O Lord, we cannot go to the pool of Siloe to which you sent the blind man.
But we have the chalice of Your Precious Blood, filled with life and light.
— St. Ephrem of Syria
“Let us offer each other the sign of peace.”
That’s my cue. It’s Thursday, my day to be on call as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and there’s a sizable turnout for Mass. So I wave at a couple folks in nearby pews and move ahead to the altar rail.
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” Fr. David continues, “have mercy on us.”
At that I thump my chest as I’ve always done since joining the Church. It’s technically not a gesture in the rubrics, and even redundant now that we have communal thumping built into the updated translation of the Confiteor. Still, it’s an appropriate signal to anyone who’ll be in my line for Holy Communion that I’m no great shakes, and I need the sacramental medicine as much as they do.
“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace” – my third thump, and then down on my knees along with two other extraordinary ministers. We look up as Fr. David hoists our edible Savior before our very eyes. “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” Such an outrageous claim, such an outlandish invitation – and so much harder to absorb from that proximate vantage. There he is aloft, a mere scrap of unleavened eternity – I’m to receive him? I’m to distribute him? The rife offense of the Eucharist is so much easier to take when I’m a distracted plebeian in the back pew.
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” we all admit, “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Then it’s time for my fellow extraordinary ministers and I to stand, step forward, bow to the altar, and approach Fr. David for that promised healing – indeed, a necessary healing and unprecedented.
If you’re an extraordinary minister, you know the jockeying behind the altar that can come next. Some prefer to hold the chalice; others are more comfortable with the ciborium. We all have our comfort zones when it comes to handing out God. Me? I prefer the chalice, which is ironic since I rarely partake of the Precious Blood when I’m not serving as a minister of Communion. It’s mainly for practical reasons because there’s usually a wait to receive the chalice and I prefer to get back to my pew ASAP. But, to tell the truth, both duties make me pretty nervous. I’m always anxious I’ll goof up, maybe drop him or spill or something. I mean, what’s the Church thinking anyway – who’s idea was it to let lay schmoes like me handle the Sacred Species?
Even so, it’s allowed, and apparently needful, so I keep volunteering despite my misgivings. In the moment, I try to reduce stress by focusing on function, and this time was no exception. My fellow lay ministers and I receive the Lord – “Body of Christ; Amen” – before taking up our extraordinary duties, and I’m eventually entrusted with a chalice. “The Blood of Christ,” Fr. David says, and I nod in reverence. After gripping the chalice, I sip salvation, and then wipe the spot with the purificator. The priest precedes me down the steps to bring Jesus to the altar server and beyond; I follow behind guarding the deified fluid with my little white cloth.
Those distributing the consecrated hosts take their place in the center aisle, while I position myself a few yards away near St. Joseph and his bank of votive candles. Usually, I stand there stoically, nervous, steadying my goblet of God, awaiting the line of communicants. Yet this time is different. For whatever reason, I glance down at the crimson pool in my grasp – there are ripples, and a tiny dust fleck floating near the chip of host from the fraction rite – and it dawns on me: “Wait, this is him, it’s really him – what am I doing here?” I feel the weight of his sacrifice, the gravity of this libation, and I’m overwhelmed by the task before me: To place the vessel of life in the hands of sinners, one after another, to tell them who’s in it, and then invite them to quench their thirst. It’s so routine, so normal, and yet I waver – can I do it? Ought I do it?
A communicant approaches – “The Blood of Christ.” He accepts the chalice and I watch him drink – done! Steady now, the line stretches ahead of me. “Blood of Christ; Amen,” again and again. My mind is racing – I’m giving these people God, and they’re consuming him. There’s healing in that chalice, no doubt, but the pain of the Cross as well, the loss and the death. It all comes as a package: We’re healed by the outpouring of his blood, and simultaneously we’re called to pour out ourselves in imitation. Indeed, it’s not even imitation, for it’s his life that pours through us – an extension, that is, of his Passion replicated in each of his followers.
And, in a small way, a very small, humbling way, it’s even what I’m doing as a Communion minister: Passing along the divine life I myself have received – almost like Mary. There can be no holding back, no hesitation. Once we get God, we pass him on … and go back for more.
The last recipient hands the chalice back to me, and I dry off the edge. Afterward, I carry his Presence back to the sacristy before consuming the final mouthful. Then, as always, I gather with the other lay ministers before a simple placard. It’s been hanging in the St. Matt’s sacristy for a long time, and it contains a beautiful after-Mass prayer – apparently composed by our beloved former pastor, Bishop Joseph Crowley of happy memory: “We give you thanks, Heavenly Father, for the honor of assisting at this Holy Sacrifice,” it reads, “and we beg You to forgive us whatever failing we have committed before your Divine Majesty” – like my little panic moment while distributing Communion maybe? My flash of hubris and lack of trust?
The prayer continues: “Help us to spend the rest of this day in Your Presence and to apply to ourselves the lessons we have learned at Your Holy Altar.” Yes, Lord, keep me mindful of your presence, as well as the opportunities you’ll give me to be a vessel of that presence for others.