[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]
Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.
When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.
Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.
When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.
Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]
A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.
“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.
In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.
So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”
After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.
But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.
Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.
At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.
More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.
There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.
Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.
And then. And then.
I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm. The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.
But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.
Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.
After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.
That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.
Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.
Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.
Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.
[and it won’t let me go]