I got to church very late last Sunday. So late, in fact, that the minister was leaving the pulpit precisely as I arrived. I know that in many congregations people might think I’d missed the most important, the central feature of the service–the Preaching of the Word.
But at my home congregation in Michigan the central event of worship is Communion, the Eucharistic feast. And that central event is practiced in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere. Rather than partaking of the elements in our seats–alone and silently, as in most Protestant congregations–we slowly make our way to the front of the church and form a circle around the altar.
And when I say slowly, I mean slooooooooowly. It’s a mid-sized congregation–maybe three hundred people in a service–and it takes a good half hour to form, dissolve, and reform four or five circles.
My children have no patience for this. They subscribe to the in-and-out-in-an-hour theory of worship. The shorter the better.
But I love the communion circles. Standing next to me this Sunday is a high schooler who was in the first Kindergartener Sunday School class I taught. He towers over me–at least 6’ 5”–and he doesn’t recognize me. Across the circle is a woman who was on my freshman dorm floor in college–we meet eyes and smile. To my right is a young family, the mother holding a baby not more than a few weeks old. An elder walks around the circle. She’s the designated “Child Blesser” for this service–an actual title!–and she softly lays a hand on each child’s back or top of the head, names each one aloud, then offers a short, personal blessing.
Half a loaf of bread and an earthenware chalice make their way around the circle. As the bread reaches me I tear off a small piece and look into the eyes of the person offering it.
“This is the body of Christ, broken for us,” she says.
“Amen,” I assent, and turn to offer the bread to the person on my other side.
Then the chalice. She holds it steady while I dip my bread. “This is the blood of Christ, shed for us.”
I fold my hands close to my heart and let my gaze rest on familiar faces. Some are somber, even grieving. Some are joyful, faces radiant. Some look with love and longing and hope on the faces of their children. Some look upward, toward the Pentecost banners–tongues of fire swooping toward us. By the time I make it back to my seat, my own face is wet with tears.
I have been part of this congregation long enough to know some of the stories of loss and grief these people carry in their hearts to the altar. And yet we keep showing up–late, perhaps–but forming the circle, passing the bread, blessing the children.
And that is enough.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.