The first time I was asked to help serve communion, I declined.
It was at the annual conference of the national association of Episcopal Communicators, that year meeting in New York, and the conference Eucharist was being held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This was my first time with the Communicators, my first time to New York, and the whole thing just felt so huge, so legendary. (This was back in the post-Bernie Goetz years, so New York still had that crazy-random-dangerous vibe. So, you know, I was understandably nervous.)
As the conference group gathered at the cathedral, an in-charge man named Jim was moving around the crowd recruiting participants. I don’t imagine he had been told by God to ask me; he was just filling spots. But his invitation to “take one of the chalices” came as a shock.
What I said was something like “Oh. Thanks. Um. No, thanks.” What I was thinking was “Jesus. Are you kidding? Me? Here, in the cathedral? I’m a stranger…I wouldn’t know what to say…people might notice me…I might do it wrong.” Thanks anyway, but I’d rather not.
Then, immediately, as Jim moved on through the group, I started thinking: Rather not what? Get involved? Take part? I mean, how hard can it be? This is freaking St. John’s Cathedral! It was nice to be asked; nobody ever asks me to do anything. So I tracked Jim down and said, Actually: yes. Thank you.
I have no idea who preached, who presided, or what. But two snapshot-memories are burned on my mind. The first is me sunk deep in a choir stall up front, rehearsing over and over under my breath: the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation? The blood of Christ? The cup of salvation? The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.
The second memory is the hands. As I moved with the cup along the altar rail, I forgot to worry about forgetting my part. As the worshippers stood or knelt there, they held out their hands. And these hands–mostly those of strangers–were the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Large and small, callused and soft, nail-polished and plain: there was such sweetness in the way the hands received the bread, and helped guide the cup.
This experience, like the soft blow to a temple gong, has reverberated in my mind, on and on for nearly 25 years. Over the years, I have had many opportunities to serve worshippers at the altar rail. Sometimes they stride up and kneel with a thud and sometimes they seem to be tip-toeing, a little hesitant to bother anybody. But always, the hands they hold out don’t just receive. They create the moment. The liturgy is a work of the people, after all.