When I was a curate, one of my ministries was to bring the sacrament to individuals in nursing and convalescent homes. With me I brought the consecrated bread and wine in a case that also contained a small cross and candles and a cotta. The short cotta was open at the back and could be put on over a shirt or jacket and then fastened at the top with a button.
The altar guild would faithfully prepare the kit for me and the cotta was carefully folded inside. Iím not sure but that they didnít wash and iron it after each use. In any event it had become thin and a little yellowed and dried out over the years.
One morning I was calling on a quite elderly woman, as I remember for the first time. I recall that she was pleasant and seemed to appreciate our conversation and having the sacrament brought to her. I could tell that she had been a faithful disciple and churchgoer for many years, but she wasnít doing very well now. She was bedridden and probably hadnít too long to live.
For some reason the Rector and others at the church persisted in calling these ministrations "sick communions" Ė a term I thoroughly disliked. Better, I thought, to call them "well communions," helping to bring strength and consolation.
After the woman and I had talked for a while, I unpacked the kit and set up the little cross and lit the candles. There was even a miniature chalice. They reminded me of toys, and it always seemed a bit like playing church.
I read the Gospel and offered the prayers. As I then reached for the bread to bring it to the woman, I accidentally dragged a corner of the cotta through a candle flame. In a flash practically the whole dry cotta caught fire. I yanked it off me and threw it in the corner and stomped on it until it was finally out. There leapt from memory, even at the moment, the line from the Letter to the Hebrews quoting Psalm 104: "He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flaming fire."
The room was sharp with the smell of singe. My pulse was doing a little jig, and I was confused by emotions of both embarrassment and relief that I hadnít burned myself up and the place down. I turned to offer my apologies or at least to say something. What?
She, however, propped up in her hospital bed, still had her hands extended for the sacrament, her eyes closed and a serene look on her face. Relieved, I brought the sacrament to her, quickly finished the service, and picked up and deposited what remained of the cotta in the wastebasket.
At the time I think I told myself that the dear woman was sufficiently out of it that she hadnít even noticed. Reflecting later in the car, I wasnít so sure. There had been quite a burst of flame and stomping about. Even if her sight and hearing were poor, there was also that odor of singe. Perhaps she had put it all down to some new liturgical revision or Diocese of Chicago high church hi-jinx. More likely yet, with that humbling tolerance and patience many lay people can have with sometimes bumbling clergy, she may just have decided to let it ride. God bless her now.
I donít recall the altar guild being quite so forgiving. Iím not sure they fully believed me either. Perhaps Iíd just forgotten it or otherwise disposed of the relic. In any case, I thought to myself, it was time to get a new one.
"Ministers become a flaming fire." It was just a routine visit with the sacrament to a convalescent home. Nothing very exciting about that. And then suddenly flame and fire! I remembered a burning bush, fire from heaven, hailstones and coals of fire, and the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
One never knows. Maybe sometimes. Maybe more regularly than we imagine, for I often still think of the flaming cotta when I offer the body and blood of Christ.
From Outrage and Hope by Frederick Borsch
COPYRIGHT © 1988-2006 BY FREDERICK HOUK BORSCH All rights reserved.