by Robert Morris Kennedy
As a latecomer to the Episcopal Church, I approached the Eucharist for the first time with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism and anticipation.
I grew up in a Baptist sect in rural Florida that reveled in its austerity. No musical instruments. No professional clergy. No Sunday school, dancing or drinking; although smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
No baptizing babies and small children either; only those mature enough to make a commitment were welcomed into the fold. I never made that leap, so I could not receive communion, a ceremony enacted once or twice a year.
Although their theology did not hold me, one thing left deep impression. That was how the preachers were encouraged not to prepare some fixed sermon, but to rely on inspiration. They let the Holy Ghost take the lead. Typically they’d begin, much like soul singers of the day, in a quiet, pensive, conversational tone that grew ever more intense, culminating in a cathartic, revelatory message that often left my mother in tears.
I never let go of the notion that a feeble human being could commune directly with the power behind all we see and know, like a surfer cascading across a wall of water pitched up along the shoreline by the fathomless ocean. This led me first to Buddhist meditation then Quakerism, both of which have strengthened and shaped my faith ever since.
To this day I love to sit in a quiet church, wait for the inner noise of daily life to subside, and let myself be open to God in a listening prayer. Indeed, the profound silence of a snow-hushed morning during a Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia inspired me to give the Bible a second look, setting the stage for what happened next.
Time passed. My wife Sara and I had our first child, a baby girl. A chance encounter with an Episcopal priest’s wife at a YMCA water-babies class led us to visit the Church of the Advent, in Hatboro, Pa. I remember being anxious about communion, wondering if I would have to deal with the idea that wine and bread were transformed on the altar into the actual blood and flesh of Christ. I listened intently as Fr. Randy Williamson intoned the celebration of the Eucharist, and I was relieved to hear him say “Do this for the remembrance of me.’’ Good, I thought. I can do this. Soon after, my daughter Clare and I were baptized in the same ceremony.
In 1987 our little family returned to my home state of Florida, and joined what is now Tampa’s St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church, a blend of two congregations. We’ve been there ever since.
On a recent Sunday I served as the Eucharistic Minister, something I had not done in quite a while. The priest moved down the rail offering the bread to those kneeling there, and I followed with the chalice, extending it or taking the wafer from the person, dipping it in the wine, then putting it on their tongue, saying, “The blood of Christ; the cup of salvation.’’
The faces became a blur in my effort to keep up. Then, with final prayers and a few announcements, it was over. Julius James, our resident jazz pianist, fired up one last gospel tune, I snuffed out the altar candles and the congregation headed to the Parish Hall for a snack.
Later that day I ambled along Bay Shore Boulevard taking in the water, wind and fading sunset. I mentally repeated a simple prayer as I wound through a shifting stream of bicyclists, skaters and runners. The sidewalk became a linear labyrinth for meditation that turned to communion. I knew something had gone wrong.
The first time I served as Eucharistic Minister, each encounter along the altar rail felt sacred. Not so that morning. In my nervous rush, the words “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation’’ had become a rote formula. I might as well have been a cashier saying “Have a nice day.’’
I mulled over the words from the Book of Common Prayer slowly, as if listening to an eight-word poem.
The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.
Blood. So essential to our survival that we pair it with life itself in the word “lifeblood,’’ and donate it by the pint to save others. It provides vitality, nutrition and protection. And yet, it is also nature’s crimson warning sign of trauma and imminent death, so alarming that a red crosses a universal sign for emergency health care.
Of course, I thought, the Blood of Christ is something far different. This is suffering, sacrifice and death on a divine level. The Blood of Christ is the Blood of God, the Blood of the Spirit that animates all creation. Eternity distilled.
What of the cup? The rim of our chalice is a circle – an ancient symbol of union, wholeness and fulfillment. And the other communion element forms a circle as well, the round, cross-marked wafer.
Wheat, salt, oil and water are baked into a halo, the bread of Heaven, emblematic of Christ incarnate among us. Eating this wine-stained wafer testifies to our bond with Jesus, the flesh and blood man and also the embodiment of “I Am,’’ source of all that is, seen and unseen, done and undone, created, destroyed and yet to be.
We take communion in remembrance of Jesus, and he, in turn, calls upon us to live in the knowledge that, while we move through time and space, were not bound by them. Holiness abides within all of us, a sacred realm we Christians call the Kingdom of God. We need only have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Too often, in my haste I forget this.
Robert Morris Kennedy is a lifelong journalist in Tampa, FL, who attends St. James Episcopal House of Prayer. He was a reporter and editor at newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania, and has had fiction and poetry published in several literary journals as well. These days he writes on his own.