Something special happens at church. That’s what I want my kids to know.
My little sister’s eyes widen and her five-year-old hands fly up in surprise. I’m jostled and the glass cup, suspended between my fingers, not yet to my lips, tips, grape juice seeping in a streak across my light blue dress, a dress made by a distant cousin of satin fabric, with vertical stripes of ribbon embroidered with pink roses, set in tiny ruffles. At age nine, I knew little of Catholics and their first communion, but if I had known, I would have worn the tidy white polyester gloves with short veil too. I shove past my sister into the aisle and race sobbing by a blur of faces, seated bodies waiting for the shiny tray of communion cups to make it down their pews as a middle-aged woman in tan nylons thumped the keys of a plug-in organ.
It’s not the purple stain that seized my heart, I tell a visiting relative who finds me in the foyer of the Baptist church. But that I had waited a long time for my parents to allow this rite of passage. My dreamy expectation of it, why I had worn my best dress, had ruptured, leaving a fierce disappointment. Unlike the church I attend now, it would be weeks before I had another opportunity.
As a young child, despite my upbringing, I had a notion of communion as a sacrament. I was taught that those who call communion a sacrament see it as a work, a way to get to heaven. But I saw communion more simply: something special happening. In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright writes that the Eucharist is not a “quasi-magic ritual” or a “bare memory” but that it’s a moment when the past, the present, the future connect in a joining of the old and the new creation begun by Christ’s resurrection.
For the cultivation of my children’s imagination, I care about sacrament and about the ritual in worship that surrounds it. Other contenders demand my children’s imagination through not only their minds but also, according to James K. A. Smith, their bodies, with additional rituals, such as the apps on the screens they manipulate with their fingers while they are being manipulated in return.
I remember shaming myself as a young person when the death of Aslan wrenched my heart to tears shed but the death of Jesus did not. But today I see reading C. S. Lewis’s book as a small, individual way of participating in symbol. For us to know God, the Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann explains, we mustn’t align ourselves with modernism’s division of “knowledge and participation,” but we must “participate” in symbol, sacrament. As Schmemann wrote about an “’epiphany’ of reality” through participating in symbol and Wright of the experience of a “new reality,” Lewis introduced me to a deeper reality through his works.
Something special happens at church. That’s what I want my kids to know. No need for a detailed explanation of transubstantiation or memorial or whatever in between. Yes, their daddy and I will talk about the sermon afterwards, but if the sermon was bad, it was still good to be there. There is hope there. A hope greater than that of the fanciful books we read. We heard the ongoing story from the Word. We took the wine and the bread. This is His blood shed for you and His body broken for you. Know that reality is not just what you can touch with your hand.
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.