On this snowy day in Orne, Normandie, I have been given to reflection on times past. For some reason I thought about the most joyful eucharist I ever attended…and it was years before I was ordained. It happened when I was hitchhiking back from Canada where I had spent a short time in a hospice for young Americans opposed to the Vietnam war. Among the chief reasons I did not stay there was this: it was overcrowded, there were no spare beds, sheets or blankets and sleeping on a cold, hard floor in winter just proved to be too much. I decided to take my chances with Uncle Sam. (I had lost my 2-S, but you can get a flavour of that in my second novel, No Good Deed: https://jacknlawson.com/no-good-deed/)
On the way back to my college in North Carolina, I stopped over in Harrisburg, PA where the trial of Fr. Daniel Berrigan and others was taking place. Considering it was Berrigan who convinced me to burn my draft card a year or so before, I thought I would return the favour by turning up at the courthouse to show my support. He and the other defendants were on trial for destroying government property: namely draft records, which they had pilfered and burnt– not seeking to escape, by the way. Incidentally, they did not hurt or threaten anyone. They simply wanted to interrupt the paperwork which was sending so many of my generation to kill or be killed in Southeast Asia.
One evening there was an ecumenical service officiated by Fr. Philip Berrigan (Daniel’s older brother), Rev. Prof. Harvey Cox and, I think, Rev. Ralph Abernathy (above). The church was so packed, it was standing room only–a real fire marshal’s nightmare. When it came time for communion, there was no way people could move either to go to the altar rail, Roman Catholic-style or to serve one another, Protestant-style. So the clergy gave the prayer of thanksgiving, blessing the sacraments, and began throwing huge chunks of bread to the gathered throng. Wine was then passed around by the bottle! (The doctrinally inclined would not have approved!) There was a real sense of hope and purpose to that eucharist–as well as palpable joy.
Fifty years later, I have to admit to never having experienced that same joy again during communion. Sad, ain’t it? Most communion services I have attended or officiated felt more like funerals, amongst God’s ‘frozen chosen’ rather than the expression of joy at Christ’s resurrection and God’s all-encompassing and forgiving love. Goodness knows I did my best to make the eucharist experiential, real, urgent and joyful; but alas, cultural Christianity resisted.
I later studied with Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School (1976), and in 2013 was able to coax him to travel to England to give lectures and seminars at the Norwich Centre for Christian Education, which I had helped found. We both reminisced and laughed about that eucharist in Harrisburg–as well as recalled the urgency of those times. We even compared our experiences in Southern jails! Only eight years after my reunion with Cox, I have the same sense of urgency about the US. But now, sadly, too many Christian denominations ally themselves with the powers of hate and darkness, seeking–like the German National Church of the 1930s and 40s–to limit and define God’s activity to white, Protestant culture. Would that American Christianity again had the beacons of light and hope that we had in Abernathy, ML King, William Sloane Coffin, the Berrigans and so many others. King had his dream; and I have my memories.