[Originally published in March 2015 as “First Communion”]
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6).
I remember the first time I received Holy Communion.
Growing up, I belonged to a Quaker church (sorry ‘meeting’), which meant that Communion was apparently too spiritual and immediate to be placed behind the interval of the fleshy bread and wine of such a common wooden Table. Traditionally, Quakers aren’t much for rituals and rites, even if such anti-sacramentalism has at times led to throwing the Baby out with the baptismal water. Regardless, my father had actually been a Quaker pastor in the early days, but he had by this time quit being a Quaker pastor and resigned to being only a part-time father. And this makes my first memory receiving Holy Communion all the more bazaar.
It was in a Roman Catholic church and I was there with my dad. I guess that is where Quakers who fall off the wagon go. [I once heard a wise Quaker say there are only two options: Quakerism and Catholicism. I actually think he is right, principally speaking, although I am no longer Quaker and still not Roman Catholic, and yet somehow deeply both.] I think my sister was there too. We were quite young. I am pretty sure it was my and Christi Anna’s first time stepping foot in a Roman Catholic church. It was, at any rate, the first time I ever felt the two extremes that characterize holy places: I felt at once like I absolutely did and absolutely did not belong there, which is exactly how grace feels.
But I don’t remember the experience in its entirety. Everything I remember is tethered to the moment I received the Elements. That memory still lingers like the strongest of wines.
Vaguely, the memory begins with my father insisting that we proceed from the pew toward the altar. He explained that we would be breaking the house rules by doing so, but only in the name of some other House and some other Rule. I don’t remember the details to that. I just remember that it was my responsibility to act as though I were entitled to receive whatever it was they were offering up front.
The priest made his way along the altar eventually arriving in my space. It however felt as though I had arrived in his space, or at least Someone else’s space. I can understand why some people take off their shoes in holy spaces. It’s because it feels like inhabiting Someone Else’s shoes. I also remember feeling perhaps for the first time the experience described in a song I had long sung. My heart was filled with the tension of fear and fear relieved the whole time, which is exactly how grace feels and perhaps why it feels amazing.
When I reached out and grabbed the wafer, breaking protocol (you’re supposed to receive it passively), three things were immediately clear. First, I had never done this. Second, the priest knew I had never done this. And perhaps in the way only a priest or a father could communicate this without saying anything, the third thing was that the priest was glad I was there and happy to help me break the rules. Apparently he and my father imagined some other present Order in that very Present moment.
The wine was so bitter, probably because I had never tasted wine but more probably because I was pretty sure someone said something about drinking blood. At any rate, this new wine has never ceased to linger in my memory like only the best wines linger. And it lingers sweetly. It is a favorite memory of mine. Maybe it was the strangeness of it all, the beauty of the cathedral, the fact that I was with my dad—I loved being with my dad—and with this priest—I also enjoyed this very odd man—and the fact that I felt more at home in that moment than I had in a very long time. Whatever it was, it was real like a lead bullet and sweet like my mother’s love, and I wouldn’t trade the memory of it for all the cathedrals in Rome.
So you can perhaps imagine how I must have felt last night when I was given an opportunity to stand in the place of a priest as a father and serve my firstborn son Holy Communion. We had just heard a wonderful sermon at Embrace Church by John Gallaher on Mark 2 about the man who was lowered by his friends through the roof to receive healing from Jesus (the same text I preached on for my candidating sermon at Crossroads). The faith of the community brought the man to Jesus and Jesus gave him more than their faith had asked for. Jesus forgave his sins and proved he could do so by healing his body. The religious leaders complained, but the man carrying his mat walking out the door did not complain. Neither did his friends. Faith always expects something from Jesus, but genuine faith does not complain about the mess of the overflow. I am not a Pentecostal, but I do not complain about Pentecostals.
During the sermon Kezek would not sit still, so I made paper airplanes to keep him busy. By the end of the sermon we had an entire fleet. John had asked a couple of us to serve Communion before the sermon, so after he finished Meredith C. and I proceeded to the front. Megan W. and Kezek got in line. Megan guardrailed Kezek forward. When he arrived at the front, Meredith knelt down, extended the loaf toward him and said, “The Body of Christ, broken for you.” He reached out and tore off a piece as though he were entitled to do so. He seemed to know exactly what to do according to the protocol of an open Table, according to some unspoken but known Rule of some unseen but present House.
He then took a couple lateral steps toward me. I knelt, extended the cup, and said, “The blood of Christ, shed for you, Kezek.” He looked at me I swear with a brand new set of eyes—like I was the same old father but also someone somehow entirely new—dipped the bread in the cup, put it in his mouth, took a few more steps, and knelt down on the altar. He knelt there like it was exactly where he belonged. And he miraculously stayed there, still, for about five seconds, while the King of the Universe tore an infinite wound in space and time and flooded the heart of a child with grace upon grace.
I can’t prove that that second miracle actually happened, but I believe it did, and it is in any case the best explanation for the first miracle of Kezek staying still for five seconds. And in a certain sense, it is the only thing I really know that happened last night. And it was a miracle.
If there is a single statement I am willing to die for in this world, it is the statement Jesus makes about children and about his kingdom. It is a statement that must be taken in its plainest sense, I mean plain like the periodic table, plain like the tables of the Law. It is elemental and concrete, smaller than any doctrinal statement and yet every doctrinal statement must bend itself around its basic claim. It is found in Luke 18, Matthew 18, Mark 10, and the entire Gospel of John. In Luke it goes something like this:
Jesus’ disciples have clocked out but people keep showing up at the office, mothers and children and all that racket. So the disciples start rebuking them. [I once heard a Calvinist argue that ‘some babies must be predestined to hell because otherwise Christians shouldn’t be against abortion since if all babies go to heaven Christians should therefore endorse abortion’. For the record, babies do not go to hell and Christ still condemns abortion, and probably that Calvinist too.] Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:15-17). In Matthew’s account He mentions tying a millstone around their necks and throwing them into the heart of the sea if they ever pull a stunt like that again. Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.
If you want to spend the rest of your life trying to wrap your mind around the Gospel of God that comes in the form of Christmas, Jesus’ teaching about children is a good place to begin, also to end.
The reason last night will exist in my memory as one of the most important moments in my life is because last night was the first time I really understood that leading children into the kingdom of God is the way God uses children to lead adults into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Last night I grew up and became a priest. But then I learned how to become a child by watching my child enter the kingdom and remembering what it was like to receive the kingdom as though I were entitled to it, by grabbing it as though it were already mine. Last night I remembered that in Christ the whole kingdom is already mine, because it is always already His.
I remembered that God comes to us only as grace, and that children do not complain that God comes to us only as grace. Children do not deny their need for grace, only adults. No child has ever argued against original sin, but a lot of adults have. Because being an adult means defending yourself. Adults can become so powerful in their defense that they manage to hold at bay the entire kingdom of God. “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church” (Mt. 16:18), but that does not mean I can’t keep the gates of my heart locked. It doesn’t mean I can’t enter the gates of hell just as freely as I can enter the gates of heaven. It does not mean I cannot grow old.
I was reminded last night that to enter the kingdom of God I had to open myself up with something like the unflinching vulnerability of a defenseless child, or that of a crucified God. I had to become open to grace like I needed it. Jesus opened himself up to nails like he needed them. Opening up to grace feels like opening up to nails before you do it, but then somehow feels like a shower after, like Jesus on his walk up Golgotha but then like the soldier on the way back down (Jn. 19:34).
One time as a child I broke my toe while trespassing with my godless brother and sister and cousins (I was the youngest and had not yet, like them, lost my innocence) in a foam factory that may as well have been Disney World. We lied and said I had broke it while playing on a brick pile. After it swelled up like a light bulb my dad came at me with the leather punch out on a Swiss Army knife to drain the fluid, like a soldier with a sword but more like a father whose heart hurt like my toe, but worse. As he twisted metal into my flesh out came the crimson flow and with it like a Siamese twin my confession. I confessed that we were all liars and nothing in my life has ever felt as good as that knife and that confession. Nothing has ever felt more like grace either. It was amazing relief in the form of blood spattering all over the place. And it came only when the one I trusted most stabbed me in the place that hurt the worst, the place full of blood and water and sin and death. That was the place I received grace, dark red forgiveness. But I had to make an effort to open myself up like a child again, because I had lied and lost my innocence. I had closed myself up like and begun to grow old.
Kezek helped me open up again last night. And I can say that this is one of the few times I did not complain about my need to open up, to be wounded, and to be healed. When my time came to take the Elements, I confessed to God that I am a liar and it felt so relieving and so bloody to do so. It was amazing relief.
I also remembered last night that there are a lot of things I ask of Jesus, and that Jesus is always giving me more than I ask for, even if that means sometimes he does not give me exactly what I ask for. I remembered that I need a community of people to lead me to him and to lead my children to him, not because Jesus needs a community to accomplish his work, rather because Jesus’ work accomplishes community, because it is the work of receiving people, which is the hardest work of all. I remembered last night that God’s House is community (Eph. 2; 1 Cor. 6; 1 Pet. 2, etc. etc. etc.), and that Jesus is our Host (Mt. 26:26-27; Mk. 14:22-23; Lk. 22:19-20).