In waves the parishioners rise from their seats, walk to the front of the sanctuary and stand shoulder to shoulder in a horseshoe. The Episcopal priest in his colorful vestments and the white-robed Eucharistic ministers make their way from each end of the arc to the middle proffering bread and wine.
In his hands the priest holds a serving plate with half a loaf of bread. “The body of Christ,” he says as he steps along the loop, balancing the plate while tearing off a chunk of bread, stopping in front of each parishioner to look him or her in the eyes and place the bread into waiting hands. When my row rises and steps forward, I squeeze next to strangers finding myself far from the altar. I wait holding one open palm atop the other, placing myself in this circle of unfamiliar people, thinking about what it means to act as the body.
I drop my hands as the priest approaches me, already offering the bread from his hand, already speaking: “The body…” I take a half-step forward, lean toward him and interrupt with, “May I have gluten-free please?” He nods, drops the bread back on the plate, turns away and leaves the circle, walking twenty or so feet back to altar table where he picks up a thin round wafer from a tiny plate and returns to me.
“The body of Christ,” he says.
“Amen,” I answer and let the insubstantial wafer rest in my palm. Nearly everyone eats the bread once they receive it, and then tips the chalice held by the Eucharistic minister to their lips, sipping wine from the common cup. I do not. I’m a twenty-five year intinction Methodist, transplanted to a new region of the country and new denomination.
My prayer partner visited me shortly after I moved to Puget Sound two years ago and accompanied me on my first visit to this church. We were among the last to take Holy Communion, the cup of wine nearly empty. “The backwash of Christ,” she whispered to me with uncharacteristic irreverence after we both drank. The next time I worshiped here, I noticed several people hold onto their bread and dip it into the chalice, so I returned to intinction.
Now, when the robed server stands before me with a gleaming silver chalice, saying, “The blood of Christ,” I don’t dip my wafer into the wine. I answer with, “May I have the other cup please?”
Like the priest, she nods, returns her chalice to the altar table, picks up a small glazed-pottery goblet and brings it to me. “The blood of Christ,” she says, lifting it toward my mouth. I dip my crispy wafer into the juice and say “Amen.”
I chew slowly and swallow, remembering the taste of wheat, nearly thirty years of savoring monthly Communion at my church in California’s Bay Area with thick chewy bread in my mouth: French, sourdough, even King’s Hawaiian. I remember how personally I experienced the sacrament: kneeling at the altar rail as a new mother, praying as the spongy bread softened on my tongue, yeast on my taste buds, tears on my face, overwhelmed at what it meant to be loved unconditionally by God and feeling a fraction of that ferocity and tenderness in the way I loved my own child.
Years later, accompanied by the ordained elder pastoring with me, I stood in front of that congregation—reduced by difficult times to two to three dozen—as their pastor, offering the body and blood of Christ, or the bread of salvation and the cup of the new covenant, depending on our liturgy. I knew each person by name, most of them well, and it was the act of sharing this meal together, the unbroken legacy of centuries that we participated in and perpetuated that meant most to me. For a hundred years, others had stood under this same roof, sharing the loaf and the cup, and others would take our place when we were gone.
“Isabel,” I would say, “this is the body of Christ, given in love for you,” after she had walked up the aisle with her cane, the last of her friends still living, still attending worship. “Maureen,” I would say, as she stood before me, pale but smiling in her wig, recovering from her latest round of chemo, “This is the bread of salvation offered in love for you.”
After we served everyone else, Dwight or Clyde and I presented one another with the elements. Even though I discovered partway through my ministry that I was gluten-intolerant, I ate that sacramental bread. We celebrated Communion only on the first Sunday of each month, so I tore a tiny piece from the loaf. I bit down on Jesus. I could taste history in those loaves, even if it was only my own.
Isabel and Maureen are dead, and I am nine hundred miles from my old home, everything and everyone in the Pacific Northwest new to me. I taste nothing now but my own discomfort.
I tried for more than a year to participate in the weekly Eucharist the way I had in California, by eating from the common loaf. When the bread was placed in my open palms, I’d cup them together, discretely rip a small bite from the generous portion I received, and pocket the remainder. I dipped my downsized portion into the wine and relished the tangy yeast and zingy wine in my mouth, feeling like I belonged, despite the fact I only recognized two faces in a sea of several hundred.
After worship, I’d toss the rest of my bread, now hardened, into the forest bordering the parking lot recalling a former pastor’s instructions that unused elements must be returned to the earth. I imagined crows or squirrels eating my crumbs and absorbing blessing.
By Sunday evening I developed canker sores, a migraine, and digestive distress. Clearly, I couldn’t keep eating wheat, but I didn’t know how to take communion without it, even though I had seen something in the bulletin about gluten-dairy-soy-free wafers being available. I didn’t know who or how to ask.
One Sunday I found myself at the 8 a.m. service. There were two-dozen worshipers and we all fit into one semi-circle. I saw the associate priest reach for a tiny plate resting on the larger one and offer a wafer to another parishioner. When my turn came, I asked for a gluten-free wafer. Like the woman across from me, I dipped it into the common cup.
Soon that priest moved to another church and a new one came. He did not carry the little plate, but now looking carefully, I saw it on the table. I also saw another woman receive the only wafer on the plate that morning. I was afraid to ask, afraid to embarrass myself, or him, or those who’d prepared the elements, wondering if they would simply say sorry, or if they would forage in the kitchen and keep everyone waiting to attend to me.
I pocketed the entire piece of bread and sipped from the common cup.
I sat closer to the altar at the main service the following Sunday and scanning the table, saw a dozen wafers on a small plate. Emboldened by my early morning experience, I interrupted the priest as he held out bread to ask for gluten-free. The Eucharistic minister following him asked if I would like the other chalice (which the bulletin hadn’t mentioned).
The chalice she offered held grape juice, not wine, and hadn’t been used for intinction with the wheat bread. Coming from Wesleyan (Methodist) Temperance roots, I was used to grape juice. In fact Welch’s grape juice arose from the need for “unfermented sacramental wine,” and recovering alcoholics have found a welcome home among Methodists, a home that does not require them to stand with arms crossed over their chests while a cup is presented before them with the words, “The blood of Christ.” A cup, which in many churches, passes by those who don’t or can’t drink alcohol.
I expected to be a bit lost, a little confused, as I familiarized myself with the different flow of worship, new prayers, and new songs. What I didn’t expect was my ambivalence about participating in the part of worship I used to love most. When the time comes to take my place in the communion circle, I remember my former church, how we presented ourselves at the altar two-by-two, elements within easy reach. I consider remaining seated, swiveling my knees aside as the pew empties past me. Feasting with my eyes seems easier.
Despite the church’s attempt to include me and others with dietary restrictions, I feel singled out and conspicuous, calling attention to my own needs, interrupting the flow of worship around the circle of bodies receiving the sacrament as the servers trot back and forth (I seem never to get close to the altar) with my special elements—elements that I also note have not been lifted up and blessed during the words of institution along with the wheat and wine, but have been quietly slipped onto the table. But I want this holy sacrament more than I want to be anonymous.
One morning I am so close the altar, I am slightly behind it. I watch the gluten-free plate emptying as several hundred parishioners are served Communion. That plate is empty when the server, a retired clergywoman approaches me with a loaf of bread in her hand.
As she stands before me, I am keenly aware of the gap between my desire to be known and fully part of this particular body of Christ, and the ways in which my post-pastoral-burnout, introverted nature, and dietary restrictions keep me from the inclusion I crave. It would be easy to take the bread and pocket it, to toss it in the woods after the service, to leave starved by my fear of asking for hospitality.
Instead, I ask for a gluten-free wafer, watch the server walk back to the altar table, find the empty plate, then open several drawers (which I now can see, too, from my vantage point behind the table). She pulls out a glass jar with dozens of tiny wafers stacked inside, opens it, and shakes one into her palm.
I hold out my cupped palms, grateful. I ask the chalice-bearer for the other cup, dunk into the juice, and place the wet wafer on my tongue, tasting in its blandness my utter need for this exact grace.