I was in a small wooden church when I saw one of those small not small at all things that seem to me very often to be the very essence of what we mean by words like holy and tender and miracle and hope.
This time it was a small boy, perhaps 7 years old. I had noticed him standing by the celebrant, as I shuffled up to the altar to receive Communion; and as I sat quietly, enjoying the motley parade of my fellow communicants, and the headlong energy of the morning musicians, I wondered who the lad was; altar-boy-in-training, great-nephew of the celebrant, granted pole position as a gift? But then I saw.
When the last host was disbursed, but the last cup not yet drained, the celebrant bent and handed the boy a silver paten laden with four or five hosts. The boy accepted the paten with both hands and a lovely gravity and reverence. He then walked down the east aisle to the back of the church. I turned in my seat to see his destination: four men in wheelchairs. Two men were in green jackets, one in blue, one in white. You hardly ever see a man in a white suit jacket at church, especially in autumn; occasionally you might see such a sight in summer, if someone was dashing off to a lawn party after Mass.
When the boy had gently and respectfully held a host to each of the older men in wheelchairs, the last of whom, the man in blue, cupped the boy’s face in his hands, the boy came back up the east aisle and handed the empty paten to the waiting celebrant, who wiped it clean with a cloth as the boy faded back into the pews. Then Mass concluded as usual, and then brief remarks about this and that parish matter from the celebrant, and then two closing songs, and away everyone went, pausing for coffee and doughnuts before final egress. The celebrant, as usual, stationed himself at the front door to shake hands and hug folks and razz grinning children. I stood nearby, enjoying this intimate and sometimes hilarious final act, and after everyone was gone I asked the celebrant about the boy.
“Veteran’s Day was yesterday, and our custom here is that men and women who have served wear their uniforms at the Sunday Mass closest to Veterans’ Day, if they still have them and want to wear them, or wear the colors of their branch of service, if they like,” the priest explained. “The men in green are Army veterans, the white was a Navy man, and the blue was a Marine. He’s the boy’s grandfather. This is the third year that boy has delivered the Eucharist to those men. They’re all veterans of the Second World War. There were a few other folks in their colors today, if you noticed. Not uniforms; most veterans don’t wear their uniforms after their service, it seems to me. Two of the musicians served, both women, both in the Coast Guard. Delivering the Eucharist to the men in the back was actually the boy’s idea. He was the one who got the other men to wear their colors. He actually wrote them all a letter. He’s the nicest young man ever, that boy. My dream is that eventually he’s elected governor or president. Such kindness would be glorious in a civic leader, right?”
I assumed it was his grandfather who had cupped the boy’s face in his hands, but the celebrant said, “Well, now, it could have been any of those fellows. They’ve taken a great liking to that boy. He brings them coffee and doughnuts after Mass, when they can get here. It’s hard getting around in a wheelchair. They never miss our summer picnic, though, where they can sit with the boy for hours at a time. You should see him sitting among their circled chairs. Reminds me of Christ with the rabbis in the temple, the brilliant boy and the astonished older men. If I could paint, I’d paint that. Well, speaking of boys, you’d better pry your sons away from the doughnuts, and I had better close up shop here. See you next week, if not sooner.”