A few months ago on a first Sunday morning I sat on the pew in church marveling about the innovation of the communion cup. So, I took a picture of my communion cup because I knew that I might explore this wondrous moment further at some point in the future. As I sat looking at the cup, I acknowledged the innovation and practicality embodied in this creation. However, I couldn’t figure out why it was so dang hard to get to the “bread.”
I know some folks, especially those in my childhood church, might say that using a camera phone in church during any part of communion service is a violation of the unstated eleventh commandment, but I own the fact that I am not the best church lady. The artist in me overpowered the church lady and the next thing you know the cell phone was coming out of the mid-sized tote sitting on the pew next to me. I never really understood the strict rituals as a child and maybe this picture taking moment was a repressed need to rebel against formality and expectations to preserve a moment. My disclaimer for such behavior has been to label myself as a not-so-good church lady. In general, I am not the one to ask about the topics one should expect to be discussed in Sunday school class or week night Bible study. I am not the one who will be following the pastor or the choir to other church services every Sunday afternoon. I will take notes during church and reference those notes during the week. I will even share my notes with others. I will pray with and for others in the church and in my community, but I probably will not be that church sister who responds that I am “blessed and highly favored” when asked how I am doing. So, when an artist-writer sits down in church whoever decided that the combo “wine” cup and “bread” holder was an excellent idea should have known that the creative mind of a not-so-good church lady would direct her to pull out her cell phone and preserve the moment for a later discussion. I don’t think anyone saw me take this picture except my daughter who still loves me in spite of my shortcomings and misdeeds. As I recall, she gave me a head shake and smile.
It seems that a lot of churches use these cups because I have used them in churches in various parts of the country over the years. I am sure there are reasons that churches opt for this method instead of passing the shiny silver trays. Instead of the silver trays sectioned to hold small glasses for the “wine” and the flat trays for the crackers, my current church uses the dual purposed plastic cups. My experiences with communion services and practices are rooted in the traditions of my childhood church and seasoned by the experiences of the many churches we have attended over the years since we left Alabama.
In my childhood church, we had a communion day ritual in which everyone who wished to partake in that part of the service came to the alter in the front of the church to be served. We would line up down the outer aisles of the church, go to the alter, kneel when directed to do so by the pastor, then cup our hands, right over left, to receive our “bread” and “wine.” I put the words bread and wine in quotes because most churches don’t actually serve real wine or real bread. I remember when a pastor at my childhood church created a situation with the leadership and the membership after he made a decision to serve real wine on a first Sunday because he said “Jesus didn’t turn water into grape juice.” I still laugh when I reflect on that pastoral insight. I don’t remember how many first Sundays he convinced the leadership to stand with him, but I don’t think it happened too many first Sunday’s before we were back to the grape juice. At my church, the adults always went first, the children went second followed by the choir and the musicians who would skillfully keep the melody flowing from the organ and the piano while they supped with the choir that was kneeling at the alter. I often watched the organist play the foot pedals that were a part of what looked like a keyboard on the floor as she played the keyboard with her right hand and took communion with her left. I don’t think she ever knew that I was amazed by her abilities every first Sunday.
There was a lot of mystery about the preparation of communion at my childhood church. When we got to church there was a white skirt on the altar and the silver trays were perfectly stacked in front of the pulpit podium and centered just behind the altar. The stewardesses were all dressed in white and the choir wore white robes. It was a very formal ritual. While I respected the formality, I wondered how everything in front us came to be before anyone arrived in the sanctuary. Somehow these cups with the tricky plastic remove the mystery and tradition from the service for me. It doesn’t change the importance of communion or the purpose for the service, but it’s just not the same and the process is not smooth and seamless for most of us living the struggle of the tricky plastic “lid” that covers the “bread.”
I just need to know one thing: why is it so dang hard to get the “bread” out of the top of that special cup? Every first Sunday at least one person and possibly two on my pew work to peel that piece of light weight plastic covering back in order to expose the “bread.” Who would ever think that a little piece of plastic could capture the thoughts of parishioners and remove them temporarily from the communion experience. I know when I am struggling I am so worried that somebody is watching me and observing the rise of my level of frustration with the manipulative cup. I also worry that I won’t get the plastic off of the top of the cup before the communion leader starts the scripture reading and gives the instruction to eat and drink. There is really no way to look cool when you are in a battle with a piece of plastic on a communion cup. I get so distracted watching people try to separate the plastic from the paper tab used to open the bottom of the cup holding the liquid. Most of the time I am laughing inside and visibly shaking my head as I watch people struggle with those cups. They are not vacuum sealed or anything, but I am certain there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. It reminds me of the struggle to open those plastic bags in the produce section at the grocery store (which can be opened easily with a little moisture from the sprinklers used to keep the produce fresh). I must also admit that I am entertained by the first timer who appears to have never used this type of innovative creation. Those folks generally look surprised that the cracker has no yeast and the “wine” tastes a little stale. Most parishioners have probably never been asked to give an opinion on the offerings at communion, but I am fairly certain that I am not the only one with this question and this struggle. If someone has the solution to this communion cup riddle, please feel free to share.