“THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME,” the altar reads. Today, to make a point about historical continuity or something, your pastor is conducting communion by the common-cup method—you know, like the Catholics do. In place of the usual silver, cross-bedecked trays carrying concentric rows of plastic thimbles full of grape juice, there is now a ceramic chalice. You’re pretty sure it’s even got wine in it. The formality of it mildly irritates you; it seems indulgent.

You were a latecomer this morning, though, slipping into a back row during prayers of confession before the offering. You missed the first songs and the pastor’s prefatory remarks, which “contextualized the chalice in church history” or whatever—a fact that you know only because it was whispered across the pew at you during the sermon by another back-pew dweller.

Here you are, then, at the back of the line, like a dummy. You frown; you trudge; you mimic the open-palmed gesture of those in front of you who are receiving their bread. As the line ahead of you grows shorter, you offer a perfunctory word to God asking for forgiveness. You receive and eat the bread. You face the cup.

“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” your pastor intones, his roving eyes fixed on you. With a raised eyebrow, you notice some floaters in the, er, symbol. You look up at your pastor with fear. You are cornered.

He lifts the cup toward you, and you take it from him. You tilt it. With a wild glance downward, you see soggy bits of that other symbol floating toward your mouth. You attempt to use your teeth as a sieve, sucking in a bit of wine. You level the cup back in the pastor’s hands a little too abruptly, causing a wave to clip the rim.

Walking away, you feel a crumb under your upper lip; despite your precautions, you only succeeded in vacuuming someone’s symbolic backwash right into your mouth.

“Therefore let us keep the feast,” he’d said during the bit of liturgical riffing that preceded communion. What a bait-and-switch: instead of a great meal, you get a tooth-sized chunk of stale bread and a sip of already-been-sipped wine. The crumb remains lodged in your gum line. You feel too disgusted to root it out with your tongue, and start looking in your bag for a tissue to retrieve it.

Your scalp tingles with annoyance, and annoyance brings on its unique hyperreality. Sundry aromas waft out of your bag. Your back is damp with perspiration, and it itches at points where your weight rests into the hard back of the pew. The hard cloth seat covering feels tough like burlap. You look up, and there are 150 individuals in front of you—each, you notice for what feels like the first time, with a uniquely shaped head. You frown. Why couldn’t God make every head the same? Do I really need to chart the contours of every head afresh when I encounter a new one?

Article continues below

“Blessed are they who live together in community,” the pastor reads. “It is like the oil running down Aaron’s beard. . . .” Meanwhile, a drop of sweat rolls down your back along your spine, tickling as it rolls. You almost laugh, a tragicomic mood belatedly settling on you.

As it descends, dovelike, you brace against the lesson you are about to learn. Here you are, in your stupid pew, and there, spread across every other stupid pew, are a whole lot of people who are not you. You look up at them as though commanded to: every skull covered in skin and hair in this room has its own unknown contours, shadings and ridges that would only reveal themselves to the gaze of a doctor or a lover. They are more various than you’d anticipated—an outsize resplendence, a ceaseless overflowing of leg hair and pimples and knob-knees and brains.

This, you remember, is community; this is the body in its infinite peculiarity, its insistent materiality. Here is Christ’s flesh: in your neighbor’s strange odor, in your cousin’s poor hygiene, in an old woman’s translucent skin, through which you note with horror that you can see not only her veins, but—you’re pretty sure—her bones. (Yeah, those are definitely her bones.) She looks like a candle melting to reveal an inner metal frame.

The crumb, meanwhile, has become soggy between your teeth. Memories come on unbidden, as though you were gumming a madeleine: cake crumbs from a birthday distant in time, running teeth-first into a fellow escapee’s forehead during a youth group game of “jailbreak,” the crunch and sliding ceramic feeling of your first cracked tooth. You strain as far into your past as you can, and your memory tapers away.

A change in intonation signals the pastor’s intent to bring his sermon to a head. You look up and around: tasteful brick, dark crossbeams, a banner on each wall behind the stage. The signs of an organization that thinks and plans in centuries, these touches. You are somehow connected to people who believed what you do half a millennium ago. But what about everything that remains invisible about this shared past? Church history is like the body’s stock of conscious memories, you think, glancing at the stained glass adorned with angular modernist figures. Beyond that history is what is in excess of history: the inscrutable movement of God in time, that paradox.

Article continues below

You look back down from the walls: there, again, the forest of backs of heads. Somehow, we all are taken up into this history and brought to the point where eternity clips time. As with the heads, as with the smells, to be a part of this body is to be at constant grips with something that infinitely exceeds you. The presence of God in time invites your own presence; it makes it possible to present yourself completely. Perhaps it even makes it possible to “be yourself,” you think with a grim smirk.

Lines from a book you’ve been halfheartedly reading on your lunches at work come back to you in hazy paraphrase (you will look them up later for the exact wording). They’re about the strange quality of consciousness at an orphanage: asked whether she was happy there, one orphan “said she was happiest when there was understanding, ‘when things go good for others,’ when people love each other.” The writer has an epiphany: “I realized then that I was asking a typically American question about the state or sovereignty of the self, and she, like so many of the kids, looked instead to the outer world, the world of contact, of presence.”

Up, out, and away—pushed into the world, into other people’s backwash and bad gas, and finding joy. “How can it be?” you mentally exclaim. You look at your bag, down at your own shoes, up again at the pastor and the field of heads. Can you really love the body to which you belong when it discomfits you? Can you really drink the cup that others drink—many others, and each of them just after having mashed a bit of bread in their mouths?

The pastor makes the sign to rise, and you stand. Your back and behind are damp; your pew-mate takes your hand at the pastor’s instruction, and you almost laugh with surprise.

As the benediction begins, you feel over your teeth with your tongue and swallow the unexpected morsel, arriving at the “OF ME” of the inscription on the altar. You affirm the reality of this body, and that body, and that body, and the capital-“B” body—all of it in excess, all of it in such fetid, many-splendored, great and terrible abundance.

In your private exultation, you suppose you are beginning to understand what it means to keep the feast.