When I was growing up, communion was scheduled the first Sunday of each month. We had special plates, similar to offering plates, which were passed from person to person, pew to pew. The first presented carefully broken pieces of matzoh, and the second had holes that held tiny glasses in which Welch’s grape juice had been dutifully poured, exactly 3/4 full, by the women young and old who helped prepare before the service (including me, which is why I retain the detail). We would pass the plates, hold the bread and the cup, and each take our little feast at the same time in our seats as the story of the Last Supper was read.
I remember helping with preparation and clean-up, which entailed collecting up the little cups (which after consumption were placed in the holes of the wooden trays affixed to the back of each pew) and washing each one by hand. I was fascinated by the whole idea of communion, even though the ritual itself was not central to the service nor to the theology of the charismatic Christianity of my youth. But, communion was still regarded in that congregation as a historic and important action. I liked it, more so than other aspects of worship, and I thought about it a lot. In my young mind, it was like a tea party for the soul. I remember preparing and passing out communion in my room, to my dolls and stuffed animals, on plates with little bits of crackers and cups with tiny drops of juice. I tried offering communion one time in the cafeteria at school with crackers and peaches, but I just remember getting laughed at when I offered this to my friends and ultimately, instructed by the lunch monitor not to share my food. It just seemed like something that should be shared everywhere, with everyone.
If I could, I would go back, and whisper to that small child: “Keep sharing…all are welcome.”
As I grew older, though, communion sadly became a symbol of authority, power, and control. Maybe that started in high school when my beloved, favorite teacher died suddenly. When I attended his funeral mass, I was instructed through the tears I was shedding that as a non-Catholic, I was not allowed to receive communion. It stung me in a very tender, grieving place. The negativity was reinforced when churches put down theological differences between denominations about the sanctity of holy communion, or drew parallels between transubstantiation and cannibalism in mockery. The divisions stood in the way of the communion. The messages were strong about who was invited, and who was not. After I had walked away from organized religion, I felt that my invitation to the feast had been withdrawn entirely. I would simply have to find other places to feed my soul.
But, looking back, there was a small point of light that offered a different perspective. One Sunday morning when I was firmly in the midst of my outcast status, I received an unexpected invitation back to the table. I had taken a gig as a paid chorister in an Episcopal church down the street from my apartment. I had already been to choir rehearsal, practiced the service music and memorized the Book of Common Prayer, Rite 2 liturgy so I could sit, kneel, and stand as if I belonged. I didn’t feel like I belonged. But, I was being paid to fill a role, and I was working hard to rise to the occasion. That first Sunday, I was doing very well keeping up appearances throughout the service. I had mentally planned out a routine around communion, how to walk the line without actually participating. I was a paid singer at this banquet, not a guest. But, in retrospect, my plans were no match for the inclusive love of God.
Just before communion was to take place, the priest who had been leading the service stood in front of everyone. He looked around each area of the large, stone building to meet the eyes of those who sat in the congregation. And, as he spoke, he turned to meet the gaze of those in the choir loft as well. His kind eyes met mine as he said with an authenticity that emanated from somewhere beyond human comprehension, “Everyone…everyone regardless…is welcome to make their communion with the Almighty God.” I would hear him say these words deliberately and repeatedly, week after week, always from an authentic and soulful place. I would see these words lived out in the actions of inclusion and welcome of that congregation…and I came to know both intellectually and emotionally that it was their authentic experience. Invitation extended, as unprepared as I felt, I did come to that table…broken, rebellious, half-hearted, seeking, whispering words of an alternative spirituality that reflected my understanding of the divine at that time and in that place. And, God met me there, exactly as I was.
All are welcome.
Those words of authentic inclusion embedded into my soul like a tiny seed that would take root and flourish throughout my spiritual journey, as I became ready to hear them and take them in. They were the invitation that brought me back to God’s table.
I make my spiritual home now in another inclusive, radically welcoming Episcopal church. On any given Sunday I kneel next to an amazing array of human souls, reflecting diversity in all its richness. I experience God blessing our togetherness, all at different places as we each travel on our respective journeys of faith and life. And yet, we are all together at this table by God’s invitation. I have the same invitation to this banquet as the person kneeling beside me, and I am aware that our worthiness and ability to reciprocate have nothing to do with our place at this table. I know this in my soul, because a seed planted there long before I was even ready to receive it was strong enough to overcome the doubts and the negativity, and the rejection. That’s how it is with God, and all God’s creation. We are invited with open arms, by open invitation, to keep the feast.
In case you were wondering, I still have that little girl inside me, too. She knew then, and knows now, that her place is at the table, sharing God’s invitation to the feast and joyfully serving the diversity of all those she encounters.
All are welcome.
[In response to this week’s Who is My Neighbor blog series which I curate at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Week 8 of Who is My Neighbor]