instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, May 09, 2008

Reception, not "receiving"

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre has written what I think is an excellent pastoral letter "regarding the proper celebration of the Eucharist and the distribution of Holy Communion."

It was written to inform his diocese that "no weekday Celebrations of the Word with the distribution of Holy Communion will be allowed" as of July 1. Unfortunately, such a context and purpose allows readers to overlook the Eucharistic theology in favor of whatever issues of Church polity they're concerned with.

As Bishop Murphy writes,
The shape of the Eucharist involves the four actions of taking (the Presentation of the Gifts), blessing (the Eucharistic Prayer), breaking (the fraction rite) and giving (Communion). To celebrate the Eucharist means to do what Christ did, namely, offering to God the Father these actions that together form the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
And later,
The reception of Holy Communion is never just passively "getting" or "receiving" Holy Communion... Receiving the Sacrament is the culmination of participating in the sacrifice.
Without getting into the pastoral issues the letter goes on to address, I think this understanding of the Eucharist as a single action can stand to be strengthened, among both the faithful and the priests.

In fact, I'll say attention must be paid, even as Eucharistic piety makes a comeback. As wonderful as Adoration and Benediction are, they must be referred back to the sacrifice of the Mass, lest the Mass's integrity be lost and the Liturgy of the Eucharist be reduced to a process for manufacturing consecrated Hosts.

I put it crudely, of course. But I have in my time heard a lot about receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, and not very much at all about how my reception relates to what happened on the altar a few minutes earlier. I have heard priests say that the reason we layfolk come to Mass is to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, without even a hint that we're also involved in the offering to the Father.

Even the sacred language we use poses a problem. We speak of "the Eucharist" to mean both the liturgical act and the consecrated Host. I've only heard "the Blessed Sacrament" used to mean Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine, but the sacramental act itself is (per St. Thomas) the priest pronouncing the words of institution over the bread and wine.

Such dual meanings should tie offering and reception more closely together in our minds, but to the extent we feel involved in the latter and remote from the former, I think they make things worse. At least, my own disposition is to think and speak in terms of "the Mass" and "the Eucharist," the former being where I receive the latter, and when someone uses the latter to mean the former, they're just being fancy.

So by all means, let's preach and promote devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. But let's do it in a way that ensures everyone understands the source and summit of the Christian life is achieved principally through the altar, not the altar rail.