Frail Communicants

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

She could not move her arms or legs but she used her eyes to punctuate her words. There were times when she would cry and I would lean over her still body to daub the Kleenex at her lashes--pat down glistening cheeks. When we visited, often the conversation would pause so I could lift the cup to her lips. She would take slow sips on the straw and I would wipe loose drops off her chin. Sometimes I would feed her small bits of cookies, gently breaking the brittle into tiny bites. I treasured our time together; she gave me a gift in her gentle receipt of my care. I came to recognize the way I felt when we were together as that same feeling of Communion Sunday—this hallowed giving and receiving that passed between us.

Hannah Faith Notess recognizes this feeling too. In her essay, A Blessing for the Rice Cracker, she puts words to her understanding of what Communion represents. This understanding falls short, however, when her brother is diagnosed with celiac disease.

...From what I do understand, Communion symbolizes the church’s unity: first, we are united because we all partake together, and second, we are united because we all eat the same substance, the same body of Christ. But celiac disease forces churches to choose between unity and inclusiveness. Either we all partake of the same body, or we invite everyone to the table. We may sing “Let us break bread together on our knees,” but we can’t actually do it, because Ben’s elbows might break out in a painful rash.

There are rules about these things. And they don’t always take into consideration special circumstances.

When my pastor stands at the Communion table and gives the invitation, she tells me that this is an open table. Open to all who accept Christ as their Savior, she says. Not everyone believes this, or feels comfortable with this, or can partake for whatever reason. There are always those who hold back—those who remain sitting while my family and I take that slow walk up the center aisle to receive the small square of white bread and the tiny swallow of juice.

Do they have celiac disease? Have they not accepted Christ? Are they simply uncomfortable to make that slow walk with eyes following their steps? I don’t know. But like Notess, I wonder how to reconcile it all.

When Christ said do this in remembrance of me--did he know these frail vessels would struggle with the logistics of it all? Did he know about the rules?

I remember what my friend told me when her father was dying of cancer. His priest would bring him communion to the hospital, but his fragile system could not digest the simple feast.

My mother would have to collect it, my friend told me. She had to take it home and bury it. It is the Body of Christ, you know.

I did not know this rule. But when put this way, it sure made sense.

The late Andre Dubus, in his essay On Charon’s Wharf, seems to have a different rule book. To him, the sharing of a meal is sacrament—made so because that moment of sharing cannot be revoked…even after we are gone from this world.

…the meal offered and received is a sacrament which says: I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything…It would be madness to try to live so intensely as lovers that every word and every gesture between us was a sacrament…But we can do what the priest does, with his morning consecration before entering the routine of his day; what the communicant does in that instant of touch, that quick song of the flesh, before he goes to work. We can bring our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn’t need words, an act which dramatizes for us what we are together. The act itself can be anything: five beaten and scrambled eggs, two glasses of wine, running beside each other in rhythm with the pace and breath of the beloved…

Last week we discussed how ordinary moments are transformed into holy encounters. Isn’t this what Dubus is describing here? And don’t I need these Ebenezers to remind me? I need those stones of remembrance to bring my human, distracted love into focus. I need this every day. Shouldn't Communion be a bridge across our human frailties? Just maybe this is where reconciliation occurs: the grace to know that we each require different things. And to rejoice in the beauty of that simple truth.

Perhaps there is no way to smooth over the awkward truth. Our bodies are broken, diseased, and hurting. Some of us have bodies that can’t accept the physical substance of Christ’s bread of life—in this life. And, yet, it is in this human life, among these sick and achy bodies, that Christ came to join us, to eat with us, to break this bread with calloused human hands. (Hannah Faith Notess, A Blessing for the Rice Cracker)

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This is week nine of our book club discussion on The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. Join us every Monday morning as we dig into this feast! Next week we discuss three more of these lovely essays: Aunt Virgi's Feasts, The Church Potluck, Seriously, and Subsistence Feasting.

Photo by Becky Evans, used with permission via Flickr. Post by Laura Boggess, author of the Wings of Klaio series.