Iwas called to the hospital to administer last rites. Sarah was dying, and her husband, Sam, was keeping vigil. Sarah was unconscious, and I told Sam that I’d like to say some prayers together, anoint Sarah with oil, and then celebrate Communion.
And so we did. As I’ve learned to do, I broke up one of the wafers into tiny pieces, and invited Sam to place a small piece in his unconscious wife’s mouth. We stood in silence at the bedside for some time, until finally, when I felt the moment had landed, I turned to begin cleaning up the Communion supplies. Then something odd happened.
Sam cut between me and our makeshift altar; he grabbed the paten still laden with the broken host, and said, “Oh, I’ll clean this up for you, Father,” and proceeded to the sink. I panic-froze. I didn’t have the presence of mind — or, more accurately, the courage — to stop him. I winced inside, and decided to let it happen. But then something even less expected happened.
Watching out of the side of my eye while I rinsed and consumed the remains in the chalice, I watched Sam turn the faucet on, pretend to hold the paten under the water, and instead slide the pieces of broken host onto a paper towel, fold it, and discreetly place it in the side pocket of his briefcase.
I couldn’t believe it. Sam was going to try to sneak out of the hospital with a body.
And again, I decided to let it happen. I pretended not to notice, actually. I said nothing. And eventually I left.
As I drove home, the weight of that moment fell on me. I was stunned and unsure if I had even seen what I thought I had seen. On the one hand, I knew I had made a mistake. A briefcase pocket might be preferable to a sink, but only by matters of degree. The rubrics are unambiguous: consecrated bread is to be consumed. The only reason to save the elements is to bring them to those unable to make it on Sunday mornings, and that moment had just passed.
There are good reasons for these rubrics. The body and blood are not magic totems or good luck charms. You can’t populate them with whatever meaning you want. They’re for a particular assembly and they enact and communicate particular (if mysterious) things. Difficult as it was in the moment, I should have gently insisted that Sam return the paten right away. Instead, part of me felt like I had just aided and abetted a liturgical crime.
On the other hand, it felt like one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen — a beauty I was convinced exceeded the bounds of sentimental description, a beauty that felt deep and theological, in fact, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on a satisfying explanation. This was my starting point for reflection: Is it possible that mixed up with Sam’s bodysnatching was a good and holy instinct, one that further reveals the mystery of Christ?
My initial assumption was that Sam saw an opportunity to preserve a part of Sarah’s body he was about to lose. How tender. How gorgeous.
And yet, of course, the broken pieces of consecrated host in the side pocket of his briefcase are not Sarah’s body; they are the body of Christ of which Sarah’s body is a part — and of which Sam’s is also a part. Perhaps Sam sought to preserve a symbol of their bodily union, mysteriously mingled as they were in that broken host. (This made me think: What better gift for your Anglo-Catholic valentine than a pyx?)
But still, to be sure, it’s not just Sam and Sarah’s bodies mixed up in the briefcase’s side pocket, it’s mine too. It’s the Church’s body. It’s the bodies of our local parish brought into this hospital room, as it is the bodies of saints and sinners throughout time and space. As the body in Sam’s briefcase serves to signify their marital union, it is only because their marriage signifies at a deeper level the union between Christ and the Church.
The host in the briefcase is, in fact, first the body of Christ into which the bodies of Sam, Sarah, and the rest of us are grafted, and within which Sam is united to Sarah, and within which Sam and Sarah are united to the Church. This doesn’t negate the sentimentality of the moment but transforms it into theological romance: Now the only way Sam and Sarah can be united after they are parted by death is in Christ. And so the briefcase host — and every host Sam would receive in the future — could be for him a kind of touchable Sanctus, a physical object that transcended the boundary between heaven and earth, and thereby between Sam and his bride.
The most pivotal question didn’t occur to me for a few days, which is: What is Sam going to do with the body once he returns home? Sam had attended church enough to know that the bread is meant for eating; enough, even, to suspect that not eating the bread would be problematic. Even so, something inside Sam in that moment, some theological-existential tension seized his muscles, and screamed out, “Not yet. I don’t know why. But not yet.”
I imagined Sam unfolding the paper towel at home at his kitchen table, and it occurred to me the first thing he would think to do would be to find something more suitable than a paper towel to hold those crumbs. And then it hit me. Is this about Eucharistic adoration?
I don’t suppose Sam had a monstrance or ciborium waiting at home. In fact, I would be surprised if Sam even knew what such adoration was, much less ever attended a service of Benediction, but I wondered if the gut-level “not yet” impulse that inspired Sam’s body-snatching is the very same theological instinct that sits behind eucharistic adoration. That is, Sam’s impulse says something like, “There’s a weight in this moment that I don’t want to miss; I might not totally comprehend what’s happening, but I want to stay in this space between consecration and consumption for a little while longer. There’s something here worth reflecting on, worth sitting with, worth — perhaps? — adoring?”
And once I had thought about this word, adoration, I realized I had been going about this all wrong. The reason — if there was one — to abide in the moment between consecration and consumption is not so that one might more fully understand what is happening in the Eucharist. You don’t have to understand something to adore it. In fact, it seems to me that we more intensely adore those things that we don’t fully understand, like our spouse, our children, or our dogs. There are many measurable, nameable things we like about them, but what inspires our adoration of them resides in precisely what we can’t describe. Isn’t that what was happening in that hospital room? Adoration deepens our love for the body of Christ.
In all this, I’ve learned again that part of what makes the Eucharist so potent is precisely its resistance to simplistic description. Not that its meaning is infinitely malleable, but I wonder if it’s helpful to think of the Eucharist as more like a prism, something that has a distinct and fixed shape, but that can refract out a variety of beauty depending on where you hold it up against the light. From that hospital room with Sam and Sarah, the Eucharist refracted something I had never seen before, something that has intensified the mysterious beauty of every Eucharist I’ve celebrated since, and something that reminds me still what an enormous privilege it is to be a priest.