Bread of Life

The chalice is heavy in my hands and the smell of the wine wafts up as I follow the sacristan down the aisle to the altar. He carries small crystal cruets of water and wine for the deacon, like the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ on the cross. I feel breathless with expectancy.

The deacon stands at the bottom of the steps leading up to the altar and receives the cruets; we move around him two by two and place our chalices or patens on the altar, then return to our seats. The Liturgy of the Eucharist has begun.

Father stands behind the altar, lifting the paten with the bread above it, and quietly prays

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
Which earth has given and human hands have made.
It will become for us the bread of life.

Blessed be God forever.

The deacon pours wine and a little water from the cruets into the largest chalice, an ordination gift to our priest from his mother, and quietly prays

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

Father takes the chalice he has handled at every Mass for 40 years now, and elevates it over the altar, whispering

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
Fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.

Blessed be God forever.

The priest bows, and softly prays, “Lord God, we ask you to receive us and be pleased with the sacrifice we offer you with humble and contrite hearts.” An acolyte hands him the smoking thurible, and he works it over the bread and wine, back and forth, back and forth, incensing the offerings and the altar just as Aaron, the High Priest of Israel incensed the altar “morning after morning, and again in the evening twilight,”and over offerings, so that “a cloud of incense may cover the propitiatory, lest he die” (Exodus 30, Leviticus 16).

Then the deacon steps forward and receives the thurible to incense the priest and the people. Back and forth, back and forth, he swings the thurible to the east, over the choir. Coming down the steps, he swings it back and forth, back and forth over those on Mary’s side, to the north, where a large statue of the Virgin stands in a niche, hands outstretched. The silence is complete as he moves to the west, working the thurible back and forth, the chime of its silver chains and the gasp of his robes the only sound in the place. Incense curles over the people in the main part of the church, drifting to the back where the baptismal font gurgles with blessed water day and night. Finally, he goes south, to the side of the Evangelist whose name our parish bears; the side where the oldest members of the congregation sit. To them, Father takes every newly-baptized baby for blessing. They trace the sign of the cross with quavering hands.

The incense is heady, frankincense and myrrh, recalling a bone-deep connectedness to ancient rites and mysteries as old as mankind. Modern research has discovered that burning frankincense activates areas of the brain that relieve anxiety and depression; I smile, thinking of God, the great psychiatrist.

Father moves behind the altar, washing his hands in a large crystal bowl set off to the side, praying quietly, “Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.” Turning to the people, he intones, “Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”

We are ready to break bread, and be broken.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world;
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world;
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world;
Grant us peace.

As one body, we hit our knees in a whoosh of contrition.

Father says, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.”

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

As our priest crumbles a bit of the host into the wine, and then takes communion himself, we Extraordinary Ministers make our way to the altar again, each receiving the Body of Christ and Blood of Christ in turn. “Amen,” we say, “Amen.”

I am given a paten of the Body of Christ, so move to the north aisle. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands directly opposite me, head bowed, hands outstretched. This is the side my family sits on every week. It’s comforting to sit near the likeness of our Blessed Mother because we have so many loss-of-mother wounds in our family. Every week, some one or another is bound to light a candle to remember a birth mother or to pray for hearts that will raise up their own inner Good Mothers.

My hands shake as I hold the paten and people begin to line up in the aisle. Not everyone chooses to drink the common cup of wine, but everyone comes to receive the bread. Before the mass is ended, I will have touched the hands of one fourth of the people at this mass. How humbling it is. I’m amazed and bewildered to be standing here, opposite a likeness of the mother of Our Lord, serving communion to my own children. “Thank you, God,” I pray. “Thank you.”

The first person in line is a middle-aged woman; she bows from the waist and extends her cupped hands. “The body of Christ,” I say, pressing a wafer into her palm. “Amen,” she replies, putting the bread into her mouth and crossing herself. Next is an elderly man, whose hands shake as he extends them. “The body of Christ,” I say. He pauses to look me right in the eye, and smiles, “Amen.” Surprised, I smile back. We’re taught not to interfere with people’s communion by waiting for eye contact or expecting anything other than their “Amen.” This is their time with God; it is a sacred time, not to be intruded upon. But often people come to receive with so much joy. They look me full in the face their joy cries, “Glory to God!”

The line moves. There are white hands, brown hands, strong young men’s hands, black hands with creased palms; tiny hands, plump hands, veined hands and hands with grease under the fingernails; slender, manicured fingers, African hands, Filipino hands and little old white ladies’ hands; children with their arms crossed over their chests, who need blessing; mothers into whose open mouths I place the bread, coming with babes in arms; teenagers with pierced eyebrows, pierced lips and whose mouths open to reveal pierced tongues saying “Amen.”

Small brown hands open up before me, my own daughter’s hands. She radiates happiness and practically skips off like a lamb after an enthusiastic, “Amen!” One by one, I serve my family members. My line is almost empty, now, and my heart is very full. I’m close to tears every single time I finish serving communion. Every time, without exception.

I look down at the Body of Christ and breathe, remembering my place as a servant. Crying on the host is not a good idea. But the mass, the liturgies, the meditative timelessness-it’s all so rich and pregnant with meaning. We are so many different people from so many different places, united at this moment in time, body and spirit. Every single one of us unworthy, yet receiving. Every one, eager to receive communion every time, to receive “grace and mercy to help in time of need.”

The line is gone. I take the remaining wafers to the deacon, who replaces them into the ciborium inside the Tabernacle. I take the empty paten to a table near the choir, setting it beside the empty chalices. We will purify these vessels after the mass is ended.

We return to our places, kneeling as one people. A great silence fills the church. Minutes tick by. There is nothing but quiet and mingled incense and beeswax hanging in the air.

Eventually, the priest stands. “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

“May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he intones.  We cross ourselves, answering, Amen.

“The mass is ended,” says the deacon. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

And we do.

6 responses

  1. “……….so I guess, for atheists, my parents were at least open-minded enough to let us go to church on our own. Ironic that my brothers and I are all devout Christians now. Just as many of the children of my devout Christian friends are now atheists. Hmm, think there’s a pattern there……….?

    If you’d had Christianity rammed down your throat when young, it’s likely you wouldn’t have become the devout Christian you are today. Something about the need for all of us to always rebel against our parents, even when we ourselves are old?

    So you can, perhaps, thank your enlightened non-enforcing parents for your current happy spiritual state!!!

    I did have Christianity rammed down my own throat when young (Episcopalian, or C of E actually). Thus when I grew up I was glad to escape the smothering embrace of Christianity.

    But, having listened to the words of the King James Bible being read to me each night as a child, and from having attended each Sunday throughout my growing up years the Matins and Evensongs of the Anglican Church, and having listened ad nausaem to the words in its Book of Common prayer, they have unerasedly seeped into my mind, for often when I’m speaking or writing today, these words and phrases from my childhood come spilling out unannounced, and I’m so glad they did, for they are so wonderful, wise, and poetic.

    So perhaps I’m still an unconscious Christian, despite my having devoured with lip smacking relish, over the last year, the much talked-about anti-religious books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris!!

  2. David, I tried converting to Episcopal when I was 12 or 13 or so, and my parents prevented it. Even then the symbols and the reverence really met spiritual needs in my life. I went to church with friends, and a Catholic lady who lived two houses down took me to mass a few times, too; so I guess, for atheists, my parents were at least open-minded enough to let us go to church on our own. Ironic that my brothers and I are all devout Christians now. Just as many of the children of my devout Christian friends are now atheists. Hmm, think there’s a pattern there? 😉

    I have to agree with you about the Latin mass. It’s electrifying if you get to go to one in a good setting–the older the church, the better! I’ve run across some web sites of Catholics who are really pressing for a return to the Latin mass. I don’t know if I could handle a Latin diet all the time; but it has its merits, which you named.

    Something I like about liturgical churches is that they generally leave you alone when you go. In the south, when you go to an evangelical church, they often have you stand up and introduce yourself and you get all kinds of new friends just from one visit. Lots of involvement, even intervention. That bugs me now that I’m older and crankier, so I like liturgical churches where I can go and be left alone. I’m going to worship, not socialize, after all.

    Your comment makes me wonder why I went over to Catholicism rather than staying with the Episcopals, or returning to them. I have a good friend who loves the Episcopal church, and I can’t disagree with her. Also, a college professor was Anglican, and I liked them a lot as well. I think in the end, there were so few differences and there is so much division in the churches that I feel happy about being a bridge-builder or translator between faiths. This feels comfortable for me; but it’s not for everyone, obviously.

    Oh, the “aggressive liberalism” of the Episcopalians–yes! Very well put. If you go back, give them all hugs for me. I love those Episcopalians.

  3. Alida, I have doctrinal disagreements with the Catholic church too, of course; I can’t really imagine anyone who thinks and reads being able to agree with everything any church teaches in the fine points.

    Something that helped me with that came from the priest who helped me through conversion back in my college days, Father Richard. I could not agree with several doctrines, but found I could agree with most. Finally he told me which were the central doctrines, which every Catholic must believe, and then which ones were not central. The central tenets of the faith are in the confessions (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) that many mainline Protestant denominations make every Sunday, too–ironically enough. After that, I didn’t have a problem with the fine points. Nobody argues worse than a bunch of priests when they get together. If they can’t agree over it all, then I surely don’t have to!

    Thank you for the book suggestion. I actually will read the book. I’ll go looking for it later today.

  4. These essays are so beautiful, Eve. I have been estranged for years from any type of spiritual congregation, but I went to an Episcopalian private school for a couple of years, and if I were going to return to organized Christianity, that’s probably where I’d cast my vote … much of the ritual of Catholicism intact, but with an aggressive liberalism that appeals to me personally. The ritual is the thing, though … there’s one church in Portland that still has a Latin mass, and I’ve been a couple of times, just to hear the words, which have been familiar to me since childhood from listening to liturgical music. There’s something about speaking words that have been spoken by so many people, all over the world, for centuries upon centuries …

  5. “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” That is my very favorite part of mass! I’ve had so many issues with the Catholic Church and it’s doctrines…yet I cannot walk away. It’s very hard to put into words the deep meaning sharing in the celebration of mass has for me. I feel after reading this that I’ve attended mass today:)

    Regarding your comment yesterday regarding Physics and how much is unknown…I finished reading a book called Punk Science: Inside the mind of God by Manjir Samanta-Laughton. It’s an excellent read. Her point being exactly what you said. In science there is still so much unknown and it’s all changing so fast. She talks about the western tendency to dismiss God in favor of science…and yet even Einstein believed in God. You are going to have to read it because it’s just too involved to explain here.

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