Children who grow up in the Episcopal Church today probably don’t remember their first communion. Our theology today is one that includes children at this family meal from the time of their baptism, which is frequently done when they are infants. And I love that children never remember a time when they weren’t welcome, when communion was not part of what church and God and community mean. That said, I grew up at a time when first Communion was a big deal, and not done on the day of baptism, but when you were a bit older. There were classes of preparation, days, weeks, months of anticipation all for this tiny crumb of bread and sip of wine. I remember my own first communion and the excitement that went on around it. My mother took me shopping for a dress, I imagine, but most certainly for an Easter bonnet. She bought silk flowers for it and we wove them in and out of the holes in the straw hat in the week before Easter Sunday, the day that would mark my first communion.
That Easter morning, my father went, as was his custom, to the early church service to read. My mother and I ate a lazy breakfast and were getting dressed. I remember the distress in his voice as he entered the house, calling my mother’s name. Calling her name, over and over, until we both came running. “The church,” he said. “the church is on fire.” Easter morning and the church was burning. (To be precise, it was the Christian Formation building, but still, the Church).
We arrived at the church, like so many others, a silent vigil, watching in horror as hoses full of water broke through windows, as orange and red flames spit out of that beloved space. As the fire began to die down, word came that we would have our Easter Day mass at the Baptist Church around the corner at one o’clock.
I imagine how strange all of it must have been for my parents. Not just not having Easter in the Church, not just the horror of watching helplessly as that sacred space burned, but the strangeness of watching their daughter take her first communion not in the familiar marble altar rail, but in a rather generic worship space, without the smells of incense and the colours of the stained glass windows, without the comfort of what was, at that time, home. And yet, even in the different space, it worked. It was Easter. The community of the faithful was gathered and fed. Hymns were sung and Alleluias proclaimed. And we returned to our home, gratefully, the next week.
As for me, of that day, I remember very little. Except for kneeling at a rail, filled with expectation, curious and excited all at once. My eyes fixed on Father Ferguson, and I stretched forth my hands to receive that funny piece of bread. And it was good.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Happy Easter.