Awhile back, my parish priest told me that he used to get down on his hands and knees to eat the post-communion bread crumbs off the aisle floors. He didn’t mean it to be funny, and he definitely didn’t think it was all that weird. We were just having a conversation, and it came up. Even now, it’s hard not to picture a fully robed Father Shaun on all fours, scouring crumbs off the carpet in an empty church. “Some of it was bits of Jesus,” he said, expelling a melancholy sigh, “and some of it was just dust.”
Typically, Anglicans believe that the Eucharist is more than a symbol; it mysteriously invokes the real presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. But Father Shaun takes it a step further by toeing the line with “big C” Catholicism. He treats the bread and wine as Christ’s actual body and blood, though shrugging off dogmatic terms such as con- or trans-substantiation. For him, the belief adds tremendous gravitas to his priestly duties.
Consequently, he has issues with certain communion practices. A self-serve cup of wine, for instance, allows drool germs to mingle, procreate, and move from congregant to congregant. Similarly, intinction, the act of dipping bread in wine, might leave “floaters” in the cup, or worse, drip Christ’s blood onto the floor. And while he appreciates freshly baked communal bread, he also cannot stand the thought of Jesus’ body flaking off a congregant’s chin and being trodden underfoot; hence, the crumb picking. “I was there too,” his wife whispered to me, looking somewhat shell-shocked.
On the surface, there is nothing particularly special in our bread and wine. The Lord’s Supper is a poor man’s meal in the company of friends. In the ancient Middle East, bread and wine were easier to come by than water. Beyond their role in Jewish Passover, they comprised the most basic meal available to everyone. When I visited a Catholic church in Guatemala, the body of Christ was represented by torn-up corn tortillas; the priest joked that if not for the wine from the diocese, they’d have to resort to administering coffee. Even my congregation uses ordinary stuff—the five-dollar port from Trader Joe’s and tasteless wafers from a kosher factory in Iowa. By and large, our meal is more mundane than miraculous. And yet, observing the warmth in the shadowed faces by candlelight, I can’t help but think that we are no poorer, no more despicable, and no more loved than the twelve young men who ate together with Jesus that fateful night, nearly two thousand years ago.
The Eucharist is the only sacrament of which Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s a heavy statement, coming from a man who knew that his best friends were about to betray and abandon him when he needed them most. It is easy to forget that Jesus, though divine, was a man with emotions. He hurt that night, even before his death sentence. His last supper was a means of showing grace, not only to his clueless, cowardly disciples, but to every clueless coward for all time: You, who betrayed and abandoned me, never forget that I adore you so much I’d die for you. God has been repeating that message since The Fall, and in effect, Jesus’ death on the cross—to paraphrase Frederick Buechner—was God’s way of putting his money where his mouth was.
When Father Shaun stoops to forage for “bits of Jesus” in the grimy carpet, he really means it. True, the bread is not Jesus’ literal body which lived and breathed two thousand years ago. It won’t sprout human flesh in our stomachs. Its molecules won’t crawl into the synapses of our guilt-ridden brains to erase the damage. And yet, there is something of Jesus in those dusty crumbs, just as there is something of my great-grandfather in an old oil painting he passed down to my dad. The major difference is that Christ is alive. His words are living words, and his sacred meal has been shared for two thousand years. And though his disciples may not have dived under the tables to catch their Rabbi’s crumbs on Passover, they might have reconsidered after Jesus’ glorious, heart-stopping return from the dead.
As a result, the Eucharist ritual is paradoxically somber and playful in its execution. The priest recites words and the congregation answers; the priest imbibes the elements and then invites the congregants to do likewise. It is a scripted performance that, for all its veneration, reminds one of children engrossed in earnest, imaginative play. We eat the bread and intently imagine that it is Christ’s body, broken for us; we drink the wine and picture Christ’s blood being shed for our sake. The Holy Ghost settles on every bowed head like a flame. We become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Some, like Father Shaun, find it easier to accept the elements as literal flesh and blood. Even Jesus and his disciples allowed room for that interpretation.
Children are excellent at make-believe. When I was four, my dad warned me not to spend too much time shut in the cellar closet, where we stored toxins like bleach, weed killer, paint, and hornet spray. He meant to keep me safe from breathing or ingesting stuff I shouldn’t. But of course, my kid-mind took it a step further: one breath, one lungful of contaminated air would kill me dead. So whenever I went to fetch something, I solemnly entered with one hand clamped over my mouth and the other pinching my nose till my cheeks turned blue. At one point, I was even worried that the poisonous air might leak in through my eyes and ears. I tabled this concern to my dad. He just laughed and told me to be careful.
Childish behavior like mine has always been around. When God told Adam not to eat the fruit, Adam immediately made the story juicier, more dangerous, telling Eve she would die if she even touched it. After captive Israel broke God’s Laws for the umpteenth time, a progressive group called the Pharisees invented a religious restraining order which prevented Jews from stepping within a football field of the Ten Commandments. According to the Gospel, the Pharisees weren’t such shysters because they tithed ten percent of their dill and cumin—it was because they made everyone else do it too…or suffer God’s wrath. Their true tyranny was in deceiving the Jews to believe in a fear-based, legalistic relationship with God.
Growing up, our pastor strictly warned us not to partake in the communal elements without “checking our hearts first.” His gritty reboot of a sermon centered on the parable of the debtor who was absolved by his loan shark of a million dollars, only to turn around and beat up a guy who owed him a few bucks. This made the loan shark furious, and he threw the ungrateful debtor in prison. The pastor told us that if we were to receive the benefits of communion, we would have to approach the altar without blemish, or end up like the ungrateful debtor. He gave us thirty seconds to make things right with God, the Cosmic Loan Shark.
For years, I feared getting struck by lightning or cancer when the communion bread touched my lips. Not that I was some desperado, but I worried a lot about the possibility of stains on my soul. I once read a book where Death, the black-robed reaper, cruised around collecting dead people’s souls, which happened to look a lot like inkblot paper. If there were too many dark blots from sin, the soul sunk down into Hell; if it was at least fifty-one percent clean, then the soul floated up to Heaven. So when I approached the altar, not only did I wonder if I felt repentant enough, but also I had this image of my soul, dirtied like a pair of underwear from use throughout the week. Communion meant doing the spiritual laundry, and I was terrible at laundry.
This was exacerbated by the knowledge that I harbored more sins than I confessed. I didn’t want to commune out of fear and guilt, and yet I felt peer-pressured into it. Everyone—my parents, my teachers and my friends—would wonder why I wasn’t up at the altar, so I always went up. It was my monthly game of roulette with the Godfather.
What’s more, I grew bitter watching the same cruddy delinquents, who I knew were far worse than me, accept Communion and not get bumped off. Guilt made me a hypercritical person, and eventually, my judgmental knife turned from others onto myself. In an act of spiritual hara-kiri, I finally fell on my sword. My nerves bust, and I breathed the abominable words out loud: God does not exist. The revelation was an enormous relief, causing all the pent-up knots to loose in my chest. But it didn’t last; fortunately for me, my “revelation” was temporary. Even my magic top hat was unable to vanish God forever, and soon he came flooding back into my life (another story).
Father Shaun and his crumb-picking was exactly the kind of thing I once delighted to judge. When I witnessed devotion—especially to theological nitpicks—my warily thin heartstrings sensed a loan shark relationship with God. I thought, this guy thinks God will zap him if he doesn’t get every last crumb. But I was wrong. One never gets the sense that, because Father Shaun believes crumb-picking necessary for himself, it is also necessary for others. No congregant—at least, to my knowledge—has been ordered to perform the holy duty. If anything, Father Shaun’s reverence has more in common with the kid who’s trying to do an extra-good job for his dad. And should he see Jesus in the crumbs, may he live a lovelier, richer life for it.
Michael Strubler is a writer, tutor, and filmmaker in Rochester, MI.