Hands Full of Life in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

The Eucharist is honestly bizarre. To the untrained observer, the sight of a coterie of […]

August Smith / 7.30.19

The Eucharist is honestly bizarre. To the untrained observer, the sight of a coterie of nicely dressed congregants sauntering up to an altar, kneeling with outstretched hands and soberly sanguine faces proves utterly bewildering. Of course this is only the modus operandi of some more traditional denominations; others have learned how to logistically and visually nuance the process, at least partially. But the weirdness persists. What to make of a group of wildly diverse people munching on little morsels of bread and drinking out of a common cup in an age of ubiquitously accepted germ theory, and referring to it as flesh and blood,¬†no less? It’s no wonder the Romans suspected some fishy business.

The Lord’s Supper is many things, none of which I have space to explicate here. But most notably in the Eucharist is a recognition of our own inadequacy and a concession that we are in need of something outside of ourselves to sustain us in a world so replete with death. The Supper is a communal sign and seal of Christ’s possession of us, an acknowledgement that his spiritual food and drink will alone provide a taste of new and everlasting life. Along with baptism, the Eucharist is the universal emblem of Christ’s claim on his people. Without splitting too many theological hairs, it is clear that Baptism and the Eucharist are, at the very least, silent but tangible actions that boldly proclaim the gospel in a world otherwise destined for death. They are subtle eruptions of life in dark cosmos and pillars of hope in a hopeless world. It is no wonder, then, that notwithstanding one’s Eucharistic theology these actions often prove to be some of the most profound experiences of grace in the Christian life.

In his recent The Care of Souls (which includes a foreword by none other than Michael Horton!), Harold Senkbeil recounts one of these moments whilst administering the body and blood of new life to a frail woman deep in the suffocating grasp of death. His book is geared toward pastors, but many sections are apropos to every Christian. He reminds readers that, as servants of Christ, our curriculum vitae is not to fix everything wrong with the world, but merely to allow the life of Christ to seep out of our hands to those in the embrace of death (i.e., everyone). This short anecdote beautifully illustrates the profound, life-giving effects of that quasi-cannibalistic practice we call Communion even (and maybe especially) on those merely moments from death. From pages 24-25:

Let’s call her Roberta; she was clearly near the end of a very long journey toward death’s door. Roberta’s cancer was a particularly nasty variety; by now it had eaten its way into most of her vital organs. The scarf that concealed her balding head bore silent testimony to the radical regimen of chemotherapy her body had endured in a vain attempt to stave off death. She extended a weak hand and a wan smile to greet her pastor. Her skin was pasty and cold to the touch, her breaths labored and shallow, exuding the sweetly sour smell of impending death. Though her eyes were losing their luster she gladly, eagerly hear the word of God, clinging to every syllable. “Would you like the Lord’s Supper?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she whispered in her weak little voice.

We launched into the timeless ritual of all the faithful, Roberta and me. The meal that nourishes every saint throughout earthly pilgrimage all lifelong culminates in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in his kingdom. So that dreary winter afternoon, from a makeshift bedside table set squarely in the valley of the shadow of death, Roberta received a foretaste of that eternal feast still yet to come. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed,” I began, consecrating the tiny bit of bread I thought she might be able to swallow. Together with a miniature chalice with its little sip of wine, these would be for her the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the sign and seal of her redemption and the promised resurrection of her worn and dying body. In this sacred meal Roberta would obtain not merely forgiveness, but also life in all its fullness already here and now on the very brink of death.

But then a logistical problem: how to commune someone who could no longer lift her head? Gingerly slipping onto the edge of her bed, I gently wrapped one arm beneath her frail bony shoulders and lifted her feather-light torso, cradling her like some skeletal baby. With my other hand I placed in her mouth the gifts her Savior died to bring: the bread of heaven here on earth, the cup of salvation poured out for all the world. “Take eat, the body of Christ, given for you,” I said. “Take drink, his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Then a parting blessing with the sign of the cross traced on her ashen forehead with my thumb: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and in soul unto life everlasting. Depart in his peace.”

And she did. Not right then, but not many days later we gathered to give thanks for all our Lord’s many mercies, to celebrate his grace, and then to commit Roberta’s body to the ground; earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life which God grants all baptized who die in faith in Christ, the Living One.

But that day there in Roberta’s apartment as I packed up my communion case and bade farewell to her family and friends keeping vigil with her, one of them said admiringly: “You had death in your hands here today.” I’m not sure how I responded then. But here’s what I should have said: “Maybe so, but I also had life in my hands to bring.”

That’s what it means to be a servant of Christ. You get your hands dirty among his earthly — and earthy — people. But you do it because you have life in your hands to give them.