from Lauren Winner’s Still
January 24th, 2012 by admin
An Episcopal church in a small town in upstate New York has asked me to come preach. The town is home to two vineyards, there seem to be more maple trees than people, and the church is bedecked Gothic revival, all arches and parapets and stone sinews you can see. I find myself wanting to move here the minute I arrive.
At the Eucharist, I serve as a chalice bearer, following along behind the priest, offering the cup of wine to parishioner after parishioner. Some clasp the cup and guzzle with what looks like relish; some are daintier, more polite, as though handling fine crystal; some don’t touch the chalice to their lips but, practicing what’s called intinction, dip the wafer into the wine and then consume the crimsoned host. I don’t know the people in this congregation: I don’t know anything about the triplets who sport pink glasses and bobs like cloche hats; I don’t know anything about the man with one arm, or the college-aged woman who surely shops at thrift stores, today clad in a polyester pantsuit circa 1969, the jacket and pants and blouse all squash-colored yellow with cinnamon trim. And it is only later, after I ask the priest, that I learn something about the elderly couple who, near the end of the Communion train, come to the rail and kneel, fragile as mushrooms.
What I learn later is that for a dozen years, he has been afflicted by a wasting disease, an intestinal disease that makes it almost impossible for him to eat—he lives on Ensure and lemonade. But at the altar I don’t yet know that, I only know what I see: they each take a wafer from the priest; and when I come to them with the chalice, the wife dips as I say “The Blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life,” and she eats her wafer, and then her husband likewise intincts his round of Christ’s Body into the wine and then he hands the round of Body and Blood to his wife and she eats his wafer for him. There at the Communion rail, I don’t yet know what illness lies behind this gesture, I know only the couple’s hands and mouths, and that I am seeing one flesh. I have read about this, heard sermons about a man and a woman becoming one flesh; and here at the altar, I see that perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy myself: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion.