by Jennifer Phillips
Why do they come and not receive? Why do they come and receive when not baptized?
Today a visitor appeared at the rail with hands out and I fed her not knowing who she might be- after the service she came and told me she was Jewish, a friend of someone who had recommended she visit, and hoped she hadn’t offended by coming forward but she had a sense of the presence of God in the service and sermon, (which was on the Good Samaritan and the blessing brought by the hated outdsider/’unbeliever’) and thought it would be right to do what others were doing around her. So I reassured her that God might draw people to the altar in many ways and she shouldn’t worry, and that I’d love to sit down with her and tell her more about church and our customs and beliefs if she’d like. Who knows what grace passed to her this morning? I trust the power of Christ in the Sacrament in any case.
I have a Presbyterian wife of a member who is on chemotherapy and who comes forward for a blessing- not ready to join the church just yet, but a believer, a bit fearful of eating or drinking anything other people have handled.
I have, on the other hand, a school child whose parents are of two different faiths, in the midst of a contested divorce, and one parent has refused to let the child be baptized though she desires it (about 9) and her other parent brings her to church regularly. I giver her Communion before her baptism, knowing her great desire to be baptized, to be close to God through Jesus, and to belong fully to our church community awaiting the resolution of the parental conflict before baptizing her, since to do so may endanger custody for the member parent – and she doesn’t understand all these legal parental issues.
I have a member going through a crisis of faith who comes to the rail to be blessed but in good conscience does not think himself in a state to receive the Sacrament. We are having ongoing conversations. In the meantime I am happy to touch and bless this pained person who still desires the connection of the community on a visceral level.
I have some Spanish members who come from a Catholic tradition of first Communion at 7 and bring their children to the rail with them, but haven’t yet come to understand our belief and polity and practice – it will take them a little time to absorb, and in the meantime, I will bless their children.
I have a Roman Catholic spouse of a member who in her good conscience doesn’t feel she can receive, yet wants to accompany her ancient spouse to the rail and kneel beside him – I bless her there; I think it would feel unkind to present the elements with the word of administration knowing she believed yet didn’t feel permitted to take them.
All sorts and conditions of people are drawn to the rail for all sorts of reasons conscious and unconscious, in a great variety of states of preparedness and unpreparedness. There’s always lots of teaching going on to help form people in our sacramental life, but the plain truth is that the power of God in the liturgy touches, moves, transforms, and attracts people right then, and at the rail doesn’t seem a good place to question beyond “do you desire to receive the Body of Christ?” At the heavenly throne I’d much rather be explaining why I fed some people inappropriately than why I failed to feed some who hungered and thirsted for God and put their hands out; and I’d rather give an extra blessing with a touch to someone who is drawn forward than explain they should be satisfied with a general blessing at the end. Like grain, in full measure, poured out, spilling over into one’s lap, this love and graciousness of God in the sacrament of the altar.
The Rev. Jennifer Phillips has been the rector of St. Francis Church, Rio Rancho, NM for two years, and served a 12 year term on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. She is a past APLM Board member, and an Associate of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and a poet. She has helped author many contemporary liturgical texts now in use in the Episcopal Church.