Though I have only been at St. John's for a less than three years, I have begun that wonderful experience of watching children grow up. And I love the time I've spent with them, the ability to tell them stories from the Bible, to tell them how loved they are by God and their church.
The kids are a true joy of parish ministry.
A few weeks ago, on one of our "Messy Church" Sundays, when we put the children at the center of our community worship, I had a particularly powerful experience of this. The children had joined me in the Gospel procession, standing around me as I proclaimed the Gospel for the day. We went back to the chancel steps where I sat with them for the children’s sermon. We talked about how even when things are scary, we can know that God is with us because it was in a very scary time that God became human in Jesus.
Later, during the offertory — as the bread, wine and alms were brought to the altar — the children joined in that procession, too. As they were coming up into the altar area, one boy whispered to a friend, "Wow, I never thought I'd be able to be up here."
My microphone was off and I told them it was OK, to come stand right up near the altar. I told them how the altar was a holy place, that it was special, but that didn't mean it was scary. That just meant that we loved it and treated it carefully, like with anything special.
Once all was ready, I began the Great Thanksgiving. About halfway through the prayer, I noticed one of the younger girls in our parish had rested her head on the altar. Her right arm was folded, her head laying upon it, and she watched the bread and the wine while I prayed. This made one of the boys nervous, and he tried to tell her not to lay her head on the altar — but he couldn't reach without making a scene, and so he decided to stay where he was.
All of this was happening out of the corner of my eye as I prayed, as my hands moved over the bread and the wine, and as the community asked for the Spirit of God to make Christ present for us once more.
Something about it, though, has stuck with me. I mentioned it to my spiritual director later. I told her how I was glad the little boy couldn't reach her and couldn't get her attention. I love that she felt so comfortable, so at home, that she simply rested her head on the altar and watched. I love that she was more present in that moment that I am sometimes. I love what she taught me in that moment.
In chapter 31 of the "Rule of St. Benedict," we get a section titled, "What Kind of Man the Cellarer of the Monastery Should Be." Upon first glance, it might seem like one of the more arcane sections of the rule, something difficult to interpret in modern life, but there is an important line in it. Benedict writes, "Let him take the greatest care of the sick, of children, of guests and of the poor, knowing without doubt that he will have to render an account for all these on the Day of Judgment." And then, after highlighting this important task, the very next line says, "Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar."
In our tradition, the altar is a holy place. It is a place of reverence, respect and grace. In Celtic terminology, you could say that it is a "thin place" in the church, a place where the spiritual and the physical world blend together. And yet, Benedict suggests that the care the Cellarer pays to the sick, to children, guests and the poor is the care upon which he will one day give account. He is called to care for all things in the monastery with reverence, as though they were sacred vessels of the altar — but the sick, the children, the guests and the poor, God will be most interested in how he cared for them.
We do this messy church thing at the beginning of every church season, so another is coming up soon. And I have to say, I hope that one of those precious children knows that she matters more to God than any holy place in the world. I hope she rests her head on the altar, knowing that she is safe in that love.
Because each Sunday, before I leave the altar area in the exit procession, as I bend down and kiss that white linen, I always whisper a quiet "thank you." Because I need to be reminded, too, that I also am safe in that divine love.
So rest your head, sacred child. Rest your head and teach this young priest — still trying to learn how to do this calling well — once more what is truly important and what is truly sacred.
The Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is filling in for the Rev. Henry Idema, who is on vacation until March.