In the Episcopalian service, we arrive at what my program calls the “feast.” When I read that, I think I’ve hit the jackpot. I’m picturing fat slices of ham, scones piled with jam. I’m wondering if they’ll use the good china and whether the OJ will be fresh squeezed. I scan a little further down and realize with great disappointment that “feast” is just another word for the nub of bread and sip of wine received during the Lord’s Supper. I suddenly recognize this as one of those instances when the power of piety turns one thing (a crumb) into another (a banquet). Normally, I find this alchemy beautiful. Today, my stomach growls its disappointment.
The intricate movements of the rector and her assistants kick into overdrive. One of the helpers approaches the altar with a mound of bread on a silver tray. Another comes forward with a glass canister of something clear (holy water?) and a second container of wine. A chalice appears; liquids are poured, mixed, tasted. The individuals at the altar weave in and out and around one another. If a different color ribbon were tied to each person, a beautiful braid might form. There is much bowing, pressing of foreheads against the surface where the bread and wine sit, lips moving in silent prayer.
The peace is shattered by a loud crackle from the speakers, and the serious moment is split open by a trucker’s voice. The interstate runs out of town only a few blocks from here; the church’s PA system must share a frequency with the CBs. Broken snippets of a trucker’s conversation come through. “Rain…road…highway?” I can’t help but smile, thinking what a funny moment this is: could there be anything further from “high church” than an 18-wheeler hauling goods across the American West? I look around to gauge reactions, but no one flinches. The rector bows her head; she lets the trucker’s voice fade.
The rows are invited to the altar one by one. I realize we are back to eating the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, but I decide to accept the invitation in the program for all visitors to participate.
We kneel on beautifully hand-embroidered pillows designed to fit perfectly on a little ledge below the altar. Mine has an old scroll and some sort of harp. We wait for the bread lady to come around. I watch her work her way down the row towards me, whispering something to each person. “This is Christ’s body given for you,” she says solemnly as she stands before me. “Thank you,” I reply. I study the little lump of bread, awed by its powerful significance.
At the end of the communion, which marks the end of the service, something happens that I haven’t seen before. In an extension of the ceremony, the rector packs the elements of the sacrament—the remaining bread and wine—into a small red cooler. She explains that these will be taken to congregants who are too sick or frail to leave their homes. She carries the communion-to-go kit up the aisle and hands it to a woman who stands and accepts it with a slight nod. I think how nice it must be for the recipients of this small token. Even if Jesus is just the excuse, even if some people are more eager to see the person than the goodies she brings, it’s such a beautiful gesture to sit and spend a few minutes with someone who is not well. I like how communion inspires worlds to collide: the sick and healthy, priests and truckers, the high and low. I picture an 18-wheeler rumbling down the freeway, its cargo nothing but fine merlot and fresh-baked baguettes. I pull up alongside to glimpse the trucker’s face: it’s Jesus.
His long hair blows through the open window. He winks and pulls the horn for me.