Thursday, April 05, 2007

Drinking the Divine

I believe in the Real Presence.

According to Wikipedia:

The Real Presence is the term various Christian traditions use to express their belief that, in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is really (and not merely symbolically, figuratively, or by his power) present in what was previously just bread and wine.

I don’t know whether this belief will sound strange to you or not. If you are Catholic, or a high-church Episcopalian, it probably won’t.

But it still seems strange to me—even now, over a decade after I first began to experience… something…in the Eucharist.

I grew up in the Church of Christ. If you aren’t familiar with that particular branch of Christendom, just imagine a Southern Baptist Church without any instrumental music or choirs and you’ve got the idea. (One of these days, I’ll write a treatise on the whole instrumental music thing. If you didn’t grow up in the CofC, it will seem very bizarre to you.)

In a nutshell---Middle class, very white, male-dominated, fundamentalist, and certain that they are the only ones going to heaven.

The CofC is unique (to my knowledge) among fundamentalist churches in that it offers communion every Sunday. It is presented as “The Lord’s Supper”—a memorial meal, rather than a direct experience of the divine. When I was growing up, it consisted of matzo crackers and thimble-sized plastic cups of Welch’s grape juice. I would be greatly surprised if that has changed.

The Lord’s Supper was a key part of our worship service each Sunday, and it always seemed important to me. As in almost all Christian churches, participation was reserved to those who had been baptized. The CofC acknowledges only “believer’s baptism”—meaning that you have to be old enough to profess your faith publicly—so your “first communion” (not that they would call it that) usually comes in your early adolescence.

I was baptized at a Wednesday night service when I was 13, and I can still remember the excitement of being able to take the Lord’s Supper for the first time the following Sunday.

What I remember most was the unusual taste of the matzo—no salt.

When I came to the Episcopal Church in my early 30s, it immediately felt like home to me—in spite of the presence of an organ and choir (not to mention the fact that a woman was leading the service). Communion was the same—or at least I thought so initially—and it was the central piece of the worship. Comfortable. Familiar. Important.

But something began to happen to me when I partook of the body and blood of Christ in the little grey stone church that had called me in out of the spiritual wilderness. Something different. Something unusual. Something that was almost inexplicable, and made me wonder whether anyone would believe me if I even tried to explain it.

As we sang the “Alleluia” after the consecration, and the priest said “The gifts of God, for the people of God,” the air around me grew electric. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck began to stand on end. I got goose flesh all over my body.

Eleven years later, it still happens. Not every time—if I am very tired or distracted by my children or my worries, it may not. But most times it does. It doesn’t seem to matter who celebrates the Eucharist, either. I have felt it in churches I have only visited once, after mediocre sermons that did not move me and music that didn’t do much for me either.

I do not believe that what I experience is my mind playing tricks on me. I also do not believe that it is magic.

I believe that what I experience is holy—that it is, indeed, the presence of God, making Herself known to us in the breaking of the bread and the waterfall of wine into the chalice.

And I have come to believe that this is possible because intention matters. I think now that, surrounded by the faithful who long for true communion with the One who made them, the priest’s belief in what she is doing interconnects with the Divine will-to-be-known and creates something amazing and life-giving and wonderful.

I believe that experience is reciprocal, as well. Author Nora Gallagher writes of her experiences as a lay Eucharistic minister at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California:

Each person takes a sip of wine, then leaves of smudge of lips or lipstick on the cup’s silver rim. I wipe it off with a purificator, turn the cup, and serve the next person. Normally, I like the rhythm of serving, cleaning, and turning (the motion is like that of a bartender polishing a glass, but today I’m absorbed by those traces of lips. I find them hard to erase…

…In the midst of the prayer, I remember an article about Mary Leakey and the footprint of an ape she found in Africa preserved in a stretch of mud. From the imprint of the heel, Leakey concluded the ape had walked upright: she was Lucy, the first human ancestor. Each smudge on the cup, each trace of lips, is like that mark in the mud, I realize, a distinctive human print that remains, or stubbornly wishes to remain, on the eternal, after it has been drunk and passed on.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith

I experience God in the Eucharist—and I believe that God experiences me, as well. For it is at that point in my week that I am most open to God’s presence. Surrounded by the community of faith that I love, eager for the connection to God to be renewed in a way that I can feel it.

When I press my lips to the chalice, I am drinking the Divine.

And as the wine burns a trail down my throat, God enters into my life in ways I cannot explain. My lip prints on the chalice bind me to Her—more tightly than any chains could ever do. These are the chains of love, and the binding is welcome.

The experience is all the more meaningful because it is embedded in the most mundane human actions—eating and drinking—and the most common materials.

We live in a complex age that prizes the intricate and the complicated. We sneer at things (and people) we consider to be “simple”—priding ourselves on our advanced state of development. Even our food is fancy.

For example, our local food critic recently raved about the “marine sweetness of crabmeat against the earthy sweetness of taro root in cakes delicately crusted in Panko” (whatever that is), but you don’t hear much about the meat-n-three down on the corner. Lowly bread and wine wouldn’t even register on the scale.

It is almost a scandal—over and beyond the crazy theological aspect of it—that God would deign to reveal Himself in ordinary bread and cheap wine. Why…those things are available to just about anyone!

Kind of like grace.

As the priest looks into my eyes and chants “Corpus Christi custodiat te in vitam aeternam,” I give thanks for the bread and the wine and I feel the grace. Know that I am beloved of God. Touch eternity.