by Anne Moul
They come as supplicants, lining up at the rail, hands cupped to receive the bread, some with their eyes down, some looking up at the altar, a few making eye contact. Most kneel, those with rickety knees stand, some hold infants or fuss with toddlers squirming beside them. I speak softly, gently, crouching down to allow a child to dip the wafer in the cup, instructing a visitor about what to do, clasping someone’s hands to help steady their hold on the chalice. These are intensely private moments and it’s as though we are meeting each other in a place that no one else can see.
There is nothing slapdash about communion in the Episcopal church. We are a denomination steeped in tradition, so we tend to do things properly, respectfully and with reverence. There is an exquisite beauty in the formal ritual, in the reciting of ancient words, in the vestments and organ music, in simply occupying a space that does not look like the commercial world we inhabit the rest of the week. Our church offers a brief respite from the constant bombardment of the secular.
The rail itself is the great leveler. We are all the same at this table, cushioned on the beautifully embroidered kneelers, we cling to the Good News that the body and blood of Christ will save us from whatever awaits at the end. We feed everyone; the faithful weekly regulars, the Christmas- and Easter-only attendees, the homeless man who smells bad, (and around whom people jostle to avoid sipping from the cup after him) the young man with disturbing piercings and an unnaturally red beard, the elderly parish matriarch gripping her walker in a haze of dementia, guided by her husband, now gaunt and ravaged by cancer himself. Their adult daughter walks behind them. “I’m the spotter,” she whispers with a sad smile. No one is turned away even though as our rector once said, “I know there are people at the rail who would just as soon stab me in the back as talk to me, but none of it matters in that moment.”
I know which parishioners are sippers or dippers—common cup or intinction, although that can vary depending on the prevalence of colds and stomach flu. I know who needs gluten free wafers. I know who likes to hold the chalice with their own hands. I know whose children take communion and whose children receive a blessing. I respect those recovering from addiction who cross their arms when the cup is presented. I am especially careful with the lady who still wears enormous hats because I can’t see the chalice once she tips her head down. I wipe the rim of the cup with the starched purificator while I turn it to offer the next person a clean place to sip, a precarious move when the chalice is overly full. I know to pick up a dropped wafer and eat it myself. At the end of communion, I drink whatever consecrated wine the ushers haven’t polished off which occasionally results in a mild rush of pre-coffee hour warmth coursing through my body.
I’m not sure what spurred me to leave my comfortable home in the choir stalls and venture behind the rail. It might have been because my father was ill and it would make him proud and I thought there might come a time when I would need to give him communion. (There was.) But the first time I served I was nervous. Having grown up in the days before female acolytes, it felt disconcerting to be on the other side of the rail, like being admitted to an exclusive club where I wasn’t sure I belonged. Suddenly I was a performer instead of an audience member. Would I drop something, spill something, forget my lines, accidentally bump into the rector as we did our carefully choreographed dance around the limited space of the altar?
I stopped being nervous the day I took pew communion to a woman in a wheelchair, a victim of cerebral palsy since birth. As I approached this woman and leaned down to offer her the wine, her spastic and gnarled fingers encircled the stem of the chalice, and she looked up at me with joy and wonderment in her face, smiled and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Something transpires in those moments. I honestly don’t know if it’s a passing breeze of the Holy Spirit or not, but I like to think it is. Either way, feeding another person in such an intimate manner can raise the hair on your arms or bring unexpected tears to your eyes. Stripped of our costumes and facades, we tentatively peek out from behind the veil of who we present to the world and for just a split second, acknowledge our desperate need of sustenance that can only be provided in this place.
Recently, our rector of over 20 years retired and as is the custom, the pastoral assistant and the deacon also resigned. The first communion I served without them felt strange, like the stars of the show were gone and it was up to the ensemble to keep the performance going. The altar seemed empty. The elderly supply priest’s hands shook as he consecrated the elements and filled just one of the cups, not realizing there were two chalicers. He moved slowly, deliberately, out of step with our normal dance along the rail, as I followed behind him with the wine. The other chalicer and I looked at each other as though we were kids left alone in the house for the first time without our parents—we’ll have to figure it out ourselves if something goes wrong.
We’re getting through these first Sundays on our own as a parish just as the disciples had to do after our Lord’s ascension. We’re still wandering around with that, “Ok, what now?” expression on our faces. Those of us who serve behind the rail are doing our best to smooth the way for the supply priests—reminding them about parishioners with special needs, where to find the gluten-free wafers and to be prepared for the little girl who loves to pass the peace and may suddenly reach across the rail with her hand outstretched saying, “Peace-y, peace-y, peace-y.”
Meanwhile, they keep coming every Sunday, filling in the rail from right to left, hesitating when there’s just a tight space left on the end, especially if they don’t know the person next to them. They eat the bread and drink the wine. Some cross themselves, some quietly hum the hymn being played. Others pause a few seconds to pray before rising to leave. Parents shepherd their children; the ushers assist older parishioners down those treacherous two steps into the sanctuary. I look out at the congregation to see how many are still coming and whether I need to replenish the wine in my chalice. There is enough. I follow the priest to the end of the rail, lower the cup and say, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
Anne Moul is a lifelong Episcopalian and retired music educator who is finally pursuing her dream of writing, with a special interest in creative non-fiction and personal essay. She grew up in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Columbia, PA and have been an active member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, York, PA since 1993. She thinks of erself as “pathologically Episcopalian.”