We arrived late at our Episcopal church, just as the procession was starting. On this Easter Sunday, this meant that the only open seats were on the front row of the side chapel. What we didn’t expect is that we’d have the best seats in the house.
About five feet away, off the end of the front rows of the main seating facing the altar, was a woman sitting in a wheelchair that was clearly more than temporary. Yet she sang out joyfully, wearing a smile that matched the brightness of her dress. Occasionally her son, a happy boy with Down syndrome, scrambled over other adult laps down the row to rest on hers.
It was moving to watch everyone come to the altar for communion. We might have expected an Easter parade of “beautiful people,” but instead the woman in the wheelchair was just the first of the lame and the infirm, some leaning on canes, others sitting in wheelchairs, with the rest of us humbly on our knees, hands outstretched to take hold of the broken body of Christ, the Bread of Life, necks craned to receive the cup of salvation.
Suddenly my eyes were opened. These people were dressed in their Easter finery not out of pretense but as part of their act of worship. No one was attired so gloriously as to be above the humility of bended knee, outstretched and begging hands, hungry as baby birds in the nest for what gifts Jesus had to give us.
A little boy, maybe 3 years old, was hungry too; he wouldn’t let the cup pass him by without getting a drink. Other children came forward, as they come every week here, as Jesus bade them come, to receive a blessing upon their heads or to experience the communion mystery they yet hardly understand. And to be fair, isn’t that true of all of us? Somehow, children can understand with their hearts more than we understand with our heads.
Every week there’s a cacophony of comings and goings at the altar that I simply can’t tear my eyes from. Today it was multiplied into a banquet feast, Father John moving from end to end and back again, giving the bread to every supplicant, trailed by four lay leaders providing wine.
The rhythm of broken, ”imperfect” bodies coming forward, punctuating the pageantry, was stunning. I thought of Bob Cratchit’s report to his wife in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol about Tiny Tim’s comment on Christmas morning: ”He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember … who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” Here they came, their outward condition revealing their want of God’s touch more clearly than mine. And, ah Tiny Tim, what a seat I had from which to see them.
In the last group to the altar, a man I hadn’t seen in line approached the rail. He struggled to hold the communion wafer, almost hiding it in his fists. A kindly, knowing lay minister extracted the wafer and dipped it in the chalice, then placed it on the man’s tongue, touching him compassionately on his shoulder. Only when the man arose did I see his cane, his uncertain gait, and his withered hands. And as he traveled slowly back up the side aisle he passed between me and the lady in the wheelchair, her happy son playing peacefully; and my eyes suddenly grew moist.
“As he went along, [Jesus] saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ’Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ’but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life’” (John 9:1-3).
What a display of the ‘work of God’ I was privileged to experience on this Easter Day, not only to celebrate the anniversary of a long-ago event, but as a firsthand witness. And what a privilege to count myself one of this gathered community, all of us imperfect, all of us needy, hungry and thirsty at the foot of the empty cross.
Easter Sunday, 2010
This entry appeared in my book Reflections from Afar: Unexpected Blessings for Those Who ‘Have” from Those Who Don’t