In the church tradition that helped formed my early years, communion Sunday happened sometimes. Once a quarter sounds right, but I don’t really recall. What I remember was how church changed on those Sundays.
THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME. While learning to read, I practiced with those words and letters inscribed on the communion table. The offering plates and gigantic bible that usually sat there were replaced on communion Sunday. A special white cloth draped over shiny towers, tall stacks for the juice trays, shorter stacks for the trays of little cracker-bread squares. When the deacons removed the covering at the appointed time, they handled it carefully, folding it just so. At the end, they used the same care to unfold the cloth and place it with precision over the towers again. Everything about the service was significant and something other. And–this part stands out more than anything–a certain quiet, a practiced reverence, filled the sanctuary on those days. It kind of awed me and scared me at the same time. Holy things do that, I suppose.
When at last I was able to participate and take communion myself, I tried my best to be as grownup about it as I knew how at age 10. It was a serious business. So serious, in fact, that it made me nervous. I took the cup out of the tray and held it between my thumb and middle finger, as I had seen the adults do. I was holding it, waiting for the signal to take it with everyone else. It slipped, and the beauty that is Welch’s grape juice spilled onto the willow-green upholstery of the church pew.
He showed signs of irritation. This confused me. We had all shared a solemn, sacred act in taking these elements–the remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus–and now the symbol had turned back into plain grape juice. I tried to redeem the moment by mentioning that the juice meant something, that it meant the blood of Jesus. The deacon brushed me off. Though not overtly unkind, he did let me know, as he dabbed and scrubbed with vigor, that the juice meant a stain now.
Knowing all of the men (and then later some women) that served as deacons when I was a kid, none of them possessed an ugly bone. That day, before I needed help cleaning up, perhaps he had encountered a frustrated parishioner or had exchanged words with his wife before church. In that moment of preserving the sanctuary, however, what settled into my spirit was the disconnect between the communion service atmosphere and the conversation I had after it was over. I remember the way I botched that little section of the pew.
I think of countless times when I have extended not-grace and not-mercy when someone needed all of the grace and mercy poured out, spilled all over the upholstery, if you will. I wonder how many opportunities for grace and kindness and mercy and the love of Jesus that we miss because we want and need things to be just so. What if the Church was changed, transformed, by communion?