Sunday, July 12, 2009

Water Into Grape Juice, Bread into Cardboard

It's Sunday. For reasons I will not go into, I spent two hours in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral this morning, for the second Sunday in a row. Yes, two hours. Orthodox services are long—double what I am accustomed to. My mother was baptized in the Orthodox Church, but I was not. I was raised, baptized, and confirmed in the Presbyterian denomination. I was married in a Catholic church but did not convert. Because I am not Orthodox, I am not allowed to take communion in the Cathedral. So, I watched the others in their solemn procession up the main aisle, watched them cross themselves, watched the priest administer the sacrament on a spoon. No individual shot glasses of sacrament here. My Protestant and very American mind kicked in: Was the spoon being wiped off each time someone used it? I couldn't tell, but I suspect not. Hygienic neuroses are a relatively modern thing, and the Orthodox Church is definitely not what I'd call modern, though they've progressed. Maybe I'm wrong about the reuse of the spoon. One thing I know for sure, though, is that the parishioners were not swallowing grape juice. I remember being young and thinking nothing of it—of the grape juice, I mean. It was just what you got in church, sometimes. In the Presbyterian faith, you do not have communion every week. Actually, I remember really looking forward to Communion Sundays when I was young, because it was like snack time. I loved deep purple grape juice, and the bread was real bread. I realize this may seem appalling to some non-Presbyterians, but I was a child. Grape juice seemed normal. And even now, to my mind, the "looking forward to" seems normal. It's supposed to be a celebration, too, isn't it? But I do have to wonder now: why grape juice? I mean, it's true, the Bible does not describe Jesus turning water into grape juice. The disciples certainly did not celebrate their Seder supper with plain old grape juice. I remember the first time I participated in a non-Protestant service and took communion. I was in Notre Dame, in Paris. I was twenty-one years old, living in France for several months and getting college credit for an internship program. I don't know what drew me to the Sunday Mass. At that time, I had long stopped going to church. Perhaps it was Easter, though I don't remember any extraordinary pageantry. But there didn't need to be; it was Notre Dame! I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. And when it was time to partake of the body and blood of Christ, I did. I didn't think twice about it, though maybe I should have. It was Easter (yes, I'm pretty sure now), and I lined up with everyone else. The actual procedure is fuzzy. It's weird that I can't remember whether we drank out of a communal cup or not. Did we even drink at all? Maybe it was only the priest who both ate and drank. But whether by firsthand experience or not, I knew it was not grape juice, and I was surprised. I just assumed all churches used it. That maybe wine was too expensive or something. But of course this was France. There would be wine. Which is why the Host was such a let-down. I feel flames licking my heels as I write this, but really, in France, I didn't expect papery, tasteless, super-thin "bread." What was this wafer placed on my tongue? Where was the blessed baguette? This morning, I couldn't help thinking that maybe the Greek Orthodox have got it right: they drink wine, not grape juice; they eat bread, not cardboard. Unless I want to convert to Orthodoxy, this is not something I will experience. But somehow, just watching the Eucharist and having these questions and memories of my own very different experience come up made it well worth two hours in a somewhat uncomfortable pew.


  1. Try dunking some Ciabatta in room temperature Mavrodaphne wine and you'll get pretty close. It's not bad :)

  2. Kalliope: Thanks for the suggestion. Mock-eucharist... wouldn't have thought of that! ;-)