An Altar in the Ordinary

As a deacon, the way people find it most easy to distinguish me from a priest is by reminding me that I cannot preside at the Eucharist. And indeed they are right. I can’t and shouldn’t preside at the Eucharist in church where it is the role of the leader of the Eucharistic community to preside at communion.

But as a deacon I can and will lead home communions and as I train for all aspects of my ministry I have been privileged to attend three home communions, led by three different people in three different parishes. Each has been special, moving and memorable. These tiny services or acts of service with just two or three people present seem to be a glimpse of the Church at its kindest.

Through these simple services people at risk of isolation through ill-health, old age or other issues are kept in communion with their church. For an hour or so they host the Church in their home and receive both company and compassion while being given the chance to take part in worship and prayer.

At the last service I went to I was struck by the huge symbolism of these moments. The minister lays a clean, white, ironed cloth out wherever there is a space. On a coffee table covered in tabloids and celeb magazines, on a bedside table covered in medication or on a small garden table surrounded by overgrown plants. The cloth is called the corporal – a word which means body – and immediately we see the significance of the incarnation. God is dwelling in these ordinary spaces, God is living among us; not only in the holy places and the clean places and the extraordinary places but in the front room, at the bed-side or in the back yard.

On this cloth is placed the shiny silver chalice and paten, the cup and bowl made in miniature and holding the elements that are blessed and become for us the body and blood of Christ. The ordinary table becomes an altar. The ordinary stuff of food and drink becomes for us the living Christ. An ordinary visit becomes a time for the extraordinary to be imagined and embodied – the life of wholeness beyond the suffering is glimpsed in a moment. Reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, nourishment, community are tangible in this time. For me, these tiny services have become the holiest of communions. I suddenly see the point of tenderly ironed linens, buffed silver and delicate wafers.

Scaling this symbolism up has given me a new way of looking at Sunday mornings too. In a place that is prepared and preened to be beautiful and special, we are making an altar in the ordinary. Our churches are in ordinary neighbourhoods full of longing for holiness, in an ordinary world longing for an extraordinary peace. Our lives are ordinary but our taking of communion points us towards the extraordinary.

The ordinal for deacons suggests that the love of God will be made visible in the forgotten corners of the world. A white cloth, a silver cup and bowl, a wafer and a sip of wine can reveal the love of God in all its facets in the grandest cathedral or in the most humble living room. It’s a privilege to preside in forgotten corners – let us never get too busy for home communions.

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