Saturday, April 14, 2007
An Oldie But Goodie 1
Call it procrastination or call it research, I've been reading through some BTB* writings as I try to write my first paper for the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. *Before the Blog
January 2004 -- Having reached a point where I felt comfortable with the concept that I could be a Methodist who still found comfort in saying the rosary, having realized I could still travel the stations of the cross as a meditative reminder of Christ’s selfless sacrifice, only one other Catholic consideration remained.
Not a small consideration.
Perhaps the greatest defining difference between the Catholic Mass, which is centered on the sacrament of communion, and the Protestant communion celebration involves what transpires when the priest or minister invokes the Holy Spirit to descend on the bread and cup.
For one thing, Catholic priests pause much longer. Either the Holy Spirit moves more slowly in the Catholic Church, or the priest just wants to make sure the congregation gets it – the Holy Spirit just descended, you didn’t miss it, did you?
In the Catholic Mass, the circular wafers and sacramental wine are believed to be transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ.
In the Protestant celebration, the tiny squares of pressed flour and the grape juice serve as a symbolic reminder of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his ever-present love.
How curious that it should come down to this.
While my search within myself for a sense of fulfillment in where and how I worship has been going on for almost five years, its most recent awakening came with an Easter message from Pope John Paul II. He delivered a finger-wagging, tongue lashing to Catholics who take communion outside The Church.
I hadn’t had occasion in more than a decade to do so, but I immediately saw myself sitting in the pew of the Jacksboro Church of Christ beside my grandmother. When she turned to me with that silver-plated tray of unleavened bread, I was not about to refuse it. Here was my beloved grandmother sharing a symbol of God’s loving sacrifice with me. And, in passing that communion tray on to me, she was also sharing a symbolic representation of the deep faith she hoped to pass on to me, too.
I took communion joyfully that day, and I never questioned my decision again, always gratefully accepting, until my grandmother’s death, the flattened bread and the quivering tray of small plastic cups filled with grape juice.
The grape juice.
I had forgotten about that shockingly sweet taste of redemption.
I’ve never known or even questioned why most Protestant churches serve grape juice at the communion table.
I did learn some time ago that every morsel consumed in Catholic communion is painstakingly baked or fermented, often by men and women in religious orders who spend their lives pressing the wafers and grapes according to strict rule.
I would come to realize that Protestants have much more latitude in the communion meal.
Seeking further guidance in my ongoing search, I attended a women’s retreat offered by the Methodist Church but held at Catholic retreat center. It was just the transition I needed. The theme for the weekend was women’s spiritual journeys, and I went determined to fully explore mine.
To my pleasant surprise, I even witnessed the moment of my transition.
I was an unfamiliar face to everyone at the retreat, which frequently prompted questions about how long I had attended San Diego’s First United Methodist Church. “I’m a Catholic,” I told them, explaining that I was considering a return to my Methodist beginnings and had been sampling their church for a few weeks. I repeated this explanation many times during the weekend.
On Sunday morning, sitting at breakfast with some women who didn’t know my background, someone asked how long I had attended First UMC. I almost launched into my Catholic explorer litany but stopped myself. I realized it was no longer the correct answer. So I answered a direct question, directly: “I’ve been going to First Methodist about six weeks.”
That was the moment I fully reclaimed my Methodist roots.
A communion service followed breakfast. Frankly, the entire weekend had felt like communion, but at this service, the elements of communion would be served. The altar presentation was lovely: A stack of four or five circles of unleavened bread, a colorful goblet of juice, both draped in cloth on a table covered with a patchwork quilt.
As a finale to a rich and spiritually provocative weekend, the service was beautiful. As communion began, a voice within me said: “I am here as a full participant. I am not an interloper at this communion table. I believe that I will draw as much strength and grace from this communion as from any I have ever shared anywhere. I am welcome here, and I belong.”
The bread and cup were passed around the circle with each woman serving the woman next to her.
It was simple, grace-filled and solemn. And I was fulfilled.
After the service ended, I stayed to help clean the room we had inhabited all weekend for our retreat activities and the communion service.
At one point, I was alone at a side table, packing a box of things to return to the church. I secured the altar flowers and candles and reached down to retrieve the beautiful communion goblet – wrapping it carefully. Then, someone placed the leftover communion bread next to me on the table.
Now, in the Catholic Church, there aren’t leftovers. Any wafers consecrated during Mass are considered to still be the living body of Christ. And you don’t put Christ away in Tupperware for later. The priest or Eucharistic ministers either consume any remaining communion elements at the altar, or they place them in a tabernacle until time for the next holy meal.
I found myself momentarily taken slightly aback to realize I was packing away Christ’s symbolic body. I had just recovered from that little shiver of sacramental difference, when the wrapper surrounding the communion bread caught my eye.
“Mr. Pita” it read, a product of Sara Lee.
I couldn’t help myself, I laughed out loud.
I had partaken of “Mr. Pita” in that simple, grace-filled and solemn communion service.
And I had been fulfilled.
The postscript to this story is that, as I always have, I feel comfortable receiving Protestant communion. What troubles me is that I now have a better understanding than I ever did of what Catholics profess to believe about communion. I have read about priestly divinity and transubstantiation. Some of what Catholics believe about communion, I had never known. But, in my heart of hearts, I know I knew I was supposed to believe those wafers were literally transformed into Christ’s body and blood, and, just as fervently, I know I never did.
Is Christ present in the Catholic Mass?
But he is also present in the Protestant communion.
He is ever-present.
And, for me, communion is as much about the fellowship of the community and Christ’s presence in every human as it is about the symbols used to remind me of his loving and ongoing sacrifice.
Do I believe Christ is present in the Catholic communion?
But I also believe He is present in Mr. Pita.
Posted by karen at 11:43 PM