Bread and Blessing


Post Author: Emily M. Brown


3496817076_3832b24dd3“I wish I could receive at your church,” my stepson Ben said to me one Sunday as we all prepared for a busy day of worship, Sunday school, and meetings. It took me a minute to connect the dots and realize that he meant “receive Communion.”

Ben is being raised Roman Catholic by his mother and stepfather. While communion is certainly important in the faith and practice of my UCC church, in Ben’s religious life it forms the cornerstone of worship and devotion. Ben speaks of his First Communion as a pivotal moment in his life, and he makes a point of trying to receive Communion weekly at a Catholic church even when he is away from his home congregation, either spending time with his dad and me, or with other Protestant relatives.

Between the vagaries of family schedules and my congregation’s practice of celebrating communion once a month, Ben had never been at my church for a Communion Sunday. This day would be the first time that he would be present in church as I presided at the table, and Ben was struggling with his disappointment that he would not be partaking in the bread and cup.

I have a theological commitment to the Open Table. In the Bible, I see a Savior who broke bread with tax collectors, foreigners, outcasts, and even women. Jesus welcomed everyone to the table: the baptized and the unbaptized, the faithful and the doubting, saints and sinners. His willingness to eat at a table with the “unworthy” got him into a lot of trouble. If the table I preside over is really Jesus’s (and I believe it is), it is not mine to restrict.

And yet, as a stepmom, I want to support Ben in living faithfully in his tradition. I have my theological quibbles with Roman Catholicism (women’s ordination, for instance), but I also have respect for its rich history and theology. I want to help Ben flourish in the faith his mom and stepfather have chosen for him, even if it is not what I would have chosen, even if it challenges and stretches me, even if it leads me into theological thickets. I could hear Ben’s longing to participate in communion that day, and I knew, as did he, that as a Roman Catholic he is only supposed to receive sacraments at Roman Catholic churches.

As a pastor, I am committed to giving communion to all who desire to eat and drink with Jesus. As a stepmom, though, I am committed to helping my stepson live within the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, which asks him not to commune at my church. Tripped up by conflicting roles, I was at a loss for answers. I explained that at my church, anyone could receive communion. I acknowledged that his church told him he wasn’t supposed to receive at my church, and that I hoped he would never do something that he felt was against his religion. I shared my sorrow that our churches were so divided that he and I could never participate at the same Communion table.

Finally, we realized that Ben’s tradition had a possibility that might work for both of us. He had seen non-Catholics come forward at his church to receive a blessing, and I suggested that at my church, he could do the same. We practiced together how he could cross his arms over his chest to ask for a blessing instead of the Communion elements. He said he would think about it.

I stood at the table that day, breaking the bread, pouring the cup, telling the story, praying for the presence of the Holy Spirit, acutely aware of the nine-year-old boy who had tucked himself into the far side pews with the other Sunday school students, arms already self-consciously crossed over his chest as I began the Eucharistic liturgy.

His arms stayed crossed over his chest as he maneuvered out of the pew and processed down the aisle. I placed pieces of pita bread in the hands of my congregants, saying to each the familiar words: “the body of Christ, given for you.” And then my stepson stood in front of me with folded arms and anxious face. I don’t remember what I said. I think I put my hand on his head. I think I prayed for him to know the love of God, to grow in faith, to follow Jesus. I do remember the way he walked away from the table, the sense of buoyancy, relief, accomplishment at having navigated an ecclesiastical obstacle course.

I had never given a blessing at communion before, because I believe and declare that the bread and cup are for everyone. I had never received a blessing at a closed Communion table; I was too stubborn to accept what I considered “crumbs” at a table where I believed the bread and cup should be for everyone. But next time I think I might. In crossed arms and blessing hands, we open the doors between our traditions. We acknowledge the disunity of Christ’s church, and at the same time declare that God’s love is bigger than my stepson’s faith, or my own. The bread is a blessing; the blessing, too, is a blessing.

I believe we will feast at a table with Jesus Christ someday, and I believe we will all be surprised by who eats at the table with us. But until that day, the Holy Spirit will move as she will, through bread and cup, through blessings given and received, reconciling us to each other and to God.


Rev. Emily M. Brown is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.  She is the Associate Pastor of Broadway United Church of Christ, and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, both in New York City.  She was the recipient of the 2010 David H. C. Read Memorial Preacher/Scholar Award.  She blogs at feministpastor.blogspot.com.


Image by: Ian Britton
Used with permission
6 replies
  1. E Dilley
    E Dilley says:

    Such an artful, gracious navigation of traditions! I love how the two of you discerned together ways to respect each other’s traditions, be authentic to your own true self, and to reach towards each other in love. Offering a blessing (other than the bread and cup themselves, which are a different form of blessing) is such a gift for a celebrant – I’m glad you got to experience this.

    This post also filled me with longing that I had thought to go forward to receive the priest’s blessing at my grandmother’s funeral. This longing, too, is a gift. Thank you, Emily. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Jeremiah Gibbs
    Jeremiah Gibbs says:

    This is great Emily. I have lots of associations with Roman Catholics through my work (and having sent my son to a Catholic school) while disagreeing with some key theological issues.

    I have actually taken the opposite approach to you. I go forward EVERY TIME to receive the blessing. I do that I because in my mind (and I don’t think there would be a universal consensus about what is happening when a Protestant comes forward) I am showing both my unity and my disunity with the Catholic Church. I hope that the priest is sad that he can give that host to a Protestant minister. At the same time, we are one in a kind of broken way that you describe.

    After taking this approach for about ten years now, worshiping in Catholic churches about 6-8 times per year, I actually received the Eucharist in a Catholic Church for the first time. My wife and I were in Spain on Camino de Santiago and we were visiting a 14th century Basilica in Ponferada Spain. We went forward to be blessed. I’m not sure if crossing arms is not a sign of desiring blessing in Europe or whether than tiny little Spanish priest decided some years ago that Camino pilgrims should receive the Eucharist no matter what. But we shook our heads and he shook his head yes and put that wafer on our tongues…it was a profound moment for both of us. I wish I could have spoken with him afterward but my Spanish is too broken.

    Any way, thanks for sharing such a beautiful moment.

    Reply
  3. J. Heckerman
    J. Heckerman says:

    I deeply appreciated reading your account of the sensitivity with which you and your step-son approached this matter. But there may be another course of action the two of you may wish to pursue. As I learned years ago in an ecumenical seminary setting which included very close association with Roman Catholics, their church has fewer absolutes than many, both Catholic and Protestant, often believe. Canon law does offer exceptions regarding a Catholic receiving communion in another family of Christ’s Church. A talk with a priest, particularly one known for tolerance and understand, might well suggest another path which you and your step-son could, occasionally at least, follow.

    Reply
  4. Brieanna Andrews
    Brieanna Andrews says:

    Thank you so much for this! My step-daughter’s mother was raised as a Jehovah Witness and though she is no longer affiliated with that church or faith community she will not allow her daughter to be baptized in the Christian faith. We have struggled together as she has watched over the baptism of her sister and brother. Though she is not technically allowed to receive Eucharist in our tradition (Anglican) the Bishop has granted me permission to communicate her for pastoral reasons. It’s so nice to know that other’s struggle with similar situations and walk a delicate line with me.

    Reply
  5. Ginger
    Ginger says:

    You can definitely see your expertise within the article you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who
    aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

    Reply

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