By Chelsea Barnwell
One Sunday, I went to a Celtic Evensong service in a beautiful old church downtown. My church background is Baptist. We were low church and thrifty, but I appreciated good music and high church liturgy. My dad came with me to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church that evening. The music was lovely and I enjoyed looking around at the fabulous architecture and stained glass. Toward the close of the service, they invited people to come to the front for the Eucharist. I went forward, with my dad behind me.
I had been missing the opportunity to participate in communion at my own church because I had started working for the church. At that point, the responsibilities under my job description weren’t quite defined and I wasn’t getting to attend service very much. I am very thankful to say that this issue was resolved very shortly after the Evensong, but at the time, I was feeling very dry, feeling the need for communion and community.
My Baptist church always used grape juice for communion (though I can think of a few times it might have fermented accidentally). I expected real wine at this episcopal church and was comfortable with that. What I did not expect was the quantity of wine.
At the front, one officiant handed me a wafer and spoke a few words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” Then another attendant handed me a plastic cup. It wasn’t a “communion” size cup. It wasn’t shot glass size. It was punch glass size. A third attendant held a pitcher of wine. As I held out my high- capacity cup, he began to pour. He very kindly looked into my eyes and said, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation…” He said a little more after this, but I forget what it was because I was a little startled watching him continue to pour until he finished speaking.
I moved past him as my dad stepped forward to receive his generous helping. I was now standing in the front of the church with a punch glass more than halfway full of wine. Most of the people were back in their pew at this point, with a few still lined up the middle aisle. I ate the wafer and took a sip from the punch glass. It was strong for someone whose only experience with alcohol had been a few occasional sips of communion wine and one accidental order of flan at a restaurant.
I wondered if I could discreetly take the glass back to my seat or dispose of it somehow (which seemed somewhat disrespectful to both the church and Christ). But there was no such discreet option. I now saw the receptacle for empty glasses. It was not a trash can on the floor. No, it was a large, clear, crystal-cut bowl, literally up on a pedestal, visible to the whole church.
I took a deep breath and finished my glass of wine as quickly as I could, wondering how the others in line had finished theirs so nonchalantly. I never thought I would be “throwing back” communion wine, but I did so that I could place a respectably empty glass in the receptacle and not be the only one left standing at the front. Once back at our pew, my dad quietly leaned over and whispered, “Burns, doesn’t it?”
I usually tell this story for laughs, a lighthearted acknowledgement of the cultural differences between denominations. Recently, I thought about it a little more seriously. If the wine is a symbol of Christ’s blood, how appropriate to receive more than I was looking for. It wouldn’t be correct to say that Christ’s blood was more than people needed, yet it was much more than we could have expected and maybe more than we wanted. His blood was poured out for us lavishly and generously, at great cost to Him, yet free for us.
Yet, there can be some embarrassment in admitting our deep need for His grace, particularly in front of others. It can be a surprisingly hard cup to drink. The one who does not throw himself completely on this grace, does not follow Him. As Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53 ESV) The disciples respond, “This is a hard saying” and many people turned back and no longer followed Him.
A cup of blood is bitter to drink, yet there is also sweet joy in the communion cup. Wine is a symbol not only of blood, but of feasting, abundance, joy!
This is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation. Take this wine. All you, drink it.
He drank the cup of wrath, that we might drink the cup of blood (even if burns on the way down), that together we might share the cup of wine one day at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
About the Author
Chelsea Barnwell is a writer, deep thinker, and avid reader. She currently lives in a historic carriage house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She has been published by Calla Press and the Rabbit Room. You can read more of her work on her blog welcometothecarriagehouse.com.