I received communion in a Catholic church last week. I typically don’t.
That’s weird for me because communion is a big part of my weekly routine. In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we have staked our identity on the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Every week, we celebrate an open table – all are welcome, anyone who wishes to follow Christ is invited to the table.
But that is not my practice when I go to Catholic mass. The rules are different. Only baptized Catholics are welcome, that’s the rule. And while I strongly disagree with it, I choose to respect the rules.
But I don’t so passively. I don’t just sit there like the chubby kid who didn’t get picked for the kickball team either. In the face of the Church’s theological claim, I like to make a counter claim.
I go forward during the Eucharist, but when I reach the priest, I cross my arms over my chest. This is the official signal that I am either a Catholic in need of confession or that I am just not Catholic. Instead of the body and blood of Christ, I get the door prize - a sign of the cross and a blessing.
This usually catches the priest off guard, and well, it makes me uncomfortable too. Our eyes meet, a moment of indecision passes, confusion happens, and I stutter-step my way down the line, sans body and blood.
For me it is a little Protestant protest, a small interruption in the normal flow of “the body of Christ, the blood of Christ.” In that moment, the priest and I are both confronted with my exclusion, a subtle reminder that in this Church, I am a second-class Christian.
Since coming to Bosnia, I’ve toned down my radical ways and tried to play nice. I’m not here this summer to make waves, so during the Eucharist, I have been content to restrict my protest to silent prayer.
Last Sunday, at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Belgrade, I did just that. And when I looked up, I saw a portly man in a white robe scurrying down the side aisle. His eyes sought me out with an innocent and quizzical look, like a little boy searching for his parents in a crowd. His glasses bobbled down his round nose as his feet pitter-pattered down the aisle, too quickly for a priest, too quickly for 60 year old man. The whole scene was awkward. With twenty or so people still in line to receive the Eucharist, Fra Ivo took a handful of the host and sought me out of the crowd. Nearly out of breath, he lifted the small plate towards me as I stood up from my pew.
“Will you have communion?”
My heart beat faster, the way it does when you get asked to speak when you’re not expecting it, or when you’re breaking a rule and know you may get caught. I muttered, “Yes, I will.”
“Christ’s body, broken for you.” He placed the host in my hand.
I raised it to my lips, and set it down on my tongue, carefully. It stuck to the roof of my mouth began to dissolve, flesh to flesh.
My heart raced, and I felt the emotion welling up from my gut into my throat and reaching up towards my eyes.
I imagine that is what the Prodigal felt when he watched his aged father risk looking like a fool as he sprinted out to meet his son. Priests don’t run during the mass; they certainly don’t leave the 99 sheep behind to seek out the one lost sheep, the one who needs to feel the warm embrace of full inclusion into Christian community.
Themes like “radical welcome” and “Christian hospitality” are popular now; I feel like I hear them about every week in church. For me, they can become routine, milquetoast clichés that don’t mean very much.
But in a world marked by violent ethnic strife, cantankerous political divisions, and toxic racial segregation, the Lord’s Supper has the potential to be a powerful and hopeful alternative.
My “First Communion” reminded me that the God who shows up at communion is a God who brazenly and even foolishly seeks us out of the crowd, who awkwardly crosses divisions and differences to invite each of us to full participation in Life with God.