Grandma, you want to play Mass?"
"Play Mass? How do you play Mass?" I hated to think this about my own Grandma Klein, especially as she was staying several days with us that summer, but she was a little slow. She wasn’t good at playing Candy Land, and, in summer, who wanted to play board games anyway? It was too hot, and she was too heavy, for tag. Mass in the garage seemed a perfect choice, and she didn’t know how to do it!
"We set up the garage, and we play Church." Penny can show you what to do while Harold and I get everything ready.
My devoutly Methodist Grandma replied, "Well, when in Rome, do as the Romans do." See what I mean about being slow? We weren’t in Rome; we were in Kansas! Her part was simple enough. Sit in the lawn chair, on the far side of the saw horse, with Penny and her dolls, and pick songs. She wasn’t even good at that. The Peoples Mass Book did not have any songs called, "Old Rugged Cross" or "Nearer My God to Thee." She did, however, know "The Church’s One Foundation."
Harold and I busied ourselves with preparation. We set up a TV tray at the far end of the garage, laid a towel over it, put Harold’s globe on top of that, and covered it with a towel. "It’s the altar and tabernacle, Grandma."
"It’s lovely dear, but don’t get your Mom’s towels dirty." Penny got out her plastic tea service, our altar ware, while Grandma held her baby doll, soon to be baptized. My brother Harold had a set of Mass vestments, made from oil cloth, adorned with a Chi-Rho done in red electrical tape. I had my Father’s white t-shirt, which, on me, looked a lot like a surplice. I was the altar server, not the priest. Everyone would have found that idea ludicrous, especially Grandma.
I raced to the kitchen to prepare Holy Communion. Grape Kool-Aid and little hosts, cut out with a bottle cap from a piece of Hostess White Bread. Harold usually did this, and he was quite disappointed when I handed to him my version of the bread and wine.
"Why are the hosts soaked in Kool-Aid?"
"Aren’t they supposed to be?" I hadn’t yet made my First Communion, but I certainly watched every move that Monsignor Meyers made at the real church. Each time that he took a host from the ciborium, he would shake it once over the vessel, before putting it on the tongue of the communicant. I thought the hosts dripped, because they came pre-soaked. It would be many years before I realized that Monsignor’s "shake" was to remove any possible crumbs before placing the host on the tongue of the recipient. It was a different time in the Church, a moment when Monsignor Meyers still rode his bicycle on the streets of our small Kansas town, dressed in black suit, clerical collar, and white gloves. Not making that up.
Harold insisted that I make a new batch, even though he alone would receive. Penny and I hadn’t yet made our First Communion, and Grandma was practically heathen, certainly Protestant. I had bungled the Body and Blood of the Lord, though I take some comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the first, or the last, to do so.
In fact, our earliest written record of the Eucharist came out of a bungling. Before the Gospels were even penned, Saint Paul had to write to his nascent Christian community in Corinth, teaching them the heart of the mystery that we celebrate, because they had also bungled the Body and Blood of the Lord.
That early in the Church’s life, what we would recognize as the Eucharist hadn’t yet emerged from a real, and not merely ritual, communal meal. The prayers of thanksgiving over the bread and wine were said before and after what was akin to a potluck dinner. That’s where the bungling came in. In the apostle’s absence, Paul’s community in Corinth had begun to unravel. The wealthiest members gathered first, in order to enjoy a higher level of provisions, before the poor arrived with their meager meals.
Saint Paul was rightly furious with his congregation. They understood so little of the mystery they had been given, not if they could divide "the Body of Christ" into rich and poor members. That’s why Paul rehearsed for his readers what Jesus did the night before he died, the gift that he gave.
Paul told the Corinthians, "Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Cor 11:29). It’s a wonderfully ambiguous dictum. When Paul warns that we must be able to "discern the Body," does he mean that we mustn’t fail to recognize that this bread is truly the Body of Christ? Or does he mean that, if we can’t find Christ in the congregation, in this Body of Christ, we’ve bungled the "holy communion" — union with others — that truly matters?
On this Feast of Corpus Christi, allow the ambiguity to stand and be warned, either way. Christ gave us the mystery of his presence in the form of bread and wine, which we revere as his true body and true blood. But mysteries must be moored and sheltered. They need to be taught; they require training; and they can never be taken for granted. Monsignor Meyers was so concerned about crumbs that I mistook the vigorous shake, which he gave every host. But that movement, and the patens the altar boys held, had a way of telling everyone that this was no ordinary food. If we fail to find our own ways to reverence the mystery of the Eucharist, it will fade away, like all neglected loves. The commonplace cannot convey it.
And in a world where the rich try harder than ever to forget the poor, where neighborhoods are increasingly insular, we need to worry about eating and drinking judgement onto ourselves for our failure to recognize and to reverence the Christ who remains among us in those who suffer want.
At the time, I thought my Grandma rather slow at playing Mass. She didn’t know the hymns or the responses. But now, at a half century’s distance, I marvel at her sitting and singing in that hot Kansas garage. No one could accuse her of failing to recognize Christ, neither on the altar nor in the little congregation gathered round it.
Genesis 14: 18-20 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 Luke 9: 11b-17