By Nissa Basbaum - Priest, British Columbia
Published: November 2008
One of the requirements for ordination in the Diocese of Niagara is a three-month unit of clinical pastoral training. Mine, which took place at Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto, was an experience from which I retain only a few memories.
In the summer of 1982, I rode my bike each day through the streets of downtown Toronto to get to the hospital. At that time, I had behind me one year of theological education in a Canadian setting plus one year of residence in an English theological college. More to the point, perhaps, was that I had only been an Anglican (and a Christian) for a little over four years.
One of the students in my group with whom I developed a good friendship was a Baptist who was studying for ordination at Wycliffe College in Toronto. While my memories of clinical training may be somewhat dim, during this time as the two of us forged our relationship, I do have quite vivid memories of one particular conversation between the two of us.
As was often the case, while we had lunch together, we got involved in a serious theological discussion; this particular time, regarding the Eucharist. My friend asked me a not unreasonable question: "Why don't Anglicans throw away the bread and the wine that is left after the distribution of communion? Why does it all have to be consumed?"
Definitely not unreasonable except for the fact that, at the time of being confronted with this, I had only a little theological training behind me, and a mere five years prior to this, I was Jewish. I gulped. Taking my time before responding, I thought for a moment about what the right answer might be. (Yes, there was a time when I naively assumed there could be a right answer to a theological question. I guess some things do change!) Here's what I said.
"Well, I can't tell you for certain the correct response to your question. I can only tell you why it makes sense to me not to throw away the leftover bread and wine after communion. What is really happening at the time of the consecration is that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ – not the body and blood of Jesus, I added, but the body and blood of Christ. In other words, in the act of raising up the bread and the wine and consecrating these elements, the priest is raising up the Body of Christ – that is, the members of the community. If the bread and the wine are representative of this community, therefore, then throwing away the "leftovers' essentially would be the equivalent of casting aside the "leftovers" of the community.
Pausing for a minute, I held my breath. For whatever reason, I felt as if I had been put in the position of defending Anglicanism and I wasn't sure how I was going to fare.
"Hmm," my friend responded. "That makes some sense." (In fact, it might have made so much sense that this woman ultimately ended up as a priest in the Anglican Church, though I'm sure there were other reasons for this!)
Recently, while performing a task at church that I have always found particularly difficult to do, I was reminded of this conversation.
At Transfiguration, we have a somewhat unique way of introducing newcomers to the congregation. Several years ago, one relatively new parishioner suggested that she would find it helpful if, following worship, there were pictures of parishioners available for her to look at. In this way, if she met someone new during the service, being able to see their picture would help her to identify and remember their name. Following this request, one of the children in the congregation painted a tree on a hall wall, and "paper doll cut-outs" of each household were placed on this "family tree."
Over the years, the wall has been received with enthusiasm and has certainly been a useful tool in assisting people in their identification of the members of our congregation. Besides this, the playfulness of both the artwork and the paper doll cut-outs lend a bit of colour and joy to an otherwise drab off-white wall. In fact, there has only been one side effect from this endeavour that has proved to be problematic. But this side effect is no small complication.
When a couple separates and divorces, or someone moves away or dies, it is not only awkward but, in many cases, heart-wrenching to remove their picture from this family tree. In fact, there is a resistance to taking these photos off the wall and, unfortunately, for this reason the task is often left to me. This past August, the reality of this situation came home rather painfully.
Somewhat unexpectedly, a long-time Transfiguration parishioner died. Isabel was a good age and she died well; in fact, the way most of us would want to – in her sleep. Upon our return from holidays in August, however, I discovered that Isabel's picture remained on the wall, left I guess for me to remove. After church one Sunday, I did this, following which I took the picture into my office to dispose of it; as usual, I couldn't do this.
As I went to throw away the green leaf on which Isabel's paper doll cut-out was pasted, of course, I couldn't let go of it or, what I probably should be saying is that I couldn't let go of her. I hadn't ever been able to do this before so I have no idea why I thought I would be able to do it this time. Most of the pictures that have come off the wall have ended up in my desk drawer, placed there in a Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about that tomorrow," sort of way. And, then, I don't think about it. Instead, I leave the pictures in the drawer and avoid the reality of having to say good-bye in what seems like such an uncaring fashion.
These pictures – those people from the parish who for whatever reason are no longer a part of our family – are, for me, not unlike the leftover bits of bread and wine following communion. Just as I can't imagine disposing of any of the members of the community as they are represented in those bits of bread and wine, I also cannot dispose of these photographs that represent a piece of the life-breath of Transfiguration's family. Yet, I have also learned that they cannot forever remain in my desk drawer, untouched because neither I nor anyone else in the congregation can find a satisfactory way of letting them go.
Here, then, I find myself returning to the symbolism of the Eucharist and the changing of the bread and the wine into the Body of Christ. Some, though not all Anglicans, believe that if consecrated wine is spilled, the item on which this wine lands should be burned; for example, altar linens or a piece of carpet. Once upon a time, I might have considered this to be a little extreme and, even now, my practical side probably still does. Nonetheless, the act of burning this material illustrates and emphasizes that the consecrated wine is, indeed, the blood of Christ and therefore, the life-blood of the community. As such, at least metaphorically, the stain cannot – and should not – simply be "washed out."
A ritual of burning our paper doll cut-outs may be the way in which we at Transfiguration can appropriately let go of those from our community who have, for whatever reason, moved on. In fact, a ritual of burning may well be the one way in which all of us can express our reverence and respect for those we love even as we let them go.