In classic Trinity fashion, they are announced and make their way to the Alter, loose ends dragging everywhere. They are holding hand made cards and books, some yelling “Hi” to family members…”I’m up here, Mom!” A little girl bellows. They are not intimidated to approach the Alter, as I was in childhood; it is familiar territory to them. Hank gathers them close on Baptisms, Christmas Eve and here and there on a random or unknowingly meaningful Sundays to serve as Assistant Ministers.
As the group, ranging in age from one to thirteen, make their way toward him, he coaxes them all up beyond the Alter rail to stand with him in this Holy, Sacred space. “Come on up everyone, there’s plenty of room.” He smiles as they gather in number.
An announcement is made that the books have been collected by the children in his honor. “We know Father Hank loves books, even though most of the adults were hoping to give him live fish.” The parish applauds and chuckles. Each and every Christmas Eve when the children retell the story of the birth of Jesus, Hank preaches to them, as they sit gathered at his feet. On his first Christmas Eve with us, he talked about Jesus and his followers and how they had a secret code to say that they were Christians; the early Christian symbol of a fish. “I was wondering…. since it is Christmas and I want to give my friends a special gift, what I could give them to help them to remember Jesus” and of course, out came large cardboard boxes that contained Beta fish, complete with bowl and food; one for each and every child present.
We had three kids at the service.
We had two Beta fish at home already.
The following year it was Hermit Crabs, each in a small plastic aquarium with crab food and we worried that he would eventually work his way up to farm animals.
The children spread around the Alter like the smile on Hank’s face, some tugging on the linen and others rubbing fingers on the candelabra. “Father Hank…Hi!” A squirmy little girl said. “Hi” he beamed back. They continued to fill the corners as Hank flashed the sign language for “I love you” to them and they signed back; a symbol he taught them and used often. When he is sure he has everyone in place, he speaks to them. Deviating slightly from the liturgy, he explains to them about the last day Jesus had supper with his friends.
“We use this host, but Jesus took a loaf of bread and he broke it and told his friends that it was his body that would be broken for them. Now they didn’t really understand what he meant and we don’t really understand fully either. And then, because they had wine with supper, he took the cup of wine and told them this was his blood and again, they didn’t really understand.”
Hank paused, his small audience captivated. I kneel at the alter rail only a few feet away and wait for him to continue. He looks as if he is elsewhere and the pause lingers. I wonder if he has forgotten his place, thrown off-course by the little heads gathered by his knees or if he is caught up in emotion. With a visible shift, he returns, face flushed and looks out at the congregation. His eyes showing straight to his soul, he smiles and he says, “I just got a message from my good friend, Jesus. He said, ‘Now you’re catching on, Hank.’”
He continues with the story about how Jesus’ friends asked him how they should pray. “So he told his friends, well this prayer would be good.” The organ plays and voices lift the Lord’s prayer, little ones included. I struggle to sing passed the lump in my throat and Hank continues…
“…In unity, that means all together, in constancy, which is like steady as she goes, and most importantly… and this is what Jesus wants you to know most of all, in peace. And on the last day, bring us to your eternal kingdom, that’s Heaven; all this and so much more we ask in Jesus name.” He tells the children.
“These are the gifts of God for the people of God…that’s you,” he continues, as he holds up the bread. He stops and looks at them.
“Jesus loves you more than anything.” He says, as they nod. “I love you the whole world but Jesus, even more than that!” He says, connecting with each of them.
He moves carefully around and between the little people “The body of your friend, Jesus.” He tells them. They depart one by one and I am in awe of lesson they are receiving. As a young child, I was taught that the Alter was taboo, forbidden, reserved for only Holy men; that the average person was not worthy to be so close to God in the sacredness of this Holy place.
I think back to a sermon long ago when Hank described Jesus’ relationship with children. Jesus asked that the children be brought to him and he welcomed them with open arms. This does not seem foreign to us, but as Hank put it, in His time ‘these were not your little Gap kids, all clean and cute.’ Children in those days were less than second class citizens and were unworthy and unimportant.
Hank has taught our children that each and every one of us is worthy in God’s eyes and Hank places himself no higher or spiritually greater than the sticky little fingers that tug on his robe.
To watch him today was to truly witness God’s Grace.