Since preaching this past Sunday on the wide array of traditions regarding the sacrament of Holy Communion in our churches, I’ve been recalling a great many communion services of which I’ve been a part. As those who know me can imagine, some of those recollections center on my own occasional missteps and chronic clumsiness (like the time when one of my typically grand and expressive hand gestures resulted in a silver tray, piled high with bread cubes, clanging loudly and flying high into the congregation); others hearken fond memories of old friends and dear parishioners with whom I’ve shared the bread and cup at countless worship gatherings over the years; and then there have been remembrances of times when the utter depth of that experience at the table created a truly sacred moment.
One afternoon a couple of years ago at my last church, together with the associate pastor I went to make a pastoral call on a dearly loved woman from our congregation who, in the final stages of an incurable cancer, had just returned home from a lengthy hospital stay out of town. We’d gone on this visit together, as we knew that though while this woman was overjoyed to finally be home and really wanted to see us, she was still very weak, and her very caring and attentive husband totally exhausted. Moreover, we also knew there was a long list of family members, neighbors and friends who had prayers, best wishes and casseroles to bring – so we figured that together, we could pray with them but also make our visit brief.
However, as we should have expected, the woman would have none of that! Every time the associate or I would begin to rise to leave, she’d have another question about something going on in the life of the church, or she’d ask about our families. And this would inevitably lead to another story about her growing up, about the trials and tribulations she and her husband faced raising their own children, and what was happening now with her beloved grandchildren – and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every story, spiritually and joyfully speaking, had us in stitches. There was a lot of blessed laughter in that room, to be sure, and it went on and on.
But then, almost an hour later as we made yet another attempt to take our leave, she says to us, “Can we have communion before you go? Since I haven’t been able to get to church lately, I’ve really missed communion.” The associate and I looked at each other quickly; though a great deal of our pastoral calling had involved bringing communion to shut-ins, for some reason this possibility had never occurred to either one of us. “Well, we’d love to,” I answered, “but we neglected to bring the elements, so perhaps…”
“Oh, we can find those,” she interrupted, and quickly dispatched her husband to locate what we needed. My associate even went so far to ask, “Are you sure you’re up to this? We can come back tomorrow.” But she just smiled and said, “Oh, yes, I want to do this.”
And then we hear the husband wearily calling back from the kitchen, “You know, I don’t think there’s any grape juice; not much bread either!” “Just improvise,” she calls back, shaking her head at her husband in some small amount of exasperation, the way couples married for 50 years or more will often do. “Anything will be fine.” And a couple of minutes and the rattle of cupboard doors later, the husband emerges from the kitchen with our holy feast set before us on the coffee table: a not quite day-old hamburger roll on a dessert plate, and a wine goblet literally filled to overflowing with … orange juice! “Not exactly what we’d have on a Sunday morning at church, but it’ll do,” he said, and his wife nodded in agreement.
Not exactly, indeed, I thought to myself, quietly wondering if this could actually even be considered “official” communion. But, oh, well… and immediately the associate and I began to speak words of institution, not totally dissimilar to those that have been spoken at countless other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper over the centuries, but not quite the same.
And yes, the man was right: this was certainly not the kind of communion you’d likely find in a church sanctuary, the prayers certainly weren’t as formal as you might speak them in a traditional worship service, and, trust me, sharing the bread and cup certainly didn’t taste like communion as you’d receive it on a typical Sunday morning. But then, in the midst of it all, I looked up and realized why none of this mattered: the husband and wife had joined their hands and were deep in prayer, most certainly sensing the presence of a loving, caring, healing Lord who had already been with them through so much and would remain close in whatever was yet to come. Truly, they’d recognized him in the breaking of the bread, and it was a sacred moment indeed.
It’s always the same, isn’t it? Whether it be at a breakfast barbecue of fish (John 21:13), a meal amongst two discouraged followers at Emmaus (Luke 24:30-31), or a makeshift feast of old bread and pulpy orange juice, Jesus always seems to want to meet us there at the celebration. For all the worthy preparations we make for the meal, in the end, all we really need is the grace to truly open our eyes and recognize him in the breaking of the bread! So might it be for each one of us who comes to the table.
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry