Sunday, April 10, 2011

small town Sunday: old paintings and new covenants

In an effort to do greater justice to the power of Holy Week, our pastor has mixed things up a bit. Rather than celebrating Holy Week during....well, Holy Week, we are taking the six Sundays before Easter and using each to celebrate a day of Holy Week. Hence, though next Sunday is traditionally Palm Sunday, we will be observing Good Friday. It has felt a little odd at points, but I have begun to really appreciate it, especially today: Maundy Thursday.

In place of the traditional service order, today's gathering was a mix of long readings from Mark 14 (read by the most amazing liturgical reader I have ever encountered: the man reads in a way that makes one chew on Scripture and, perhaps for the first time, actually taste it) and short reflections from the pastor. Following the reading of verses 17-26, in which Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples, our congregation partook of communion. Yet our pastor asked us to do this in a new way today. Rather than simply dipping the bread in the cup and partaking as we usually do, we were to instead feed the bread and juice to the person behind us. Yep, literally turn and place it in their mouths. This was, not surprisingly, a bit awkward, all of us eating and then feeding, looking like baby birds as we accepted the juice-soaked bread from the hands of the one before us. As I made my way up the line toward the front, I began to hear that, in the place of words usually spoken by those giving communion, some members of the congregation were speaking sacred words to one another as they offered the intimate gesture of passing the elements from hand to mouth. Indeed, the man before me, a friend and retired pastor, looked at me and spoke a deep reminder of what that meal symbolized. There was something newly beautiful about it, hearing those words from him, spoken specifically for me.

Stepping forward to reach for the elements, with Tim coming behind me to receive it, I considered simply saying what is most often spoken in that setting, something about bread and cups and covenants and forgiveness. But a phrase overcame me somewhere in between placing my final step and reaching for the bread. Honestly, I can think of times when I would have brushed it aside, simply so as not to sound odd, except that this morning it was overpowering. It echoed in my mind as I took the little piece of bread, that symbol of a broken body of love, and dipped it in the dark red reminder of a covenant of forgiveness. And I turned to Tim, placed the communion gift in his mouth and simply said, "This changes everything."

They were words that came out of my own mouth, yet I spent much of the remainder of the service pondering them. This changes everything. This bread, this cup--they rewrite the entire script of creation for those who, through the eyes of faith, look to see the grace and reconciliation happening all around us, even in the midst of ugliness that sometimes astounds us. This changes everything. It changes the way we treat enemies, it turns the notion of status on its head, and it dethrones pride and guilt both in the presence of divine and underserved grace. This changes everything. And yet I sat and felt, on the inside, as if my life did not show evidence of a belief that it changed much of anything at all, at least in how I relate to God and to myself.

Beyond feeling a tad disheartened, I couldn't shake the familiarity of the phrase. It struck a chord that I couldn't name, until I finally remembered a painting I did in college during the time when I was most debilitated by the vicious side effects of my epilepsy medication. My concept of my limitations, the way in which I related to people, the lens through which I saw the world: all of these things had been uprooted and thrown topsy turvy as those little pills rewrote the rules for my bodily existence. The painting was simple, and was perhaps my neatest work during that time when chemicals caused my hands to twitch at random. It was a giant pill bottle, the likeness of the basic, orange bottle I opened every day, complete with label. Behind it, written sideways and blurred (in a representation of what the world felt like to me at the time) were three words: this changes everything. It was a visual representation of what had for months felt like a devastating reality. That stupid bottle, those little pills, the chemicals coursing through my brain: it had changed everything. It had stolen something from me and made the whole of life seem sideways and blurry. I think somehow I hoped someone might look at the painting and understand: This changes everything.

Communion, I sat there and realized, is supposed to change my life on that same level. The reality of the gospel, of a new covenant by which I am received as a daughter into the Kingdom of God, ought to do much of what my medication did. It ought to transform my concept of my limitations, to change the way in which I relate to people, and to offer a totally new lens through which I see the world. Indeed, it ought to rewrite the rules for my bodily and spiritual existence. Perhaps I have not recognized it, or allowed myself to be overtaken by its recreative powers, but the reality remains nonetheless: this bread, this cup, this covenant changes everything. Except this time it carries my past the place where all is sideways and blurry, and slowly shows me a world that is suddenly set aright, suddenly in focus, suddenly in color.

In the end, I realize that communion is not so different a thing from my painting. It is a visual reminder of a wonderfully devastating reality. And it changes everything.