What a joy for me and for our whole diocesan family this past weekend on Trinity Sunday as we were able to welcome more of our parishioners back to public worship in our churches! Both priests and laity shared with me the profound moment of the faithful being able to take Holy Communion again.
In Evening Prayer II for Corpus Christi (The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ), which we will celebrate this coming weekend, the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary reads, “How holy this feast in which Christ is our food; his passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts; and we receive a pledge of glory to come.” I have always cherished this verse because it sums up for me what our Eucharistic gathering is all about.
First, every Mass is a moment where heaven and earth unite in the worship of God — “How holy this feast…” — as we gather around the Table of the Lord. I remember being told on one occasion when I could not be present for a friend’s special celebration, “Don’t forget you are only an altar away.” It is the altar of the Lord that connects us! That is why nothing can replace our gathering for Sunday Mass. It is the family Sunday dinner par excellence where relationships grow, stories are shared, counsel is given, and we are given food for the journey.
I know family Sunday dinners are not as common as in the past, but after fasting from each other’s company in these days of pandemic, I think we might have a renewed appreciation of what they are all about. The same is true for gathering for the Holy Eucharist each Sunday! Our one consolation throughout the last 12 weeks is that we have been able to connect with one another at the Lord’s Table, albeit at a distance. I have told many people that when I was celebrating Mass in the Cathedral by livestreaming, I did not feel alone, but rather the presence of those joining in the prayer. For some of the faithful, that spiritual union from a distance will have to continue for now because of age and/or health. On the other hand, we have found a new way to connect with shut-ins in the Diocese of Syracuse and beyond and bring them into greater spiritual closeness.
Second, “in which Christ is our food!” Every time you and I gather for Mass it is the hand of the Lord who feeds either physically or through spiritual communion. St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Ecclesia dei Eucharistia, “In the Eucharist, ‘unlike any other sacrament, the mystery [of communion] is so perfect that it brings us to the heights of every good thing: Here is the ultimate goal of every human desire, because here we attain God and God joins himself to us in the most perfect union.’ Precisely for this reason it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of ‘spiritual communion,’ which has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Jesus wrote: ‘When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you’ [The Way of Perfection, Ch. 35]” (#34).
Third, “his passion is recalled.” Every time you and I gather for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Mass), it is a sharing in the Passion of our Lord: that God so loved the world, he gave us his only Son, not to condemn us but that we might have life to the full (see Jn 3:16). A primary difference between Holy Mass and a Communion Service is our sharing in Christ’s sacrifice: “Do this in memory of me.” In order to share in Holy Communion, the first thing necessary is to share in the sacrifice. No Mass means no Eucharist! The Church teaches that at the heart of every Mass is the institution of the Eucharist… the invitation to share in Christ’s Passion.
Hence, the sharing of Holy Communion (the Blessed Sacrament) is a result of the Passion of the Lord. It is true that Communion can be shared outside of Mass for those unable to be present at the Lord’s Table or when a priest cannot be present to celebrate the Mass, but it is not the same as sharing in the action of the Mass. The word “action” is important because it signifies that the Holy Eucharist is food for the journey and we are sent = Missa (Latin)/Mass (English).
Fourth, “grace fills our hearts.” You and I receive the Gift of God (grace) so that we can go out and live the Mass — so that we can be life poured out in service of others — and carry the Real Presence of Christ into the world. Again, this teaching of our faith illustrates that our sharing in Holy Communion, whether physically or spiritually, is a summons to walk with Christ and to let his actions be seen in our actions.
Fifth, “we receive a pledge of glory to come.” Our sharing in the Eucharistic celebration is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. That is why I am reminded again and again that when you and I gather at the altar for Holy Mass, the Church universal, the Church in heaven and on earth is gathered in prayer. I think this is a connection that may be lost in trying to make the Eucharist/the Mass more “relevant” to people. I have a fear we sell Christ’s presence short when Mass is not celebrated with the idea that we are joining in the heavenly liturgy. For me, this latter point is an examination of conscience of how I approach the celebration of Holy Mass and my own decorum in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
This leads me to some final questions concerning our etiquette around the Blessed Sacrament: Do I make an act of reverence (a genuflection or a bow due to age or physical inability to genuflect)? Do I talk to others as if Jesus is not there? Do I try by my own actions to point others to Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament? Do I dress modestly and appropriately for participating in the Mass? Do I prepare myself for Holy Communion by fasting from all food and drink (except water and if physical health permits) for an hour before receiving Holy Communion? Do I pray an Act of Contrition before approaching Holy Communion, or if in serious or mortal sin, approach the Sacrament of Penance (Confession) before receiving Holy Communion physically again?
Let me leave you with the prayer I pray every time I receive our Lord in Holy Communion:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me. Body of Christ, save me. Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus, hear me. Within your wounds, hide me. Separated from you let me never be. From the evil one, protect me. At the hour of death, call me; and bid me come to you. That with your saints I may praise you forever and ever. Amen.