Our seminary chapel at Ridley Hall was built in an era of formality, but, as the worship within had evolved to include many varied expressions, elements of flexibility like movable chairs and a projection screen had been introduced. Even though the altar rail itself had been removed, the raised step upon which it had once separated the congregation from the clergy still demarcated the space. During the weekly Eucharist, some of us knelt on that “altar step” while others stood. One evening, just as I was pondering why anyone would ever stand to receive Communion, I flopped down on my knees without thinking. I had forgotten that there were no cushions on that step—only thin carpet—and the sound of my bones colliding with the hard floor underneath echoed through the hushed chapel. The bruises that I carried with me for a week were penance for my self-righteousness.
Some of us like to kneel; others prefer to stand. Maybe those preferences are theological in nature, but they probably have more to do with tradition. Then again, for more than a few of us, things like artificial knees and arthritis take that choice away. Most of the time, when I receive the bread and wine, I am standing at the altar, so I look forward to kneeling whenever I get the chance to sit in the congregation. Ponder what your custom is and ask yourself why you choose that particular posture.
What does the way in which we receive Communion say about our experience of God in that sacrament? Do you walk up to the rail with downcast eyes, or are you looking around at the other people in church? Do you sing the Communion hymns softly to yourself? Do you belt them out? Do you prefer silence? Is the act of receiving the bread and wine an opportunity for self-reflection or a communal experience? Is your time at the altar rail an emotional engagement or a detached encounter?
In seminary, one of people who taught me how to be a priest had strong feelings about eye-contact at the Communion rail. “If they look up at you, searching for a connection, you should give it to them with a returned gaze,” he said. “But if they stare down at the floor or only give you a passing glance, don’t interfere with their piety. They may not want to see you but only to see God instead.” Those words are always in my mind as I put pieces of bread into outstretched hands. Personally, I would almost always choose to look down rather than at the priest. I don’t really know why, but I bet it says something about my understanding of who God is. Likewise, some of you like lingering eye-contact, and others prefer not to acknowledge me at all. Either way is perfectly acceptable, and I think it is worth noting what our own habits say about our relationship with God.
Several months ago, someone gave me some new advice. He noted that I usually place the morsel of bread into his palm gently, while Callie, my partner in ministry, likes to squeeze the bread down into his hand in a gesture of their connectedness. He compared her pastoral touch with a doctor’s bedside manner, recommending that I look for ways to express that same sentiment at the altar rail. His comments have completely transformed my experience of administering the elements. I never would have thought that a simple touch could make such a big difference.
Who is God to you, and how does that show up at the altar rail? What are you searching for, and where will you find it? We believe that God meets us in Communion—that we experience a part of the divine life as we break bread together. How that happens, though, depends on us.