Monday, June 17, 2019

“Eat That Which I Will Give You”: Why We Receive Communion in the Mouth

In this month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, when we especially ponder the most wondrous gift devised by His love, the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, it is appropriate to dwell for a moment on why receiving the Holy Eucharist directly into the mouth is the only right way to receive the Lord, against the backdrop of centuries of unanimous practice in East and West that must accordingly be considered a development guided by the Holy Spirit — for otherwise, we would surely have to conclude that the universal Church of Christ, in both its Eastern and Western spheres, had gone off the rails in its second millennium.

Some arguments may be said to be obvious. For example, if one really believes that a priest is set aside by a divine act of transformation to be an alter Christus who, at the altar, brings about the very same miracle that Christ the High Priest brought about at the Last Supper in anticipation of His atoning sacrifice on Calvary, one will see immediately that he is the one authorized by God to handle the most holy gifts and to distribute them to men. While there may be exceptions for emergencies, clearly the ministerial priest alone will be the fitting transmitter of the Bread of Angels into the mouths of Christians.

Again, if one believes that the entire substance of the bread is converted into the entire substance of Christ, with the accidents of bread alone remaining (as St. Thomas explains with unsurpassed rigor), one will invariably arrive at the conclusion that the distribution of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist must be done in such a way as to minimize as radically as possible any dispersion or loss of fragments of bread, that is, crumbs or specks. Distribution of larger or crumblier altar breads, and above all distribution into the hand, is directly and obviously opposed to the infinitely higher good of honoring God in Himself and avoiding the sin of sacrilege against Him.

A Coptic Christian receives Communion
I absolutely agree with such arguments. However, what struck me in lectio divina was what the Lord Himself had to say about it. In the prophet Ezekiel, we read, “Open thy mouth, and eat that which I will give thee” (2:8). In the Psalms, we read, “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Ps 80:11).

Who is the “I” in these statements? Clearly, it is the Lord. It is the Lord alone who may feed us.

This is the deepest reason why, in the divine liturgy, in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, it must be the ordained minister who, as acting in persona Christi, distributes the Bread of Angels to the communicants.

This mode of receiving — common to East and West — symbolizes and emphasizes several truths at once.

1. The one doing the feeding is Christ. I do not feed myself.

2. I am, in fact, incapable of nourishing myself supernaturally; I must be fed, like a little child, an elderly person, or someone handicapped. Yes, I am able to come forward to the communion rail, unlike the paralytic carried on the stretcher in the Gospel; but once I reach the threshold of divinity, it is imperative that I demonstrate — to myself and in the sight of others — that at this threshold I must kneel or take a passive stance and allow myself to be acted upon. I am not there to feed myself as an autonomous agent, or to collect something I can add to my personal life portfolio; rather, I am “imposed upon” and thus altered. The divine food is more powerful than I am, and I submit to it.

3. The food is entering immediately into my body — that is, I surrender myself to the insertion of the Word from without, and make myself passive and receptive to it. In a word, vulnerable. I am not “in control”; I am not the one who determines the conditions or the timing under which Christ will act on me. By coming forward and submitting to the hand of another, I relinquish my mastery. There is no moment between reception and eating; to receive is to eat.

A Marxist economic exchange
4. There is a clear hierarchical distinction between the one giving the divine gift and the one receiving it. For once, the traditional Western practice spells this out even more clearly than the Eastern does. In the East, the communicant usually has to bend his legs or crouch a little to bring his mouth to the right angle for the spoon to deposit its precious freight, but in the West, because the communicant kneels down at an altar rail or prie-dieu while the priest or deacon remains standing, there is a very strong differentiation of persons and actions. The relationship is reminiscent of streams flowing down from a mountaintop to the lakes below, or the descent of the dove on the baptized. The conferral of the manna “from above” imitates of the descent of the Son of God in His Incarnation, in order to lift us up to His heavenly glory.

Communion in the hand systematically undermines all of these symbolic and ascetical aspects of the act of Eucharistic communion. By getting the host in my hand, I become the one who feeds myself. I am now a “grown up” vis-à-vis God, with whom I relate on my terms: I determine when I put this host into my mouth (or, as in well-documented cases, take it away for a rainy day, or make it a souvenir, or put it in the hymnal, or give it to someone else, or use it in a Satanic ritual or an act of blasphemy). I am parleying with the Word, rather than suffering It. At the threshold of divinity, I assert my independence and control. In the modern Western context (which is decidedly not the ancient context), standing for communion means: I come to Christ and His Church on my own terms.

This is why communion for the divorced and “remarried” or for non-Catholic spouses has become such a hot topic among progressives: it is ultimately about who gets to decide the conditions for communion. In the Kasperian/Bergoglian perspective, it is the individual believer who decides how the world and its Maker will revolve around him or her. Modern Eucharistic praxis approaches non serviam asymptotically. In the Catholic tradition, however, it is the one feeding (i.e., the one giving the food) who decides the conditions for communion; and this is not primarily the minister, or even the Church, but Christ Himself, in laying down the natural law and the divine law, from which there are no exceptions.

No one would contend, of course, that these Antichristic meanings are consciously intended by everyone who receives in the hand; as at the time of Our Lord, so today, most of the people are like sheep without a shepherd — indeed, at this point, most of the shepherds are like sheep without a shepherd. Rather, the meanings are built into the action itself, in contrast to the preestablished and still intuitively understood millennium-old tradition of kneeling and receiving communion on the tongue from the anointed hand of the ordained minister.

I wish to conclude with a few excerpts from Msgr. Nicola Bux’s excellent book No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again:
In fact, not a few people hold that it was only in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages that the Churches of the East and the West began to prefer administering it directly in the mouth. But did Jesus give communion to the apostles on the hand or asking them to take it with their own hands? Visiting an exhibition of Tintoretto in Rome, I observed some “Last Suppers” in which Jesus gives communion to the apostles in the mouth. One could think that this has to do with an interpretation by the painter after the fact, a little like the posture of Jesus and the apostles at table, in the cenacle of Leonardo, which “updates” in the Western manner the Jewish custom, which was, instead, to be reclining at table. Reflecting further on this, the custom of giving communion to the faithful directly in the mouth can be considered not only as a Jewish tradition, and therefore apostolic, but also as going back to the Lord Jesus. The Jews and the peoples of the East in general had and today still have the custom of taking food with one’s hands and placing it directly in the mouth of the lover or the friend. In the West this is done between couples in love and by the mother toward her little one, who is still inexperienced.
Here is a close-up of the center of Tintoretto’s masterful Last Supper in Venice:

Msgr. Bux continues:
The text of John is understood in this way: “Jesus then answered him [John]: ‘It is he to whom I shall give a morsel of dipped bread.’ Then, having dipped a morsel of bread, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. And as soon as he had taken the mouthful Satan entered into him” (13:26–27). But what should be said about the invitation of Jesus: “Take and eat. . . . Take and drink”? Take (in Greek, labete; in Latin, accipite) also means receive. If the mouthful is dipped, it cannot be taken with the hands; rather it is received directly into the mouth. It is true that Jesus consecrated bread and wine separately. But if during the “mystic supper” (as the East calls it) or Last Supper, the two consecrating gestures happened, so it seems, in different phases of the Paschal supper, nevertheless after Pentecost the apostles, aided by Jewish priests who had converted (cf. Acts 6:7), and who were, as we would say, experts in religious worship, united the gestures within the great Eucharistic prayer. The distribution of the consecrated bread and wine was then placed after the anaphora, thus originating the rite of communion. […]
Bux speaks here of a classic way of depicting the Last Supper, where Our Lord is either placing a morsel into Judas’s mouth, or going around the table to bestow the gift of communion upon each Apostle in succession. Here are a few examples:

Manuscript in the Escorial, ca. 1045
Manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan collection, ca. 1050
A fresco by Fra Angelico at San Marco in Florence, ca. 1440
Msgr. Bux confronts a common line of argument:
Appeal is made by defenders of communion in the hand to St Cyril of Jerusalem, who asked the faithful to make of their hand a throne at the moment of receiving communion. I hold, treading lightly in this, that the invitation to dispose the hands in this manner can be understood as not for the purpose of receiving it in the hands, but in order to extend them, also with a bow of the head, in a single act of adoration, and in addition, to prevent the fall of fragments. In fact, on account of the innate sense of the sacred, very strong in the East, reverence toward the sacrament was affirmed more and more, with the precaution of taking communion in the mouth, for multiple reasons — one among them being the inability to guarantee clean hands and, especially, the safeguarding of the fragments.
All this renders more comprehensible the statement of St Augustine: “no one eats that flesh if he has not first adored.” Benedict XVI recalled this significantly, precisely in the well-known address on the interpretation of Vatican II. Becoming more explicit, Cyril invites us to “not put the hands out, but in a gesture of adoration and veneration (tropo proskyniseos kai sevasmatos), draw near to the chalice of the blood of Christ.” In such a way that he who receives communion makes a proskynesis, the prostration or bow, down to the ground — similar to our genuflexion — extending his hands like a throne at the same time, while from the hand of the Lord he receives communion in the mouth. This is what appears clearly depicted by the Purple Codex of Rossano, dated between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century after Christ: this is a Greek illuminated Gospel book, certainly put together in a Syriac milieu. Therefore we should not be surprised by the fact that the Eastern and the Western pictorial tradition, from the 5th to the 16th century, has depicted Christ as giving communion to the apostles directly in the mouth. Benedict XVI, in continuity with the universal tradition of the Church, took this gesture up: why not imitate him? The faith and devotion of many toward this sacrament of the Presence, especially in a desacralizing time like our own, will gain from it.  (pp. 94–97)
Pope Benedict XVI showing us the way to do it
Can one even imagine Padre Pio following any other custom?

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