I attended church alone.
We had been told beforehand that this was to be our last in-person service for a long time. Those of us in attendance sat far away from each other and refrained from shaking hands, hugging, or touching. My children were not the only ones missing from our gathering; there were no children present. The absence of the children only added to the somber anxiety that fills the air of every room these days.
Lent is always serious and sober, but this year it felt like Peine Forte et dure and we are all Giles Corey; each day adding painful weight to our chests. Though it is almost September, I feel like I’m still waiting for Easter. Perhaps I have always been waiting for Easter but now I am more fully aware. Either way, this is a long night we are all living through.
Our church celebrates Communion every week. This is at the core of our theology and, given the egalitarian nature of our tradition, it is sometimes the only consistent belief and practice between our various congregations. As is our custom, I got in line and walked toward the front of our church where our pastors and laypersons alike stood with the bread and juice. We all stood far apart from one another in line – further proof that things had changed.
My theology is quite different from my fellow parishioners. I spent a decade in the Roman Catholic Church and when I left I brought Transubstantiation with me. For me, the bread and juice are the body and the blood of Christ. When I eat, when I drink, I consume Christ and bring Christ into my body.
Next in line for the bread, I bowed deeply at the waist like I have every Sunday for years and years. I mouthed the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
I wasn’t raised Catholic. I became Catholic when I left the religion of my youth – the religion of my family. I was raised Pentecostal. When I left the Pentecostal church I brought mysticism with me. My rote prayer became unintelligible as my thoughts became ineffable. My whispers were of a language that has never been used to colonize, never been used to do harm.
I stood up straight and stepped forward six feet.
“The body of Christ, broken for you,” Allison said as she lifted the plate and I bowed my head.
“Amen,” I replied as I took Christ into my hands.
I stepped six feet to the right where Kalie held the chalice. Kalie, like Allison, was part of our pastoral team. Both of these people have ministered to me so much and it gripped my heart that they were the ones to present the body and blood of Christ to me on such a significant Sunday.
“The blood of Christ, poured out for you,” she said as she lifted the chalice and I bowed my head.
“Amen,” I whispered as I dipped the bread and moved it to my mouth; careful not to drop a single drop or crumb. As I walked down the aisle toward my seat I crossed myself, as always. I could feel hot tears streaming down my face and wetting the collar of my shirt.
I remembered the first time I received Christ as a Catholic. The countless times I received the Eucharist in a war zone as a soldier – how my hands shook so badly in those days. As I chewed I recalled living and working in D.C. as my life fell apart around me. I recalled attending Mass daily for years in D.C. – how my hands trembled worse in those days than when I was at war.
At Vanderbilt Divinity School, while working toward my Master’s of Divinity, I learned that a Sacrament is something physical (substance or act) which is made Holy through human works (i.e. the Words of Consecration). My theology requires that those human works be done in community. Specifically, the Words of Consecration have always been said either by a Priest or alongside a Clergy person. The Bread has always been presented to me. The Chalice has always been held before me.
By the time I reached my pew I realized that I would not be able to receive Communion for the foreseeable future. Through war, desperation, tragedy, and catastrophe, Communion had always been my solace. After this day, I would not be able to partake of the Sacrament until the threat of the pandemic passes.
There were times in my life when uttering my responsorial obligation took every ounce of will left in my soul. There were times my heart could not authentically agree with the Words. There were times in D.C. when I was so hungover, or still a bit drunk from the night before, that my head would throb with every step I took toward the Host. No matter, the Eucharist was always there for me.
As we received the blessing in the Benediction, I gripped the pew in front of me. Allison and Kalie made their way to me immediately, and we stood six feet apart. They asked if I was okay. I opened my mouth to reply, but was unable to speak and just began to sob. I couldn’t put to words the deep feelings of loss and grief that pressed against my chest. I couldn’t express in words how alone I felt knowing that I would not experience Communion for some untold amount of time. So I wept. I wept bitterly as they attended to me with their loving, compassionate presence.
I finally said enough for them to understand my grief. Thankfully, I did not have to say much. I have been in Community with them both long enough that they know my theology and my relationship with this Sacrament. Kalie reminded me of the Priesthood of all believers. Allison bore witness to the truth that this sacred meal is timeless. They both promised to pray the Words of Consecration via telephone or video messenger any time, day or night. They told me that they loved me. They told me how sorry they were for my loss. They told me that they would continue to journey with me moving forward.
The next Sunday, I logged onto our church’s livestream. As Micah played piano to an empty church and a camera, I started mixing flour, oil, water, and salt. I kneaded the dough and cooked it in a skillet as I prayed the Lord’s Prayer in concert with our pastors, Thomas and Allison who were at the church, and with all of the other congregants who worshiped safely at home.
I donned my stole in my living room.
I bowed low and prayed, rote words at first and then in unintelligible words, as is my practice.
I held the Chalice, a juice glass from my cupboard.
I held the bread, broke it, and spoke the Words.
“This is my body…”
And for the first time, maybe ever in my life, I understood.