I had very mixed feelings driving to Mass a few Sundays ago. The pastor of the church I had been attending for years was retiring, and this would be his last Mass there. I was trying to feel happy for Father Don; he deserved to be free of the administrative duties of a pastor. I knew he wanted more time to be involved in peace and justice work. I felt sad, though, that I would no longer be able to look forward to Sunday liturgy as he celebrated it. He prayed at Mass, not always using the same words each time. He told the Gospel as though it were a story he had just heard. And his homilies were always about our role in bringing about the peace and justice Jesus preached. I was really going to miss his liturgies.
The church was unusually crowded that Sunday. Sitting two seats in front of my friends and me was a woman with a little boy about three years old. A man and another woman were also in that pew, sitting at a distance from the child. The little boy was very active during Mass. He played with tiny cars, running them across the seat of the pew. His mother took them away from him several times and hid them behind her under their coats. As soon as she turned back to look at the altar, the little boy crawled behind her, pulled the coats over to him, retrieved the little cars, and began the car race on the seat again. When he was tired of playing with the cars, he began pulling on his mother’s skirt trying to get her to talk with him. The woman was affectionate with her son and held him close whenever he would let her, but he would squirm away soon after each hug.
When she gave him cookies, they occupied him for only a few minutes; he seemed unable to stay still for long. Occasionally, the man on the other side of him would shake his finger at the boy in a scolding motion, but the reprimands had no obvious effect on the child. I could not help but wonder why the mother brought cars and cookies to church, surely knowing they wouldn’t help him to be calm during the liturgy.
I was, admittedly, annoyed with the distraction this child caused at this special Mass. I had wanted to be particularly attentive to the liturgy that morning and was aggravated that the boy’s antics made that difficult. I assumed that he was also bothering other people, especially the very elderly man and woman who were in the pew directly behind.
A surprising thing happened, however, after the consecration of the Mass. The little boy sat down in the pew, perhaps for the first time since the Mass began. When he did so, the elderly woman kneeling directly behind him put her hand on his head as if in blessing and then began to stroke his hair. She petted it almost as one might pet a dog, very slowly and, it seemed, very gently. The boy sat still and allowed her to do it. He never turned around to see who she was. Once or twice, he began to move forward on his seat, but then would sit quickly back against the pew and lean his head backward, almost asking her to continue to caress his head. After Communion, when the woman was seated and unable to reach him easily, the child sat in the pew and began to pat his head himself. He imitated the elderly woman’s stroking movement, as though trying to feel as he had when she caressed him.
I was touched by the woman’s kindness and by the wisdom that made her know what would soothe the little boy and enable him to sit quietly for a few minutes. I felt even more moved when I witnessed the child’s attempt to comfort himself. My initial irritation at his constant antics was gone, as were my self-righteous judgments about his mother’s inability to keep him quiet during the Mass. I felt almost suddenly overcome with gratitude. I had been so intent on participating in the liturgy my way that I had almost missed the eucharistic sharing taking place in the two pews in front of me. If, as theologians tell us, the Eucharist is as much about sharing and blessing as it is about eating, then there can be little doubt that the elderly woman had experienced a kind of eucharist with the child when she stroked and blessed him. Without knowing it, he had made the blessing reciprocal by imitating her, telling her in his own way that he had been comforted by her loving gesture.
I don’t remember what the readings were for that Sunday. Nor do I even recall much of the homily. But I am certain that I will not soon forget that Eucharist. What I most want to remember is that the presence of God at any liturgy is not only in the bread that we eat, but in the community of those who share it. I was expecting to find Jesus in the Scripture readings, in the homily and in the consecrated bread and wine. I had not been attentive to his presence in the people around me. I did not recognize him in the child until he sat quietly and allowed the elderly woman to stroke his head.
In a sense, when that woman blessed the little boy, she blessed me too. Her gesture reminded me of what I have long known, but often forget: that God is indiscriminately gracious in sharing the divine presence with us. I felt grateful to have been able to participate in our pastor’s final liturgy there, but not for the reasons I first anticipated. What touched me most that morning was seeing an overly active child be transformed into one who wanted comfort—and who received it through the wise kindness and blessing of an elder. That was decidedly eucharist for me.