Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety and depression, it’s certain that you know someone who does. The PPDA (Psychophysiologic Disorders Association) lists dozens of chronic illnesses that are directly caused by anxiety or depression, including chronic muscle pains, migraines, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. Like a vicious taskmaster, anxiety and depression lash the mind until neuro-pathways of fear and pain are formed.
I wish I could say that Christians are exempt from the effects of fear, but to say so would be a lie. Even our Lord Jesus experienced anxiety at times, which Christians are reminded of when we participate in Holy Communion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ said to his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me” (Matt. 26:38); Jesus was “a man of sorrows,” and knew what it meant to feel afraid. In the body and blood of Christ we are reminded of his humanity.
Rich Mullins, one of the finest Christian songwriters of the 20th century, captured the mind of the anxious believer well:
Hold me Jesus ’cause I’m shaking like a leaf
You have been my king of glory
Will you be my prince of peace
I wake up in the night and feel the dark
It’s so hot inside my soul
I swear there must be blisters on my heart
We know that Mullins was writing from his own experience, as he battled anxiety and alcoholism. His mind trembled with fear; insomnia and hot flashes wracked his body. When I read these lyrics, I see a man who loves God dearly but who is caught in fear’s cruel loop.
Much can be said on the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, church and Scripture, and generosity, and how they can help the anxious person cultivate personal wholeness. Many modern Christians, though, don’t always understand the efficacy of Holy Communion in helping weary believers throw off the bonds of chronic anxiety and despondency. Nevertheless, Jesus told his disciples that he is “the bread of life,” and that “he who comes to … [him] shall never hunger, and he who believes in … [him] shall never thirst again” (John 6:35). Jesus declared that his body and blood bring life to a person, and that when a person “feeds” on him, fear and despair are rendered powerless.
Another Rich Mullins song, “Peace: A Communion Blessing,” is a good starting point to understanding the life-giving power of our Lord’s Supper. In the first two verses, Mullins establishes how anxiety creates isolation. The narrator speaks to a stranger who wears a “mask” and is a “prisoner,” like the narrator, “in these lonely hearts”; the two cannot live joyfully in community with each other because “a blindness separates us.” Anyone who has experienced chronic anxiety or depression knows how isolating such feelings are; fear makes love hard to see and grasp. One pretends that all is well when in reality one feels trapped in his or her head.
But the song doesn’t leave the narrator and the stranger in despondency—there is hope, joy is not merely wishful thinking, love can be found in the Sacrament of Communion, in the body and blood of Christ:
And may peace rain down from Heaven
Like little pieces of the sky
Little keepers of the promise
Falling on these souls
This drought has dried
In His Blood and in His Body
In the Bread and in this Wine
Peace to you
Peace of Christ to you.
This lyric effectively conveys how Communion brings the peace of Christ to the repentant believer: “In His Blood and in His Body / In the Bread and in this Wine.”
Church tradition declares that Communion is a holy mystery where “we thereby participate in the very Body and Blood of Christ offered once for all. And in this substantial union between Christ… and the worshiper, we come to more fully understand how we are united to Christ in our baptism and nurtured in our union with Christ by the eucharistic offering.” Christ brings freedom from sin and freedom from fear; as 1 John 4:18 notes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” Therefore, when a Christian partakes of the Eucharist, she is putting off her fear. She is nurturing herself with the very person of Christ; she is putting off the old mindset and patterns of anxiety and depression and putting on the peace of Christ.
In addition, the Church teaches that the Eucharist is “to be understood as our sacrifice offering to God—‘a mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.’” Just as the Israelites offered “animal or grain offerings” to express gratitude and love to God, when a Christian partakes in the Eucharist he is not only remembering what Christ did for him on the cross, but he is also giving God a precious gift, the best gift a person can give God: himself united and made perfect through the Lord Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to be “lonely hearts” blinded and separated from God and each other through fear; we don’t have to hide and wear “the mask” anymore. Anxiety and depression don’t have to be our masters, for “in His Blood and in His Body,” there is perfect, merciful reciprocal love. This doesn’t mean that Christians who partake of Communion will never again experience or struggle with anxiety. We are still creatures of dust wounded by the fall. Nevertheless, it is not God’s will for his children to be slaves to fear; freedom can be found in this life, and Holy Communion, like prayer and all the other practices I’ve mentioned, is one of God’s gifts to help us do battle against anxiety and despair.
St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “Blessed is he that has eaten of the Bread of love which is Jesus. While still in this world, he breathes the air of the resurrection, which the righteous will delight after they rise from the dead.” The beautiful reality of Holy Communion is that Christians don’t have to wait until they die to experience the nurturing presence of God. He is here on this earth—in this fallen world beneath the music of the spheres, and as Mullins eloquently penned, he compassionately calls us to “lay down… [our] fears” to “come and join this feast,” for “He has called us here, you and me.”