Thursday, October 22, 2009
At the funeral of a deeply loved family friend a couple of years ago, I took communion for the first time in decades. Anyone who knows me is aware that religion plays no part in my life, especially organized religion, but I did it for Bobbie. She had, after all, taken me out for peppermint ice cream at the Old Meeting House and presented me with a prayer book after my first communion, so I thought this would be a very nice closure in a circle-of-life kind of way.
Even Other Bill, who’s Jewish, went up to the altar with me, knelt down and got blessed by the priest. No body and blood of Christ for him, though.
Communion was a big deal growing up. Like it or not, we attended confirmation classes, where we all thanked God we were Episcopalian and not Catholic, because catechism took so much longer, was so much more involved, and we’d gotten word that nuns would crack you across the knuckles with rulers if you stumbled while reciting a creed.
I don’t remember much about confirmation classes. We had a very liberal deacon who showed us religious 16mm movies, and then, because we were eleven-year-olds, he’d show the movie backwards. Nothing like watching people spitting wine back into the chalice and the body of Christ back into the priest’s hand to lighten up an evening. And by the way, have you ever watched an hour-long movie backwards? After you stand up and leave the room, you feel like you should be walking backwards. It’s very dizzying; kind of like getting off the Tilt-a-Whirl.
One thing I do remember about confirmation classes was that there was some memorization, mostly creeds. All I remember now are the Nicene Creed, and um, the Apollo Creed. I also remember being shocked to learn that Pontius Pilate (who I thought was named “Conscious Pilot” (apparently now an extinct breed) never flew an airplane in his life.
My sister had graduated from confirmation class 3 years before and was partaking of the body and blood of Christ, and didn’t she think she was hot stuff to being allowed to drink wine. A priest feeding alcohol to a minor: Why does that just not sound right these days? But that was the big deal about your first communion: your first taste of alcohol.
I had talked to my best friend, a Methodist and was kind of grossed out to learn that at their communion, they gave out grape juice in little cups. Nobody sipped from the chalice. Just a cracker and a sip of Welch’s from a tiny plastic Nurse Ratchet pill cup that you tossed in a can on your way back to your pew. Apparently the Methodist version of Jesus was a teetotaler; no booze running through his veins. It seemed very cold and impersonal to me. There were no plastic cups at the Last Supper.
I’ve been reading that more churches are shelving the chalice and moving to the little pill cups, due to sanitation issues, especially now that the H1N1 flu is in full swing. That little napkin the priest uses to wipe the lipstick off the chalice isn’t exactly an autoclave, you know. And alcohol doesn’t kill all viruses. If it did, no gay man would ever have gotten AIDS, nor would have any Episcopalian. But I kind of like the chalice. It instills in me as a parishioner a sort of family belonging. It puts the “commune” in “communion.”
Long before I took confirmation classes, I thought that people were actually eating pieces of Jesus and drinking his actual blood. After all, up at the altar, the priest gave you a little disk that my sister always said tasted like envelope glue, and said, “The body of Christ.” They never asked if you wanted white or dark meat. That was followed by a sip of wine and the priest saying, “The blood of Christ.” I couldn’t logically figure out how there was so much Jesus to go around. There ware so many churches. You’d have thought by then they’d have run out of Jesus pieces. But I just chalked it up with one of the mysteries of life, like Santa Claus. You’re telling me one man drops by every house on planet earth and leaves presents for children he met just two weeks before at Monkey Wards?
It wasn’t until later when I learned that communion was just a symbolic ritual, and not the actual chunk o’ Christ. So you had envelope glue body, cheap port wine for blood, so why not fried pork rinds, too? “The body of Christ, the blood of Christ, and the skin of Christ." Would you like to see a dessert menu?” Hey, if you’re tithing 10% of your income, there should be a Buffet of Christ. Or at least a Snack Bar of Christ. Let’s all go to the altar to get ourselves a treat.
I do remember my first communion, and uncharacteristic of me, I looked forward more to tasting that wafer than the wine. But it was not to be. I don’t know what happened; maybe the church ran out of hosts, but that night we were served little chunks of bagels instead of envelope glue wafers. What, no whitefish salad to go on this? And which way to the pickle bar, dawlink? I thought it was kind of classy and inclusive, and I’m pretty sure that Jesus, as a Jew, would have given it his full endorsement.
As it turned out, I discovered during my second communion that I actually liked the taste of the wafers, those body of Christ substitutes, and I rediscovered that flavor once again at Bobbie’s funeral. So at my next party I’m serving cheeses on Jesus. I can walk around with a tray with brie and Stilton cheese topped on the wafer of Christ, and offer, in my best Don Pardo voice: “Aaaand here’s your host!”
To accommodate this, I have learned that through the miracle of the Internet, you can actually order those tasty wafers for a fraction of the price of Triscuits. You can get a thousand of them, gluten-free, if you want, for less than twenty bucks. Some are still made by cloistered nuns. You can’t say that about Triscuits. The only thing that comes close is the Keebler elves.
Apparently the people I love most, Quebecers, have already adopted Body of Christ Chips as a diet snack food. If you don’t believe me, go here: http://www.dailygrail.com/node/2453.
Leave it to the snowbirds to find something cheap to fill their guts with.
Despite the sad occasion, it was nice being back at St. John’s, the church I grew up in. It was nice to get a little reminder-taste of the Son of God. And I don’t think I would shock myself if the next time I’m in Tampa on a Sunday, I found myself wanting to attend mass. I sure did enjoy the choir.
But maybe I’ll wait until next summer, after the Swine Flu is on the decline.
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