Christ in the Blessed Sacrament – do we reverence Him enough?
I’ll just begin by recalling what this sacrament is that we may call either the Holy Eucharist, or simply the Blessed Sacrament. After the priest at Mass has pronounced the words of consecration, there is no longer bread and wine present on the altar, but rather the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And for as long as there remains either in the tabernacle or in the sacred vessels or anywhere else even a fragment of what looks to be bread or even a drop of what looks to be wine, then the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ are really and substantially present in that place. St Paul, writing to St Timothy, says, ‘Great is the mystery of faith’; great indeed is this mystery by which our Lord, without ceasing to reign in heaven, dwells with us, in a hidden way, upon earth. And as we think of those of our fellow Christians who do not have the real presence of Christ in their churches, we might find ourselves spontaneously repeating the words that He Himself once spoke to a Samaritan woman by a well – If you knew the gift of God.
So then, given that the Blessed Sacrament is God Himself, there must be a sense in which the answer to tonight’s question must be ‘No’. How can we, finite creatures, reverence the infinite, all-holy God ‘enough’? So the Church rightly puts on our lips, before we receive Holy Communion, the words of the centurion in the gospel, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof’. Nevertheless, even if all our efforts must fall infinitely short of what God deserves, yet, if we reverence Christ in the Holy Eucharist to the extent that human nature allows, then our efforts will be very pleasing to God. So for the rest of this talk I want to look at the kind of reverence human beings are able to achieve, and to ask how we should go about it.
We human beings are composite creatures, that is, we have both a soul and a body. So the reverence of which human nature is capable will have two components: the reverence we have in our soul and that which we show with our body. Now, of these two, the reverence in our soul is the more important, since it’s by our soul that we directly relate to God. So a paralysed man lying in bed who is brought Holy Communion can have a deep reverence for Christ’s real presence, which is he is unable to manifest in any outward way. On the other hand, someone could go through the motions of showing reverence externally while having no love for God in his heart. But normally speaking, reverence of the soul and that of the body belong together, and indeed, as we will see, help to reinforce each other.
First, then, the soul. As I hope you all know, to be ready to receive Holy Communion, a Catholic needs to be free from mortal sin. We show our reverence for Christ above all by trying to receive Him into a pure heart. So anyone conscious of having committed a mortal sin needs to confess it in the sacrament of confession before once again receiving the body of the Lord. If we are not conscious of any mortal sin, regular confession of our venial sins will still be a very useful way of preparing for Holy Communion; confession of venial sins so to speak brushes the dust and cobwebs from our soul. Incidentally, anyone who may never have got into the habit of going to confession will find the ‘Examination of Conscience’ in the Simple Prayer Book to be a useful help to get started.
Still on the subject of the soul, the Church exhorts us to show reverence for Christ by preparation before Holy Communion and thanksgiving afterwards. Ideally, all the acts of our life should be a kind of preparation for our next Communion (just as Communion itself is a kind of preparation for death). St Francis de Sales once said that whatever a priest was doing, if he was asked why he was doing it, he ought to be able to reply, ‘I’m preparing for Mass’. But we won’t be able to reach this happy state unless we also make a special preparation for receiving our Lord. We can take a few minutes at home or in church before Mass to ask for the grace to welcome Christ our Saviour, as well as possible. Likewise, there must be a thanksgiving after Communion; those few minutes when we’ve received the Blessed Sacrament, and our bodies become have living tabernacles are among the most precious that we can ever hope to have. We should make the most of them, showing our reverence to the Lord God whether by song or by silent prayer. If we can continue our thanksgiving for some time when Mass in over, so much the better; if we can’t, well, we needn’t be anxious.
So much for reverence of the soul. This brings me to the other part of my talk, our bodily worship of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This is important. Our soul and our body are so intimately united that they make up just one thing, a person. It’s obvious therefore that the reverence in our soul will naturally spill over, as it were, into our body. But notice that the influence goes the other way too, from the body to the soul. By acting reverently with our body, we are making it easier for reverence to take root in our soul. Conversely, if someone makes no bodily expression of love and reverence for God, even though he is fit and able to do so, then this will weaken the love and reverence he may have in his soul. No doubt the same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of human relationships.
So then, one very simple bodily gesture of reverence, is the genuflexion. By custom we do this when we enter a church and when we leave. Because we’re all so used to it, it’s easy to forget what an amazing thing it is. When we genuflect to Christ in the tabernacle, we’re doing something that neither Abraham nor David nor Isaiah was able to do; we’re worshipping our God and Saviour physically present. Sometimes you see a genuflection which is hardly more than a twitch of the knee, perhaps not even in the right direction! Why not make a resolution that every genuflection we ever make will be an act of love, made slowly and with care, towards the one who loved us enough to die for us?
Another part of our bodily preparation for Holy Communion is the fast. This is so attenuated today – just one hour before communion! - that it’s easy for modern Catholics to be unaware of its significance. But in fact, it’s been a part of the Church’s practice from the beginning. Indeed, it seems that from the time of the apostles onwards, the custom was that anyone receiving Holy Communion should be fasting from midnight; St Augustine expressly says that this was something that the apostles themselves laid down. St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century mentions one reason for the custom: ‘to honour this Sacrament’, he says, ‘it was ordained by the Church that it should enter into a mouth not yet touched by food or drink’. This ancient law of the Church remained in place until the 1950’s, when Pope Pius XII decided to permit evening Masses, to make it easier in an increasingly pagan society to attend a weekday Mass. So Pope Pius XII reduced the Eucharistic fast to 3 hours before the moment of communion. At the same time, however, he urged those who could to maintain the ancient custom of fasting from midnight. While we’re not obliged today to observe anything more than the 1 hour fast currently in force, perhaps we might try to go the extra mile for Christ, and maybe in a spirit of reparation for unworthy communions, we might make a point of not eating for 3 hours before communion. If we are able, we might try to fast from midnight, as was done by so many generations of Christians before us.
Another ancient custom, this time rooted not in canon law but in Scripture itself, concerns clothing. Obviously, in a church, a consecrated building, even more than in other places, a person ought to dress modestly, and not exposing himself or herself to view unnecessarily. And this does need to be said today. But Holy Scripture says something further, something which people today often find difficult to understand, at least at first. This concerns the difference between men and women. If you’ve ever seen a bishop say Mass, you may have noticed that before he addresses God directly, he first takes off his mitre (or rather, he doesn’t normally do this himself, but he lets the deacon do it, which can be difficult if the deacon is much shorter than the bishop!) In any case, in doing this, the bishop is faithfully following a principle which St Paul mentions in the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, that a man should not cover his head when he prays publicly to God in the liturgy. St Paul says, ‘any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered, dishonours his head’. Then he goes on to say that for a woman, the reverse is true. The same reverence for God which the man shows by uncovering his head, she shows by covering hers. Hence the custom of women wearing chapel-veils, or hats, or some other kind of headgear. Now we can ask why this is so, and it might be interesting to discuss that later on. But for now it’s more important simply to note that this is a teaching of the New Testament; in the New Testament, the inspired word of God, men and women are asked to show their reverence in these two different ways.
My final observations concern the moment of Holy Communion itself. Those of you who watch papal Masses on television or see pictures of them in the Catholic press may have noticed an interesting change that began on the 22nd May 2008, which in that year was the feast of Corpus Christi. On that day, Pope Benedict began his new practice of giving Holy Communion on the tongue only, with the faithful kneeling to receive It. In introducing this new practice, which he has continued ever since, the Holy Father was surely sending a message to the universal church, for he knows that these papal liturgies are broadcast around the world. Let’s briefly consider these two aspects of the reception of Holy Communion. kneeling and reception on the tongue.
Kneeling to receive our Lord in the Holy Eucharist seems to me at least the most natural thing in the world. He is our God, after all. I can’t see how any Catholic can have a quarrel with the principle of kneeling for Communion. Now, I know in practice today, it can be difficult. It can be difficult to kneel for Communion if no one else does; we may be afraid of appearing holier-than-thou. There are even shocking stories of people actually being refused Holy Communion because they were kneeling. Or again, not all churches now have proper altar-rails, which some, especially older, people need in order physically to get up and down. So I’ll just limit myself to saying that I do believe that kneeling for communion is the ideal for us to return to, and that in the meantime, I’m sure Christ gives a special blessing to the able-bodied who are choose to kneel before Him truly present in the host.
Finally, what of reception on the tongue versus reception in the hand? Now, I know that this can be quite a sensitive topic. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticising anyone’s behaviour. Some people have always received in the hand, and would feel awkward about starting to receive on the tongue. Other people who once received on the tongue have been told, wrongly, that this is somehow old-fashioned or demeaning. Again, some of the holiest people I’ve have the good fortune to know have been in the habit of receiving in the hand. But in fact, to receive the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue is the preferred option. Pope Paul VI, who dealt with this question in 1969, said that communion on the tongue was to remain the Catholic practice, what is called ‘the law of the Church’: he said this would be a better way of safeguarding reverence to the Blessed Sacrament and preventing the danger of fragments of the host being lost. Only he added, that in those countries where, in the preceding few years, contrary to the law of the Church, the practice of receiving the sacred host in the hand had grown up, it could be allowed to continue. I think he did this reluctantly, to prevent a schism in countries such as France and Holland. Most Catholics today are probably unaware of these events in the 1960’s; many receive in the hand with great reverence; but some others don’t. It can be a painful thing for a priest to see the casualness with which God the Son is sometimes received. While I don’t have any authority, in this country, to tell anyone not to receive in the hand, I should just like to suggest that we reflect on our manner of receiving Holy Communion, and consider how we may best set an example for those of our brethren who may be weak in faith, or who may never have been properly taught, to show that what we are receiving is indeed the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Now, I’m happy to answer questions.
The above article was originally a talk given by the author on 23rd January 2011 at St Vincent's Catholic Church in Crookes, Sheffield.
Copyright ©; Thomas Crean O.P. February 2011