It was a Palm Sunday weekend that my wife and I were visiting our favorite southern coastal city. We decided to attend the Sunday services of one of the many historic churches in the downtown area. After looking up churches in our own denomination, we discovered none were all that historic compared to some others, so we chose one in the Anglican tradition that George Washington had attended when he was in the area.
We arrived a bit early and were immediately confronted with a dilemma. Instead of the normal long pews to which we were accustomed, this church had short pews inside boxes with doors on them. Not wanting to become squatters in someone’s box, we just stood at the door most probably with a bewildered look on our faces. A kindly usher saw us and assured us that we could sit anywhere we liked. So we settled into our cozy little box. Unbeknownst to us, a couple we knew from the Atlanta area regularly attended that church when they were in town and happened to be there that morning. They spotted us as they came in and suggested we meet out front following the service. The service was great— highly liturgical, superb music, and a powerful Palm Sunday message, followed by Holy Communion.
Ah, Holy Communion. That’s where the wheels came off. The ushers directed the congregants to the front of the sanctuary where the altar rail was located. As we were standing in line, I was observing how the elements were being served so I would handle the whole process properly and gracefully. It became obvious there were two ways one could receive communion. One could receive the bread after it had been dipped it in the wine and then placed in the mouth, a process known as intinction. On the other hand, one could receive the bread then sip the wine from a common chalice. My wife chose the former and I chose the latter.
I took the bread in my mouth and as the server extended the chalice with the wine something went terribly wrong. The base of the chalice either bumped or was bumped tilting the chalice forward and the contents came rushing toward me. Fortunately, I had my elbows bent and my hands in a prayerful pose which closed the lapels of my jacket into my tie thus protecting my white shirt. Unfortunately, I had my elbows bent and my hands in a prayerful pose which created perfect receptacles at the cuffs to receive the liquid which ran down to my elbows.
Needless to say, the server was mortified. She grabbed a white cloth and began to dab the front of my suit jacket in an attempt to clean up the mess. Seeing that was futile, I motioned for her to move on and we were dismissed back to our seats. When we got into the seats, I sheepishly slumped down and looked straight ahead while hoping the remaining line would move quickly and we could have the benediction. It was then I realized the box in which we were sitting restricted airflow and it now reeked of alcohol. Finally, the benediction was given and we rushed out of the sanctuary, across the adjacent cemetery, and into a side building in search of a restroom where I spent the next twenty minutes trying to clean up. By the time we got out, most of the congregation were gone. The next day I got an email from my friend wanting to know what happened to us after the service. After explaining the whole scenario, I ended with, “The incident gives a whole new meaning to being covered by the blood.”
I am certain that at the time the disciples gathered at the last meal they did not fully comprehend what Jesus was talking about as he compared bread to his body and wine to his blood. Their behavior immediately following would so indicate. They were, after all, looking forward into the unknown. We, on the other hand, are asked to look back and we do so with the full complement of Scripture and knowledge of all that transpired related to the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. Even so, I fear we are still much like the original disciples, though for different reasons. Theirs was an inability to grasp the full import and inevitability of the moment. Ours may be that we have grasped it so well that many of us believers have fashioned the remembrance such that it has lost much of its meaning, And so I wonder, have we made the communion service so orderly, pristine, and even rote, that we mask the raw emotion of seeing our Lord’s broken body and shed blood.
Through the years as I have reflected on that Palm Sunday, I can safely say that it has become the most meaningful Holy Communion I have ever experienced. I have come to appreciate the mess of that moment. In some way, it draws me closer to the actual events that make up what we now call Holy Week. Now, every time I take communion I can sense that Jesus is saying, “I’ve got you covered,” and I take great comfort in that.
In the next post, I will discuss more memorable Holy Communion experiences and some not so memorable.