Passing the Cup
By Dr. Trisha Posey, Department of History
by Anna Willis
When I became a mom four years ago, I had no idea what a monumental role food would play in my parenting experience. Even before Eliot was born, I was inundated with pamphlets, books, and other resources on the nutritional needs of my baby. Breast milk or formula? To give vitamins or not to give vitamins? When to introduce solids? All these questions loomed large even before my baby entered the world. This makes sense. Food, of course, is the substance of life, and, as the one responsible for my baby's well-being, I needed to take his nutritional needs seriously.
And, as I discovered, I love this task. I found something amazingly beautiful about being the sole source of my baby's nourishment during his first few months of life. When we moved Eliot on to solids and we introduced him to new tastes and textures-smooth and buttery avocado, sweet and mushy bananas, and crunchy but safe Cheerios-I found a new sort of pleasure in bringing sustenance to my little one.
Of course, feeding Eliot has not always been pure joy. I remember the bittersweet moment when, on his first birthday, we placed a whole chocolate cake in front of him and he eagerly dug in. While the joy of watching him imbibe so recklessly in such indulgence was undeniable, I realized at that point that the sugar wars had begun. And while, at first, Eliot seemed to enjoy just about everything we used to place in front of him, his fussiness about food has become a source of consternation at just about every meal. We've had some epic battles over the number of peas required for dessert, which usually end in stalemate and neither of us happy.
Despite these struggles, I derive a good deal of satisfaction from watching Eliot eat. When he inhales his pasta, asks for more, and then scrapes his bowl clean, I am happy. Clean plates are a sign of good character in my family, as is the ability to offer good food to one's own. My favorite memories as a child revolve around the good food my mother fed me. Perhaps my inherited commitment to food is why so much of my angst as a parent is over a source of nourishment that I am simply unable to deliver to my son-the bread and the wine of the communion table.
This past summer, inspired by Robbie Castleman's book Parenting in the Pew, Jake and I decided that we were going to have Eliot join us in the church service instead of going to the nursery. Eliot started out ok-he experienced the typical edginess of a kid forced to sit through a service for an hour, but he seemed to be hanging in pretty well during the first couple of weeks. On the third week of our journey, however, we had a "communion incident." This wasn't the nightmare scenario of a kid knocking a whole tray of juice on his parents' pew neighbor. Actually, it was worse. As soon as we started passing the communion wafers, I knew we were in trouble-Eliot would not be able to take the bread and the wine.
For a mom who prides herself on feeding her son, and on feeding him good food, this was a crisis of monumental proportions. I agree with John Calvin, who said that the sacraments are "a testimony of divine grace towards us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward [God]." I firmly believe with him that the communion table is reserved for only those who have accepted Christ's atoning sacrifice-something that Eliot has not yet done. I knew I could not allow Eliot to take the elements, but I also knew he would not understand why he couldn't do so. Of course, in the few seconds between this realization and the arrival of the bread, I had little time to go into a sophisticated theological explanation of communion with Eliot. I simply took my bread and passed the plate across Eliot's lap to my neighbor. I will never forget the look on Eliot's face as I did so. For the first time, I had denied him food. The look of pain and frustration on his face-and the tears-were more than I could bear. I, too, teared up.
Of course, my tears weren't caused by the same frustration Eliot was experiencing. He was upset because I had gone against one of the most sacred rules in our house-always share, especially food. I was upset, because at that moment, for the first time, my own helplessness in my son's faith journey became a reality to me. No matter what I wanted to do, I could not allow my son to take the communion bread and wine if he did not know the one who instructed us to do so. I have never felt so powerless.
To be sure, I am no slacker when it comes to teaching my son the tenets of the faith-he knows his Bible stories and his songs as well as any kid his age. He knows about Jesus feeding the five thousand and raising Jairus's daughter from the dead, and he knows the story of Jesus's death and resurrection. And yet, quite often when I ask him if he knows Jesus, he is quick-sometimes a little too quick-to tell me no. I appreciate his honesty, but it also pains me. I don't want to be a parent who crams Jesus down her son's throat, only to have him vomit him up later. No mater how much I am told that I, as a parent, am responsible for the well-being of my child, I am not the one who can introduce Jesus to my son-really introduce Jesus to my son-only God himself can do that. I have to let go.
Since the communion incident, I have come to appreciate more deeply Augustine's mother, Monica, whose fear for her son's salvation brought her to her knees. Her faith, even in moments of extreme despondence, was amazing. And, boy, did she have reason to be despondent. I have also come to appreciate Eliot's tears a little more, too. He has moved past his minor communion fits, and I am learning how to better handle the communion moment in church. Now, instead of passing the bread and the wine past Eliot, I take my bread and my juice and cradle Eliot's hand in mine as I pray. I remind Eliot of why we eat and drink Jesus's body and blood. And after I do so, I notice that Eliot quite often takes the empty cup and peers into it curiously, swirling around the small amount of juice left in the vessel. Rather than becoming angry about being passed up, he is curious about what he's missing. I find this encouraging.
I learned this summer that, in addition to praying for my little one, I also need to model for him habits of good spiritual consumption-I need to show him how to "hunger and thirst for righteousness." I also realized that my happiest day as a parent will be the day I am able to cradle Eliot's hand in mine before he himself takes and eats the body and the blood of Christ.