By Lauren R. Stanley
Nine days after departing for Sudan, I returned to the United States on an emergency trip. A visiting teacher from America had taken ill and needed to be escorted home. We arrived late on a Friday night, after nearly 24 hours of travel, and immediately got care for my friend.
On Saturday, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I had nowhere to go on Sunday. I was supposed to be preaching at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Renk, Sudan, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Usually, when I am in the United States, every Sunday morning and half my Sunday afternoons and evenings are filled with preaching and teaching and forums. This weekend, however, I was foot-loose and fancy- (and sermon-) free.
Then a friend contacted me, the rector of a large Northern Virginia parish. Would I like to come celebrate the Eucharist at the family interactive service the next morning? I told him I didn’t have any of my vestments, not even my collar, because I had left Renk in such a rush to get our visitor to the hospital in Khartoum. Not a problem, he said. We’ll take care of that; you just come celebrate.
So on Sunday morning, I showed up, found some vestments and into the parish hall we went. While the regular 9 a.m. service took place in the Nave, we had a few hundred parents and children with us for a service that included a lot of singing, a video show of the saints of the Church and the saints of the church, and a Eucharist celebrated at a small, short table in the center of the room, surrounded by about 30 children.
“OK,” I told the kids, “it’s time to have breakfast with Jesus.”
“I’m not hungry,” one little blond boy, aged 3 or 4, promptly declared.
“Well, the rest of us are,” I replied. “You can join us if you want.”
Then I told the kids I needed their help, that to get ready for breakfast with Jesus, we needed to pray, but that I couldn’t do this alone. “Will you help me?” I asked. “Yes,” they said. “Good,” I told them. “So when I put my arms out like this (in the orans position), you do that too,” I said. “And when I lift my hands up over my head to pray, you do that as well. And,” I said, “when I cross my hands over the bread and wine, you do that with me. That way, we’ll all be getting ready for breakfast with Jesus.”
My little questioning boy wanted to know: “Where’s Jesus?”
“Right here in the bread and wine,” I said, pointing. “And right here,” I added, pointing to my heart and then to all of theirs.
I asked the “big kids” (aka the adults) to say the responses for Prayer C, so that they could help as well. And then we celebrated the Eucharist together.
“The Lord be with you,” I said, putting my hands out. Thirty pairs of hands rose into in the air.
“Lift up your hearts,” I continued, putting my hands over my head. Those same 30 pairs of hands went straight up.
“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” I said. The hands stayed up until I brought mine down, and then they all put their hands out to their sides.
When we sang the Sanctus, which most of them knew, I put my hands over my head again, peering under my arms at all these little faces. In the middle of the hymn, I told them: “This is what I’m going to get to do in heaven; I’ll get to sing this song in the morning choir to God.” A few of the children nodded.
When we did the epiclesis, calling down the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine, 30 pairs of hands matched mine, crossing over at the wrist and hovering over the elements in a tremendously holy and touching moment. These children really wanted to participate in getting breakfast ready.
Then came the anamnesis, the remembering. I held up a small loaf of bread. “Take, eat,” I said, showing the bread to them at their eye level. Thirty pairs of eyes followed the bread closely as I showed it next to the “big kids.”
Then I picked up the cup of wine. “This is my blood,” I said. Before I could go any further, my little blond-headed boy disgustedly interrupted:
“Blood?!?!? I’m not drinking blood!”
“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” a 5-year-old girl replied, taking special care with her pronunciation.
“It’s not really blood,” I said. “It’s wine.”
“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” the little girl said again.
“It’s OK. You don’t have to drink it,” I told the boy.
“I’m not drinking blood!” he said again.
The “big kids” all around us were smiling, and I was thinking to myself, Oh, my, out of the mouths of babes. I turned to my friend the rector, who was at the end of the parish hall, watching all of this. “Isn’t doing Eucharist with the kids great? They ask the best questions.”
On we went with the prayers. Thirty pairs of hands went over 30 heads for the Lord’s Prayer, then clapped together during the fraction anthem.
Finally, breakfast was ready and it was time to eat.
I gave out the bread to the children first – after all, they had worked so hard to get it ready. When I got to the little blond boy, he took his bread right away. Apparently he was hungry after all. When a chalicist brought the cup, he took some of that, too. We might have called it “blood,” and he for certain wasn’t going to drink any of that, but this wine in the cup? Well, that was all right.
Then we communed the “big kids,” some of whose children came back with them.
“Do you want seconds?” I asked the returnees. One girl, not the 5-year-old with the incredible vocabulary and understanding, took me up on the offer. The blond boy did not.
And then we sang some more hymns, and cleaned up the table, and said some more prayers, and we were done.
Did we celebrate the Eucharist the way they taught me at seminary? No. Was it the most orthodox way to celebrate? Again, no. And I know there probably will be some who object to allowing the children to participate in this way, and others who will say that I wasn’t solemn enough and that I shouldn’t have talked with the children or my friend the rector during the prayers, but really, that’s OK with me.
Because we had a holy time together, and there was much of God present, and that is something I definitely learned in seminary, and for which I have striven all the years I have been a priest.
And now I go back to Sudan again, where we do not commune the children and where there will be no side comments, no objections to drinking “blood!”, no explanations from 5-year-olds carefully explaining that the “blood” is a “rep-re-sen-ta-tion” and I will miss having little children crowding around me and lifting their hands to praise God and crossing their wrists to bless bread and wine with me, and I will regret not having them present.
But I will not forget what happened last Sunday. I will not forget that a friend called and said, “Wanna come celebrate?” and then let me truly do just that, with 30 little children in the center of a parish hall.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy, Biblical Greek and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.