Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Washing the chalices

One of my two jobs on campus this summer (that is, one of the elements of a 'life' I didn't have during Greek last summer) is 'chapel coordinator' for the weekly services held on campus for the seminary community.  During the full academic year Union typically holds two services, a communion service on Wednesday and a smaller morning prayer-type service on Thursday.  For summer language school the Thursday chapel is omitted, leaving the weekly gathering for that small portion of the Union community that actually remains on campus at Union.

This job consists of two parts, in its essence.  One task was to recruit the participants in chapel, from speakers (in the case of the summer version) to readers of scripture or confessions or litanies to communion servers.  [Nota bene:  because a seminary community can be fairly small and because not all of us are ordained in any way before we get here, the PC(USA) General Assembly passes a resolution allowing for seminary students to participate in serving communion during chapel, as well as (I presume) going through the processes of presiding in classes particularly geared towards teaching communion.  So, I cannot preside at the table, and cannot be a communion server in PC(USA) churches -- a task normally reserved to ordained elders, at least in my experience -- but can serve the bread or cup in chapel here.  After all, we gotta practice.]  Lining up speakers or programs was a part of the process mostly carried out before summer term began.  Recruiting readers or servers has been a weekly task.  I also have usually had some middle-man work in getting hymns, confession, scriptures, etc. from each week's speaker and getting that information to the indispensable people who put the program together and get it in print for all to follow.

The other part of the job description might seem more mundane.   Each week I am to procure the bread for communion; set up the bread and cup for communion, as well as other elements of the chapel (today I forgot to light the candles...bad chapel coordinator!  Bad!), and afterwards "clean up" after the service.    Interestingly, it is this latter task, and the after-chapel work in particular, that has become -- unexpectedly and through no scheme of mine -- a form of spiritual practice that may well have saved my spiritual sanity this summer.

The before-chapel work admittedly has some sense of the hectic to it.  For one, I'm trying to avoid missing any more Hebrew than necessary.  Typically I can get the bread in before class, as well as the slice of gluten-free bread from an upstairs freezer to be available for those who need such health provisions (it then has just enough time to thaw).  During the break in class on Wednesday, I can usually do other things like go get the programs and place them at their appropriate stations, or unlock the chapel back door.  The juice for the cup, obviously, needs to wait until just before the service; since it is kept in the sacristy at Lake Chapel, that entails a little hike between buildings to get the juice and to return it to its fridge when the pitcher and one chalice are filled (communion, you might guess, is served by intinction here).  Along with getting the candles lit, making sure the communion servers know what and when to do, and that the communion presider has everything he or she needs, that can get hectic.

After the service, though, things are different.  (The photo above is an "after" shot.)  While there will be some lingering about after chapel, most folks are ready to take off fairly quickly, and so Watts Chapel will empty fairly soon after the service is over.  Hopefully enough people stay around to help take care of the remainder of the bread (challah bread from Montana Gold Bread company, for what it's worth) -- after all, throwing away remaining communion bread just seems like horrible theology.  (This is a Presbyterian seminary, so get those thoughts of transubstantiation out of your head.)  What doesn't get eaten goes back to God's creatures on campus, mostly birds and the near-legendary squirrels, letting all creation share in God's good gifts, I suppose (and again, theologically better than merely throwing away or pouring down a drain, it seems to me; perhaps the parable about the banquet whose guests didn't show up might be stretched to apply here...).  The chalices and platens get washed, trash items get disposed of if they haven't been already, and the table is re-set for the next week.

Here is where that unexpected spiritual practice has overtaken me.  Somehow, I find releasing the leftover elements to the ground and to whatever creatures come upon it a spiritually refreshing moment. The squirrels around here are prolific, and one legendary white squirrel (who has evaded my sight so far...) has become a more-or-less unofficial campus mascot.  It is horribly easy to lose any sense of connection to nature in this modern world, and even on a campus like Union's it can become easy to overlook the grass, the trees, the birds, and even the squirrels.  Somehow this moment becomes a brief respite from the raggedness of my own mind and its unending vexation with Hebrew verb roots.  And for what it's worth, there are not typically many bread crumbs left to scatter, but they are typically gone by the time I leave campus on Wednesdays.

After this, the communion pieces get their cleaning.  I'm not all that interested in debating communion theology at this particular moment.  I'm a Presbyterian, so no transubstantiation, as noted before.  And no, I don't hold that the chalices or platens are somehow super-holy or any such thing.  They do, however, serve a particular purpose in what I am increasingly convinced is one of the most important things the church ever does or will do.  The bread or juice they hold are, well, bread and juice, even ordinary bread and juice, but nonetheless ordinary bread and juice through which a God Who by all rational means should be above this sort of thing nonetheless comes down to meet us where we are, to bestow by a simple act of breaking bread and pouring a cup a grace that demonstrates over and over again God's very real and persistent God-with-us-ness despite all our best efforts to put distance between us and that unbearably divine presence.  There is something unbearably overwhelming about the fact that these platens and chalices bear these gifts of bread and vine to everybody present; we all take from the same loaf and cup, no matter how many times a week one or another eats at Chick-fil-A or refuses to do so.

No, they're not magic, but they do play an important role, and somehow giving them a measure of respect in cleaning them after chapel has come to be another source of spiritual refreshment in a sometimes (who am I kidding? make that "constantly") frustrating time of study.  Worship requires big things, yes, like some sort of message or hymns or scripture or bread and vine, but it also requires small things, and those small things are worth caring for; doing so has become for me a moment of grounding in things that matter a whole lot more than the latest sub-perfect quiz grade.

I don't know the provenance of the communion pieces pictured above.  We have several different pieces, not just those, but the large platen is the only one big enough to contain that challah bread, and so it's been getting the most use of late.  I don't know if these were purchased off a shelf somewhere or handmade and given to the seminary as a gift.  Still, here they are, and taking care of them has had the added benefit of taking care of myself to a degree I would not have forecast.

I have one more week of this task left.  Someone else presumably takes over for the fall and spring term.  And in most churches I suspect one of the elders or someone else has charge of cleaning up after the elements.  I hope to remember this small epiphany in the future.

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