We passed the metal trays to each other with the same passive motion one would use to give a patient medication. The first tray held the bread, cut into perfect cubes, and the second held small glasses of grape juice.
After receiving both, we waited for the signal. Then in unison, swallowed.
As a kid this act of communion was confusing for me. My parents instructed that this was a holy meal, a feast that symbolized God’s love for us. But it certainly wasn’t a very filling meal, and why was I never allowed to have any? I loved grape juice.
But now, I have more sympathy for the “medicinal” approach to the communion of my childhood. At least that way, the most embarrassing possible outcome is a small spill—hidden to everyone save for your closest neighbors. “Hah! Hah!” you will laugh quietly, as they pass you a tissue. Mercifully, that will be the end of it.
Not so in other churches. Other churches are much more dangerous.
For instance, there’s the dreaded “pass-around” method that starts with the most difficult of tasks: standing in a circle. You know, of course you know, how awkward standing this can be. Everyone is shuffling around, trying to be next to people they know and forming a geometrical shape at the same time. (And where on earth do you look? We all choose the floor.) Once assembled, the pastor breaks a loaf of bread, followed by the presentation of a brimming cup, and passes these elements to the person at their right.
This was the chosen method of Square Inch Community church, where, on my first visit, I was busy resolving the issue of where to look, and missed the pastor’s instructions completely. I suddenly found myself being poked by a complete stranger, who said something that I now know to be “the body of christ, broken for you.” You’re supposed to say, “thanks be to God” in thankful response, but I was used to silently passing along metallic trays. Dumbfounded, I silently took the bread, awkwardly tore off a piece, and handed it quickly to the person next to me in the way someone hands away an incriminating piece of evidence. My confused neighbor, lord bless them, said these exact words: “Uhm. Okay. Thanks be to God?”
I blushed over this incident for many communions after, but I hadn’t even been to an episcopal church yet. The tradition there involves kneeling in front of the altar, hands outward waiting to receive the holy host.
On my first visit to such a church, I accomplished this without any trouble. But of course, I shouldn’t have been so sure of myself. The attendant returned bearing a silver cup filled with wine, and with the most gentle murmuring of “the blood of Christ shed for you,” she suddenly and alarmingly brought the cup up to my lips.
My home church would have gasped. I did.
It was the most unsexy communion take ever.
I’m sure half the cup spilled down my chin. The poor elder tried to help me, but what on earth can you really do in that situation? Dab helplessly at a stranger’s face? Ha. So, covering my face valiantly with my hands, I stood up and (having learned now from past experience) proudly said “thanks be to God.”
Then I walked slowly, and I hope nobly out of the sanctuary, communion wine drying on my face.
So I understand the benefits of the simple, unfussy communion of my childhood. It’s much neater, less ripe with possibilities for awkwardness. But I wonder now, if such an approach is worth it.
A few months ago I went back to my childhood church, and shared in communion for the first time in my adult-life. I passed along the metallic trays, took a small sip of grape juice. I listened to the sound of people chewing, and watched the kids squirming in the pew in front of me. It felt a little empty. A little rehearsed.
I’ve come to love the vulnerable act of sharing communion. I love that moment when someone looks you in the eye, and informs you that this piece of bread is God’s love and sacrifice for me. Even more I love dipping that host into the wine, or even having the cup raised to my lips, and being told that this is Christ’s blood that has been shed for me, awkward and clumsy as I am. I mean it honestly when I respond with thanks.