Unexpected Gifts: A reflection on the Advent Eucharist author series at St. John’s

The following is a guest post by member Lea Anne Schmidt about the nature of Eucharist, and some of her own learnings and wonderings coming out of our three part Advent author series Yearning and Eucharist. Thank you, Lea Anne, for your words prayerfully offered, and for engaging so deeply with the idea of the Eucharistic life and how we can be living it even now as we are absent from regularly receiving the sacrament in person.

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by Lea Anne Schmidt

Raise your hand if you like Zoom. Anyone? If there’s any one demographic who might have their hand up, it could be the working moms. As a mother of four who works outside the home, I don’t have spare hours in my week. While I, too, tire of our Zoom existence, I do harbor appreciation for the convenience and time saved, and the opportunity to hear some new voices and perspectives from folks outside of St. Johns. 

I felt fortunate in early Advent to be able to join, along with Lydia, the Wednesday afternoon reading of “We Gather at This Table” by the Rev. Anna Ostenso Moore. Likewise, I was able to join the recent presentations by the Rev. Dr. James Farwell and the Rev. Emily Scott–while simultaneously making dinner for my family. While I probably couldn’t have dragged them to an in-person series, watching from the kitchen allowed my older kids to catch little bits of the discussion as they passed through the house. “A little” is better than “none”! 

The kitchen has at times seemed the most appropriate place to be for church. We’ve gotten so much more technologically savvy, bringing more and more of the church experience into our homes. While I miss the physical space and the live music, what I wonder most about these days is the Eucharist. The table is where I want to be.

Yet throughout my life, but especially in 2020, the kitchen was often the most tedious, frustrating place to be. I believe in trying to create sacred spaces in our homes, and modelling the values our faith calls us to act on, but incorporating a Eucharistic experience at the family table has been a challenge to me. Everytime I turn around my children are hungry, looking for food and wanting it to taste good. Some weeks, cooking has been an exhausting, even resentment-filled experience, not a sacramental moment. 

So, when I learned that our Advent read and formation series was focused on the Eucharist, I was intrigued. I ordered the books and jumped in. Even after the series finished, I have continued to pray about the Eucharist these last few weeks. Three themes remain with me in particular: community, practice, and opportunity. As the Rev. Anna Ostenso Moore signals with her book’s title, we gather at this table–wherever or whatever that table looks like. Whether it is a holiday meal over zoom, s’mores over a backyard bonfire with “our pod”, dinner in the dining room of our care facility, or the never-ending task of feeding hungry children, we can celebrate and give thanks to God. The burden of providing three meals a day–or four, when you have teenagers–is also an opportunity to practice praise and thanksgiving to God. 

While St. John’s has not offered drive-by or pickup of “communion-to-go bags” as some churches have, the writings and presentations of the guest speakers helped put this decision in perspective. Lacking the ability to gather around the table safely, to be in physical proximity with one another, their works reminded me that the Eucharist in some form, can be found in our homes and our communities with some creativity, effort, and humility.

That returns me to how difficult it can be to create a holy experience at the dinner table. In his introduction to his book, “The Liturgy Explained”, the Rev. Dr. Farwell offers the following thought:

“Rituals are not simply utilitarian; they don’t simply get something accomplished but situate the practitioners within a higher value or set of values that give life meaning. Ritualizing is centered on beliefs or values that a particular person, group, or culture, considers in some way central to their identity and flourishing. It is centered on them in the mode of practice, not simply by way of ideas.” 

For someone who wants her family table to reflect a Eucharistic experience, even just occasionally, but doesn’t love to cook or consider it one of my greatest strengths, I welcomed his emphasis on “practice”. A practice emphasizes repetition and allows–even accepts–errors. The value, as he notes, is not in the utilitarian, whether that’s the nutritional content or the wondrous mix of flavors. Rather, it is the repetition, and if there’s something lacking in the meal one night, you will have many more chances to redeem it. And along the way, the practice of the meal ritual is how we become who we are. A practice offers grace. Sometimes I feel pressure to “keep up” with folks whose food posts seem magazine worthy. I bring that perceived inadequacy along with past hurts to the kitchen in the disguise of impatience and resentment, or even worse, allow it to spill over onto my family. 

With the Eucharistic table, God provides daily forgiveness and ample opportunity to try again. There is room to put my ego aside, give thanks that I have food to cook, and try to incorporate little changes that model the values we want to enact. I have only begun exploring what that might look like. Perhaps my husband, Patrick, and I can mix up our daily dinner prayer routine. Perhaps I become more intentional around including my children in the family meal prep. Maybe we begin to share our highs and lows of the day during dinner, providing more space for thanksgiving and forgiveness. Maybe we simply share a corny joke at each meal, to offer some humor or a bit of joy during this crazy period of isolation. Whatever the changes, I am hopeful that each experiment will create more space for us, the “we” at the table, to feel the love God extends to all of us.

And then there is, even more, the reminder that we have the opportunity to extend the Eucharist to others beyond the table in the sanctuary. This became even more powerful to me this year when remembering how many would struggle to put food on the table while I was focused on planning our traditional feasts and festive treats. Quoting liturgical scholar, Robert Taft, the Rev. Dr. Farwell observes that “the purpose of Eucharist is not to change bread and wine, but to change you and me: through baptism and eucharist it is we who are to become Christ for one another and a sign to the world that is yet to hear his name.” How can I decide what to buy, what to cook, and join with a healthy family, without recognizing that these are gifts? We can also gather at a different table, seeing the work of sharing food with the hungry or the food insecure as the act of creating altars in the world. 

A while back I read a Facebook announcement from Roseville Area Schools offering free family meals. It read, “Stretch your budget. Save time. Reduce the stigma. Employ your community. Support local farmers. Family Table meals are for everyone.” I abstained from taking part, not needing to take a meal from those who needed it more. A week before Christmas I was nudged by a girlfriend to try it out, with some justification about how this would help the organization sustain their funding and “employ community workers”. So off I went, in order to “reduce the stigma.” It was dark as I pulled up beside the school. Just a few lights highlighted a white folding table and some shiny aluminum pans. In an instant, I rolled down my window and a gentleman leaned over to my car to ask how many people I was trying to feed that night. Blood rushed to my face with a mixture of emotions. There was embarrassment: Yikes! Does he think I need food to feed my family? I am here to “break the stigma”! There was bewilderment: How did I get drawn into this? And then there was gratitude: I am thankful there are nutritious meals available to everyone. What a gift! 

I have been on the flip side of donation lines and delivering meals, and have seen how their responses matched my own. I recognized these as parts of the Eucharistic experience, be it at the altar of St. John’s; a meal from the hands of my husband or a friend; or at a community altar in front of a school. Is this gift for me? Am I worthy? But, thank you

Advent is a season of longing, and even after it is over, I am still longing for the Eucharist as we knew it before 2020. But through St. John’s Advent formation, I have learned that in our long wait to return to our physical church, the more I am able to see the Eucharist unfolding in my home, our community, and throughout the world. 

I am especially grateful to our Associate Rector the Rev. Craig Lemming and our Rector the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson for dreaming up this series on the Eucharist and above all else to Ellie Watkins, our Media Specialist and Sarah Dull, Executive Administrator, for their outstanding work coordinating and communicating this series. Thank you.

If you too would like to learn more about the Episcopal churches rich Liturgy and especially the Eucharist, I encourage you to read the three books selected by our clergy. Jered’s reflection provides a wonderful introduction to each of them.

We Gather at This Table, by the Reverend Anna Ostenso-Moore (a read aloud by Anna)

For All Who Hunger, by the Reverend Emily M.D. Scott

The Liturgy Explained, by the Reverend Dr. James Farwell

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