Personal Jesus 4: Do This In Remembrance

The latest installment in an irregular series of reflections on conservative Christianity and its legacy. Part one. Part two. Part three.

I have to admit that one of the motivating factors behind my visit to the Episcopal church on Good Friday was that I knew it was the one day of the liturgical year that I would not possibly have to figure out what to do if offered communion.

It does not seem to be a usual thing, to do Christian communion in UU churches now. (Probably someone will pop in here now and tell me that their congregation does it every week, because it is so hard to make generalizations about what UU’s do or don’t do.) Oh, my home congregation does harvest communion every fall, passing around tiny cubes of pumpkin bread and putting sweet apple cider in the thimble-sized communion glasses inherited from one or the other of our parent churches. It is a ritual, it is a sharing of the plate and cup in community, it is a remembrance of things for which we are grateful. But it is not the same thing as Christian communion, which is why I have never had any problem participating.

The church in which I grew up and was baptized practiced closed communion, which for those unfamiliar with the terminology means that participation in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper was restricted, in this case to baptized members of that particular congregation. They were pretty emphatic about the restriction; taking communion without being baptized into that community (and by implication, understanding and agreeing to their theology) was a sure way of bringing down the wrath of the Angry God upon your head. When I was baptized I understood that I could now take communion in that church, but that I must never take communion in any other church for one of two reasons: first, because some other churches (like the Catholics down the road) restricted communion to their own members; second, and more insidiously, because there were still other churches who would offer communion to Just Anybody and … this was somehow a bad thing that I mustn’t participate in. Because other churches don’t believe the right things, and if you take communion with them then you’re saying that you believe in what they believe in, and if you do that then YOU are going to Hell and shut up, that’s why.

I remember taking communion in my childhood church, once or twice, and then I don’t remember it happening, which seems odd now. They didn’t have it every Sunday, maybe it was once a month or once a quarter, but it was infrequent enough that I would not have noticed at the time had my mother conveniently arranged for me not to be present when it was offered. In any case by the time I was into my teens I would not have wanted to: my beliefs had diverged far enough by then that I think I would have excused myself just in case.

I always did take religion a little too seriously.

I remember years later, as I was beginning to explore Paganism, coming to the radical-to-me understanding that anything breadlike, being made of grain, was the Body of the Earth and therefore of God/dess, and that any drinkable liquid contained some measure of water which was the Blood of Life itself, and that therefore I could, if I wanted to, observe the ritual of communion in the name of whatever deity I pleased with whatever food and drink I had to hand. I remember doing so, then and there, with a packet of busted saltine crackers and a dixie cup of tap water, an act of giddy defiance in a seedy motel room halfway between nowhere and nowhere else.

So it’s not the bread, or the wine, or the Mystery that unsettles me so.

There go those perverse theological tentacles again. As an adult I might understand the difference between open and closed communion well enough to respect the privacy of the closed table for its participants, but why should the thought of approaching the open table still leave me trembling with a sort of visceral fear for which I have no logic and no words?

I had the privilege of attending a UU Christian Communion service back in January, which is possibly one of the most difficult ways I have been led on this strange journey. I was not sure I wanted to; actually, I wanted not to have anything to do with it but there it was and the presence that makes me do inexplicable things kept prodding me until I agreed to go (albeit with shaky hands and wide tearful eyes.) And so, in the circle with strangers and student colleagues and faculty and a few dear friends, one of whom held my hand through the entire service (possibly so I would not bolt from the room), I whispered words from the Bible and shared the bread and cup.

And nothing terrible happened. It was as safe a spiritual space as any Pagan circle I have participated in; that’s what it most reminded me of.  Rambo Jesus and the Angry God did not show up to cast the unbelievers into eternal torment for doing it wrong, after all.  Not that I actually expected them to crash the party.  But some small wounded creature in my soul still has one watchful eye turned toward the door, just in case they should show up.

Perhaps I dared in the first place, despite my irrational fear, because it was in keeping with the old, strict rubric: “unitarian” and “universalist” are accurate ways of describing (at least part of) my personal theology, and so Christian communion in the Unitarian (and) Universalist tradition would not pull down fire upon my head for a mismatch (and I am surprisingly unworried about out-and-out heresy these days.) Perhaps it was instead, or also, another exercise in the sort of trust that I am still learning: to step off into the blank spaces at the edge of the map, one eye on the warning against dragons, and trust that whatever I find there will be good enough.


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