Communion Circle: Why Tracy planned not to take communion one Sunday

Tracy Leonard was planning not to take communion that Sunday, but not a soul in Bethel Church knew it, not even her husband. This is the path her determination had taken. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace—the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ broken and spilled all over the earth for the sin of humankind, hers included. She knew she could look around Bethel Church and pick out other sins—Madeline’s unending gossip, Vangie’s blind arrogance, Brett’s flirtation with adultery—but the only sinner she knew to be worthy of judgment was herself. With her heart overflowing with sin, she was in no shape to accept God’s grace. She hated what she felt in her heart, but she was powerless before its rapacious appetite.

Like Othello’s, her jealousy had begun to eat upon itself. The green-eyed monster grew in her like a ghoulish serpent; it preyed upon her, a deviant murderer cutting her heart up into pieces. And she wasn’t its victim, she was its perpetrator. She did the sinning. She envied, horribly.

The tires sang at a different pitch when they crossed the bridge. They were almost at church.

Tracy knew the body and blood would be passed that morning, as always, for all the sins of those gathered. She’d taken communion for years, understood every word of the forms.

She was thirty-five years old, a successful headhunter with a reputable firm, salaried far beyond her own expectations. Her closets were full of clothes, and she and Will had a cabin on the lake and the money to enjoy exotic vacations.

She had a lot of things. But she couldn’t have children. Or at least it hadn’t worked so far. But that wasn’t her sin.

Tracy had no will to repent. She wasn’t ready. That was her sin. She took great pleasure in her envy, because envy was all she could feel after years of trying to have children; years of countless tears at the mere sight of baby toys, of cribs, of grocery store diapers; years of wishing and hoping and worrying about every last period; years of trying, a millennium of unanswered prayers that never rose above the ceiling in that empty room they’d so long ago designated for the baby who never came.

And after all of that, her own best friend, another barren Sarah like herself, had announced in tears that she was . . . Tracy couldn’t say the word. Her own best friend, MaryJane Admundson—the only soul on the face of the earth who knew what Tracy felt—was . . .

They’d met at Hubbards yesterday, at a booth in the back, where MaryJane reached for Tracy’s hands. They’d done that before, the two of them crying through mutual sadness. But this time MaryJane held Tracy’s hands and said, “Jeff and I . . .” That’s all. Just a hint of smile told Tracy what didn’t need to be said, what couldn’t be said.

For the first time Tracy understood the Old Testament story—how a childless woman could have wanted a baby so badly she’d take the birth mother to Solomon’s court. She understood because she wanted, like nothing else, that tiny little organism clinging to MaryJane’s insides.

That’s why Tracy wasn’t going to take communion. She wasn’t deserving. She was as full of sin as she was empty of child.

MaryJane Amundson deliberately directed her husband to the seats just behind Will and Tracy Leonard. MaryJane knew what Tracy was feeling. She knew very well because she would have felt it herself, the two of them so close through years of insufferably negative pregnancy tests. MaryJane wanted to sit near Tracy because she had to speak to her, had to touch her.

Pastor Jake de Meester had no clue about MaryJane’s totally unforeseen pregnancy or Tracy’s God-defying envy. He knew his parishioners’ lives, he thought. When he planned out the service, he knew that the church, like every one he’d ever served, was full of sin. That’s why he wanted to breathe new life into an old form—because he wanted them all to know deeply that the body and blood of Christ was broken and spilled for all of their sin.

So that Sunday morning he had the members of Bethel Church stand and step back to circle the entire sanctuary, forming a ring, a human chain, to celebrate the sacrament.

It wasn’t the first time Bethel Church had celebrated the sacrament that way. Not everyone liked it, of course; but then any innovation Pastor Jake had attempted at Bethel had encountered some understandable resistance. That particular Sunday morning, he was trying to be sure that everything worked smoothly, that there were no wrinkles in the celebration, because he wanted the people of Bethel Church to be more comfortable with change. In fact, he was so busy with the elements that he didn’t see Tracy Leonard walk away from her husband and leave the sanctuary.

Seated where she was, MaryJane Amundson couldn’t miss Tracy’s leaving. But when she started to follow, her husband grabbed her arm. “Maybe you’ll only make it worse,” he told her.

“It’s got to be me,” she said, and she left.

Anna Terwain had come to church late that morning, so she sat in the back. The mutual infertility of Tracy Quinlan and MaryJane Amundson wasn’t news to most of Bethel Church. Both women had been open about it for a long time, but that Tuesday, at a Christian school auction, Anna had seen the whole blessed truth about MaryJane with her own eyes. It was something she prided herself in, having given birth six times herself and having seen her four daughters through nine pregnancies. Color—that’s what she thought it was. Suddenly a woman took on a different color. Pete had always laughed when she’d told him somebody was pregnant, claimed she had X-ray vision like Superwoman; but she was almost always right.

When MaryJane Amundson bid on a spaghetti supper donated by the Meylinks, Anna Terwain saw the color of her face, and then she knew without a doubt. Unbelievably, MaryJane was finally going to have a child.

So when Anna saw the two of them leave the church as everyone else moved toward the outside walls of the sanctuary, she knew the entire story in a moment, and that’s why she left too, unseen.

Tracy Leonard went directly to the Explorer but found it locked, of course. Will had the keys. She couldn’t participate—she was sure of that; and the circle business would have made her not participating far too public. What she’d decided not to do was a private decision between herself and God. It involved no one else, not even Will. That’s why she’d raised her hands and coughed into them. She wanted him to think a cough was the reason she couldn’t stay.

She looked back at the church and saw MaryJane coming from the front doors. Tracy thought about running but knew it would be silly and stupid.

MaryJane Amundson said absolutely nothing. She stood beside Tracy for a moment, then reached for her, tried to hug her, something she’d wanted to do ever since yesterday’s horrible conversation. Tracy allowed the hug, but she held herself as stiff as plaster.

Neither of them knew any words at all, so there they stood, in the hot sun, holding each other, MaryJane crying, even though she was the one who had every reason in the world to thank God for the miracle that had happened within her.

When Anna Terwain saw them in the parking lot, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She went to them, the two of them bundled in each others’ arms, and she took them both on, wrapped her burly arms around the whole bundle.

Anna Terwain is an old woman, maybe forty or fifty pounds overweight. Her husband, Pete, was a city bus driver for most of his life, although in the last years he worked at the Christian school, a custodian. Pete was dead three years already, a man who never said much at all while he was alive, but whose absence created an empty silence all around her.

It was Marian Anderson, that black gospel singer of long ago, whose voice always came back to Anna in the middle of her woes. “Nobody knows,” Miss Anderson used to sing, in a way that Anna herself used to mimic when alone. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen—nobody knows but Jesus.”

Those were the only words that came to her, so those words were the ones she used on the two woman hugging each other in the parking lot.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen—nobody knows but Jesus,” she told them, and she took them, both of them, back toward the sanctuary to the celebration.

Pastor Jake de Meester missed it all, as did by far the majority of parishioners of Bethel Church, because the whole thing—people handing each other the grape juice and the bread—didn’t go as smoothly as de Meester would have liked. Half the congregation was finished before a quarter of the congregation had even seen the elements.

He didn’t notice the three of them sneak back into the sanctuary, and neither did he realize how it was that Anna Terwain stood between those two women and made sure each of them dipped the bread. In fact, he didn’t realize—and no one else did either—that Anna didn’t partake herself because she was making very, very sure that the two of them looked straight into each other’s eyes and knew what it was they were doing and saying. “The body of Christ,” she said to Tracy Leonard, “broken for you.”

Tracy Leonard dipped the bread into the cup of grape juice and did what she thought she

shouldn’t—couldn’t. She took it despite herself—took it because she knew, really, what it offered was so much more than her own sin, so much bigger, so much greater, so much more to be prized. And when that soggy bread was in her mouth, it tasted, as it never had before, like Christ himself.

She took the cup and plate of bread from Anna, but instead of turning to the right like everyone else, she turned back to Anna Terwain and said, “The body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.” And then Anna participated too, smiling.

Pastor Jake de Meester thought the whole celebration was something of a success—figured that with a little better planning, he could try it once again sometime when things were getting too routine.

MaryJane Amundson cried all the way home. She told her husband, who kept shoving her Kleenex, that she didn’t remember ever in her life being so happy.

Tracy Leonard told Will she didn’t feel like making dinner. “You know that great little Middle Eastern place we heard about on Marley Drive?” she said. “I been dying to go there—just you and me.”

Anna Terwain went home to her apartment alone, praising the Lord.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.