Some months ago, our Archbishop appointed me an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, which is a lay person who administers and distributes the Eucharist to parishioners during the mass. The bishop, priest, or deacon are the Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in the Catholic Church; but when the church congregation grows in size to the point that communion will be unduly prolonged by only the priest and deacon serving communion, the Archbishop may appoint lay people to help serve it. Sometimes an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is also asked to take communion to someone who is homebound, hospitalized, or even in prison; but in general we serve only in church and during mass.
When I received the letter from our priest telling me that I’d been appointed, I felt honored and deeply humbled. The Church teaches that those who serve in this capacity should live in such a way that the name of Christ is honored; I have to admit that when I was called, I trembled. I know my own unworthiness in general; who am I to take the cup or the bread into my hand for anyone other than myself, if that? What is an “exemplary life?” How odd and upsetting and humbling, that the people who have seen me at my worst-my fellow believers, my priest, to whom I confess my sins!-would consider me able to serve at the Lord’s table.
I trembled inwardly for a long time after this, every time I thought about the appointment.
I fast the afternoon before I’m to serve as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion; all the faithful are supposed to fast for at least one hour before taking communion, in order to prepare themselves spiritually; but I fast the afternoon. I’m that big a fool; I need all the grace I can receive. As the hour to serve approaches, I begin to shake a little inside, pondering how the patriarchs removed their shoes outside the Holy of Holies; how some were struck dead for touching a holy object; how Aaron and his sons kept the sanctuary lamp burning day and night, just as a sanctuary lamp burns day and night in every Catholic Church. The weight and tradition of ages settle around my shoulders like a hair shirt, and I feel my uncleanness. I consider when the last time I went to confession was, and when was the last time I confessed my sins to God privately. I review inner videotapes of all my shortfalls of the past week, and they are many. I tremble even more.
At 5:00 I go to church, where we begin to gather in the chapel. Twelve silver cross medallions designating the Extraordinary Ministers dangle from a board near the door; I take one and place it over my head, feeling the weight of the cross right over my heart. There are five people in the chapel; I recognize two of my fellow ministers. We don’t look at one another, because they’re already deep in prayer, on their knees. Heads bowed. The sun beats in.
I feel nervous and fidgety, uncomfortable as I sit in the wooden chair, self-conscious. I fuss around, trying to find the little book for this month’s Liturgy of the Hours, the ancient prayers of psalms and gospel prayed around the clock, worldwide, by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Prayers going up like incense before God, it says in Revelation. I feel the ancient pulse, and my feet begin to feel the earth.
I kneel, and the smallness of the chapel is a welcome. It’s eternally quiet; no one seems to breathe. The sun is low in the sky and the wine in the chalice on the small altar glows with a fabulous fire. I can’t take my eyes off the wine. I looked into a rare, flawless ruby once with a jeweler’s scope, the stone of a man I know who loves gems and stones and is called to create things of beauty with them. He showed me this ruby worth a hundred thousand dollars, one of a kind, and it glowed with a deep pink-red glow, like blood mixed with water. The wine is just like that exquisite gem; beautiful, stunning, irresistible. I begin to slide deeper into Spirit; I perceive great depth, and height. It is as if the roof and floor are taken away, and there I am, suspended in space and time.
The creak of a kneeler nearby brings me back to earth, and comforts me; my brothers and sisters are near. As other Extraordinary Ministers arrive, the atmosphere changes and electrifies. The sacristan arrives and moves a ciborium here, a chalice there; the wine and my heart are radiant. Soon, the priest, deacon, and acolytes arrive in a whoosh of albs, cassocks, surplices, and stoles. Father leads us in the Liturgy of the Hours, and the chapel echoes with the sounds of the Holy Scriptures-a verse from one side, a response from the other, a verse from one side, a response from the other-until the Word of God is read and we all say Amen. AMEN!
We are ready.
Father raises an eyebrow at the tallest of the three acolytes, a tall, awkward boy of about fourteen, and says, “You’ll lead us today, David, whenever you’re ready.” David hesitates, looks around doubtfully, and waits. “Your lead, David! We’re following you,” Father nudges. David steps up with the crucifix and lifts it high; the other boys fall in with lighted candles beside him, followed by priest and deacon. We pause at the fountain, and bless ourselves with holy water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though the whole world was fallen after Eve and Adam, when Christ went down into the flowing waters of the Jordan river, they say He purified the deepest wells of the earth, and all the earth was purified again; for this, we bless ourselves with water, being reminded of all that God has done for us from the time when Moses went down and the waters parted to receive Israel, to the time when Jesus went down, and the heavens parted and a dove descended. And a dove can descend on and infuse each of us.
Bless us, Lord. And we are blessed.
I move up the aisle, my heels snapping against the marble floor, arrive at my pew and feel the substance of the carved oak pew end. I genuflect toward the altar and the tabernacle, bow my head, cross myself. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen. I feel the cold marble against my bowed knee. A large cross hangs behind the altar, with a beautiful, life-sized carving of the body of Christ hanging on it. Paul said it is the Church’s business to “preach Christ, and him crucified.” This is the basis of the Christian faith, and every Catholic church shows the crucified Christ at the same time that we celebrate his resurrection every mass; this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Stone under my feet, stone to the sides; stone altar, Rock of Ages. Every altar contains a small altar stone representing both Christ, our rock, and the rock of Calvary; most altars in most Catholic churches are made of natural stone. The altar stone is consecrated by a bishop who uses wine, salt, and ashes, mixed and blessed to form a chrism for anointing. The bishop uses the chrism to trace five crosses on the altar, symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. Relics (bones) of saints, often martyrs, are placed inside the altar leg or beneath the altar stone, recalling the image in Revelation 6:9, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.”
In most Catholic churches, the altar is elevated to represent Calvary; Jesus said, “if I be lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.” When the priest approaches the altar to celebrate Mass, he is ascending to reenact Christ’s sacrifice.
I want to prostrate myself, thinking about the bones of martyrs in our altar, reminders that my liberty to worship, to bow, to kneel, to pray, to hear the Word of God taught, and to receive communion were bought by the blood and lives of Christians who, following Christ’s footsteps, died for what they believed in. They died so that I can debate religion on the internet; but do I live my faith? I have not had to die for anything; I’m deeply contrite, and deeply grateful.
I pray, “Thank you, God; thank you, brother or sister, for your sacrifice.” These relics, remains of deceased saints, are for gratitude and reminders of what price has been paid for our freedom to worship. Every orthodox church is like a war memorial, but in place of thousands of names engraved on stone, or thousands of white headstones, we have bones we show our respect to, because of what they mean.
The altar is covered with pure linen cloths-linen because linen is Biblical, because Christ’s body was wrapped in linen in the tomb, and because all those who inhabit heaven are clothed in “linen, pure and white.” Candles flicker beside and around the altar. They are made of beeswax because beeswax consumes itself purely, as Christ sacrificed himself for us. The faint smell of honey and wax lingers in the air, mixing with the spice of incense. It smells like home.
To the right of the altar is the tabernacle, a gold-colored cabinet housing the sacramental bread, the Body of Christ. A red sanctuary lamp burns in front of the Tabernacle at all times, day and night, just as a lamp burned in the Tabernacle of the God of Israel. I bow to Our Lord as if He were truly present, as if the risen Christ Himself stood whole and entire underneath that sanctuary lamp. Of course Jesus is not a tiny wafer or a loaf of bread, or a cracker as some wags have characterized Him lately. Yet Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” He sustains the believer like bread, like water. I used to wonder at people I saw in churches, kneeling or prostrating themselves before the Tabernacle, adoring the Blessed Sacraments; but when I think of seeing Him in heaven, and of how exactly like this I will go down on my knees before Him and call Him King, I don’t wonder any more. Now, by faith; then, by sight. I don’t want to get up from my knees. I can see why the elders in the book of Revelation fall down before the Lamb, casting their crowns and crying, “Glory!”
The Liturgy of the Word rolls along, ancient texts and prayers, psalms and hymns; a dry but witty homily from Father; the collection for the church and the poor is taken, and it’s time to serve.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is about to begin.