A few weeks ago, my church asked me to serve communion. This made me nervous because although I’ve been going to my church for awhile now, I’m still a relative newcomer to “churchy” things in general. When I first began looking for a church in Houston, I immediately eliminated all churches that made me feel like I had to wear a skirt or give up drinking. I also weeded out any churches that I suspected spent more money on making their building look good than on their ministry. In the end, I found myself going to a church that meets in a warehouse. I had a hard time finding it the first time I went, because the only sign that advertised the presence of anything other than a warehouse was a huge banner that hung on the side of the building. It read “Torture Is Wrong.”
Though at heart I’m a liturgist, my church tends more toward the ecumenical, blending Protestant and Catholic traditions. They serve communion at the front, with three people to hold bread, grape juice, and wine. My first week there, I learned the phrase “taking by intinction,” which means that everyone tears off a piece of bread and dips it in either the grape juice or the wine. Sometimes, we even have gluten-free bread. In some churches, communion serving is reserved for the priests or elders, but in my church, it’s served by the laypeople. Sometimes, I think this is great, since it means that no one is more “godly” than anyone else, but other times, I think it’s a terrible idea, since serving communion means something Big. Communion servers conduct a remembrance of the Passion of Christ, one of the deepest mysteries of our faith. Frankly, I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for that.
My friend told me that it was easy: if you were serving the bread, you just say “The body of Christ, broken for you,” and if it was the wine or grape juice, you say, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” “Actually,” my friend continued, “it gets kind of boring after awhile.”
Since it was my first time serving, I was hoping I’d get the wine. The wine was the least popular item in the communion lineup, and therefore, had the least number of things that could go wrong. The bread, though, that was a different story. Everyone had to tear off a piece of bread, and, laying aside the sheer monotony of the repetitions that would entail, it seemed like a lot could go wrong with tearing the bread. What if someone couldn’t get a piece off and ended up bumping the grape juice next to me? What if someone took too much and I ran out of bread? A few weeks before, this had almost happened, and I’d watched as one of the elders had run all over the sanctuary trying to find more. I definitely didn’t want the bread.
When the time came, I piled out of the aisle with the other servers and we straggled to the front of the church, mingling nervously while one of the lay pastors served each of us. I tore off the tiniest bit of bread and hesitantly dipped it in the grape juice while, on the stage above us, the band took up their instruments to play. It was awkward being up there in silence, the congregation watching us chew our bread while the lead guitarist adjusted his capo. The formality of the ceremony struck me as incongruous against the backdrop of the warehouse with its anti-torture banner and its hipster band. I studiously kept my back to the congregation and my head bowed, wishing I were back in my seat. When the pastor had served us all, he handed us each our respective bread, juice, and wine — I groaned internally as he handed me the bread — and directed us to form a line off to one side of the church aisle. Resigning myself to a string of tedious “The body of Christ’s,” I held the bread firmly in both hands and faced the congregation while the band struck up a soft acoustic song.
A guy with dreadlocks in the front row stood up and began moving toward me. He had docile eyes, the kind of look I’d seen on livestock or surfers in the San Francisco Bay area. He smiled and reached out to break off a piece of bread while I spoke the words I’d been instructed to say: “The body of Christ, broken for you.” And then, something holy happened. As he tore a piece of bread away, I knew, really knew, that this was the body of Christ, and that it was a gift to all.
The thought made me a little sick. “There’s no way I’m good enough for this,” I thought, “I’m a huge fake. Soon someone will find me out. Someone will come by, take a piece of bread, and shout, ‘Hey, who let you in? What do you think you’re doing?’” But no one did. And even though I was terrified of the possibility for awhile, the thought was gradually claimed by another idea, one that floated to the surface of my mind with an abiding clarity: “I am holding Jesus in my hands.”
Those first few people were the hardest. I kept blinking away tears, trying not to lose it while everyone walked by. They were going by so fast, and for each one, I had to gulp out, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” all the while trying to process how it was that God was in my hands, being broken, being shared. A piece of the eternal God was becoming a part of each of us. And what is a piece of eternity except for eternity? Every single person was placing eternity into their tiny mouths, their narrow stomachs, eternity was stretching leisurely through their bodies. As they ate their bits of bread soaked in juice or wine, each person entered into God, and in that, we were all one. Of course, I couldn’t share this with anyone, and so instead, I tried to make my prescribed line mean something individual and extraordinary to each person who walked by. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” I’d say, emphasizing the “you” to make it more personal. If my eyes weren’t too filled with tears, I’d look directly at them.
I was surprised by how many people tore into the bread carelessly, almost nonchalantly. Pieces of Jesus were falling to the floor, flying through the air. I remembered that in the Eastern Orthodox Church I’d attended for awhile, I’d been taught that when eating blessed bread, you should make sure no crumbs fell to the floor, where they might come into contact with people’s shoes (decidedly unholy). After eating bread there, I would cup my palm, gathering the crumbs together in the center and lifting them to my mouth one by one on the tip of my finger. On Easter, we’d eaten blessed eggs that had been dyed red. We were instructed not to throw the shells away with the other trash, but to bury them outside, so that they never touched profaned things. Ever since then, I’ve always been careful with communion bread.
Some people who went by never looked at me. They tore off a piece of bread quickly and moved onto the grape juice or the wine. And even though I knew I shouldn’t, I couldn’t help but feel bitter that my individual and extraordinary “you,” which I’d reserved especially for them, had gone to such waste. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “Fine, but it won’t be as special and wonderful to you, you know. You shouldn’t be allowed to eat eternity anyway.” I’ve always been protective of my friends, and I guess this was how I felt about God. I felt that these people were throwing away something that was beautiful, and important, and necessary to live in God. Of course, I know I’m wrong—probably these people were meditating on the crucifixion and forgiveness and community. I’ll bet most of them spent their weeks teaching underprivileged orphans to read, and I’ve got no right to judge, since I spend most of my free time thinking about what TV program to watch while I eat dinner. But I figure that since my church lets laypeople serve communion, thoughts like these are a risk it must be willing to take.
The one good thing about the people who never looked at me, though, was that they gave me time to recover from the ones who did, because if not connecting with people made me bitter, connecting with them was even more difficult. Some of the people who went by had tears in their eyes like me. They would walk up, and I would say, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” and they would look at me and smile, and something would pass between us. It felt like the love God had for them was going from my eyes to theirs and back again. It was a secret we shared, this love thing, and the secret was this: God’s love is for everyone at once, and you in particular. When this happened, when I connected with the people who came by to tear off a piece of bread, the immensity of this community brought together by love was all just a little too much for me. I needed some people to shuffle by without looking up so that I didn’t completely melt into a giant, blubbery, hippie-fest of warm, fuzzy love for everyone.
St. Frances de Sales, who was a Catholic mystic and who admittedly would probably turn over in his grave if he heard a Protestant quoting him about the sacraments, calls communion the “divine germ of immortality within.” He says that when someone takes the sacrament, their heart closes around it and they are recollected to God by love. The piece of God within us recognizes our hearts as its beloved, and our hearts recognize the sacrament as a lover. A lot of the saints talk about love in terms of recollection in fact, and I’ve always wondered about that. For many of the saints, God’s love isn’t about teaching us what’s right or what’s wrong, it’s about helping us to remember, to be brought into a relationship with God again. Maybe it gives us God’s memory, his intention when he first created the world. Love literally re-collects the scattered bits of our souls back into an original unity with God — something we lost long ago. I find it ironic that this reunification is enacted through dividing. God’s body breaks into pieces, and our souls are brought into oneness with him. I think this is lovely but also sad, since I usually go home and begin tearing my soul into pieces again as soon as I possibly can. It’s part of being human.
About halfway through the line, my friends, who’d all been sitting together, began to pass by. I decided to use the opportunity to improvise, and began putting their names in front of my rehearsed line. I was amazed at the depth it brought to the phrase. I could say, “Darren,” or “Adam,” or “Jacki, the body of Christ broken for you,” and the “you” would be deeply personal. It would mean, “God knows you by name, and was imprisoned within a ridiculously fragile body just like yours, and he allowed himself within that body to be conquered and defeated, so that you, Jacki, can be victorious and free. Here he is in his eternal body, made especially for you.” Saying someone’s name while serving them communion felt like I was declaring them to be known, singled out for recollection. I was surprised by how few names I actually knew. I wish I’d known everyone’s name.
They filed by quickly — a rush of children from Sunday school (I had to squat down awkwardly to serve them), a woman I thought I recognized from the grocery store, a guy who I always say hi to but whom I know nothing about. I recognized one woman who had been sitting near my seat. I had purposefully introduced myself to her during our greeting time because she was sitting by herself, and I know what that feels like. As she took a piece of bread, I said, “Rosemary, the body of Christ, broken for you,” and she looked up at me with an embarrassed smile teasing across her lips, her anonymity breached. I hope that she felt like she in particular had been chosen and loved, but I’ll never know because she passed hurriedly, almost apologetically, onto the grape juice.
I expected something big to happen, some climax. There was no climax, just the soft pulse of love, the rhythm of God’s body being broken and shared. I was surprised and disappointed when I saw the line begin to dwindle. Wasn’t something supposed to happen? If I wasn’t going to be unmasked as a fake, at least Jesus could come back or something? But that’s the thing with miracles — you never know when they’re going to happen, and you almost never recognize them when they do.
As soon as it had begun, the line dwindled. The band began to play more softly, and I reluctantly put the bread back on the altar. It suddenly looked more ordinary to me now that the service was concluding. I took my place back among my friends, and we stood while the benediction was read and we were dismissed. On the drive home, I was still reeling from the experience. I felt I’d been given something amazing for no good reason at all. And that’s when I realized: that’s what God does. He gave us communion to help us remember, but also as a promise for our future. When we take communion, we experience the kind of divine oneness that we have to look forward to, all contained within a few moments of edible eternity.