their stories at the table, to be seen and heard, to be believed, and to belong, and to be loved.
Imagine the healing and transforming power of liberating the sacrament of holy communion from the stigma and shame of mental illness. God is calling the church to be whole, to sharing hope and healing with a world that is hurting. We have this table. We have this bread. We have this cup. We have this Body of Christ. We have this mind of Christ. Let us do it in remembrance of the One whose love saves us from despair.
Mental Health Informed Communion
Leader: Beloved of God, the Gospel tells us that the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples with wounds in his hands and side, witnessing to God’s intimate knowledge of our human experiences of pain and suffering.
All: No matter what our wounds, no matter what our scars, whether physical or emotional, whether visible or invisible, we are welcome to Christ’s table.
Leader: God invites us to be all of who we are without shame. Come just as you are. Come to Christ’s table, wounded and whole.
Pastor: God be with you.
People: And also with you.
Pastor: Open your hearts, minds, and spirits.
People: We open them to God.
Pastor: Let us give thanks to God the Compassionate Healer
People: It is blessed to give God thanks and praise.
Pastor: We give you thanks, Compassionate Healer, who comes to us no matter who we are or where we are on our life’s journey. We bless you for your love for all of Creation and for creating us in your image and calling us good. Thank you for showing us compassion when we experience physical, emotional, and psychological pain and suffering. Thank you for helping us to accept and love ourselves, especially when we feel rejected, abandoned, alone, and unlovable.
Thank you for the gift of Jesus, the Living Christ, who shows us true compassion and how woundedness is not godlessness. Thank you that in the Risen Christ, we see hope for our own liberation and resurrection from despair.
Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit to comfort us in our times of emotional and physical affliction. We thank you for the gift of belonging as one in the Body of Christ. Therefore, we worship and glorify you, wounded, whole, and holy God the Compassionate Healer.
All: Holy, holy, holy God of compassion and healing, all of Creation sings of your love, O God the Compassionate Healer.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God! Hosanna blessed be!
Pastor: We remember when in the shadows of betrayal, on the eve of Jesus’ own despair on the cross where fear and emotions overwhelmed him, Jesus gathered with his friends. In the presence of people who loved him, Jesus said, “Take, eat; This is my body which is shared with you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after sharing the meal, Jesu took the up, and after giving God thanks and praise said: “This cup is the new covenant of my love. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
All: Christ died in despair. Christ rose in hope. Christ comes to heal us. Glory be to God the Compassionate Healer.
Pastor: God of our whole lives, of our minds, bodies, and spirits, we present ourselves to you, fully and authentically. We do not hide from you out of shame. We invite you to know us from within, above, and below. Take our thoughts, our feelings, our actions and restore us, renew us, liberate us with your haling power that is able to make all things new. Send your Holy Spirit on this bread and cup, and bless them with unconditional love. May all who receive these gifts not fear, not be ashamed, not feel alone, not feel abandoned, nor feel worthless. May all who eat this bread and drink this cup know of health, wholeness, healing, love and grace.
All: God the Compassionate Healer, we offer to you ourselves, our minds, bodies, and spirits, knowing that our lives belong to you. Save us from what harms us. May this shared meal seal one another and to you, God of radical love. Amen.
Prayer of Our Savior
Breaking Bread and Pouring Cup
Pastor: The bread which we share is the communion of the body of the wounded and whole Christ.
The cup of love which we bless is the communion of Christ’s love poured out for healing.
Call to the Supper
Pastor: The gifts of the God of Compassion for the healing of the people of God. Take them in remembrance of the power of God to transform despair into hope.
Sharing of the Elements
Pastor: Take and eat, this is the wounded and whole body of Christ, shared with you
Pastor: Take and drink, this is the cup of the new covenant, poured out for your health and wholeness.
Liberating God, you have made us one in the body of Christ, and nourished us, mind, body, and spirit at your table. At this table you remind us that no matter what we are going through, we are not alone. The holy food and drink fill us with your nourishing love. Now send us forth into the world reminding us that we belong to you and one another. We affirm that our lives have purpose and meaning because we are all made in your image and we are an important part of this holy family. Bless us just as we are, right where we are, and help us to embody this gift of your radical love for us as we live one day at a time. Amen. ■
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund is passionate about loving her family, God, and being part of faith communities. She is an ordained minister and has served as pastor to churches in Brooklyn, NY, Minneapolis, MN, and New Smyrna Beach, FL. Rev. Dr. Lund served as Regional Minister in the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ and as a Vice President for Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. She holds degrees from Trinity University (BA), Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv), Rutgers University (MSW), and McCormick Theological Seminary (DMin). Rev. Dr. Lund received the Dell Award for Mental Health Education at the 30th General Synod of the UCC. She currently serves as Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice on the national staff of the UCC and as senior pastor of First Congregational UCC of Indianapolis, IN. Sarah is the author of Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church (Chalice Press, 2014) and Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage (Chalice Press, 2021).
Sarah blogs at www.sarahgriffithlund.com
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