Communion: Are you getting it?

HAS RECEIVING THE EUCHARIST BECOME ROTE AND BORING? One Catholic tells how he learned to see receiving the Body of Christ in a new light from a Protestant pastor and a lady who hadn't been to church in four years. Sometimes we have an experience but miss the meaning. We come out of a movie and need to discuss it with friends to see what they got out of it. In sorting out our life we talk not only with friends, but maybe with a counselor, a psychiatrist, or a spiritual director because we need their help to find the meaning of our experiences.

The gap between experience and meaning was brought home to me by two friends who had separate experiences of visiting the Grand Canyon.

The first friend, “Henry,” went to the Grand Canyon and sat all day in one spot, watching as the sun moved across the sky and continuously changed the colors of the canyon walls and the pattern of the shadows. He just sat there and drank in the colors and the shadows all day long. He couldn’t get enough of it. That visit nourished him for years.

The other friend, “Nick,” was a neighbor in Pennsylvania. When he retired, he and his wife bought one of those huge RVs with all the comforts of home, and the first place they visited was the Grand Canyon. They left on Monday and we didn’t expect to see them for a month. But they were back in less than a week. We thought they must have had engine trouble or changed their minds. But no, they had driven all the way to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. Nick went to the rim, checked it out, and wasn’t impressed; he said he had seen better. So he and his wife climbed back into the RV and drove back to Pennsylvania.

Both friends saw the Grand Canyon, in that sense they had the same experience; but clearly there was a world of difference in what they got out of it, in the meaning they found. Nick had the experience, but compared to Henry he certainly missed any meaning. That can happen in our experience of receiving Holy Communion. We’ve all had the experience of Communion, and we share a foundational belief in the presence of Jesus in this sacrament. But the meaning of the experience continues to be revealed to us from our own reflection and from the example of other participants. Four aspects of the Eucharist have grown more precious to me because of other believers.

1. Initiation: Being fed with the whole family
Every year I learn this meaning again from those entering the Catholic Church. If we think only of second-graders when we think of First Communicants, we can be distracted by cuteness and photo-ops. But each year in our country even small dioceses receive hundreds of new Catholics through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). Across the country each year more than 150,000 people prepare for months and years to join us in our community of faith. And the Easter Eucharist, their First Communion, completes their initiation. It’s the culmination of their journey into the church.

Like every other Catholic who has been involved in RCIA ministry, my own faith has been enriched by people entering the church. Their spiritual quest refreshes and illumines the faith we already enjoy. And while this happens throughout the period of their preparation, it is especially true in their celebration of the sacraments of initiation.

The effect of this initiation event on Catholics is like what happened to many Americans in the bicentennial celebration of our country. Many of us recall how our patriotism was stirred and renewed when we saw immigrants from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds being received as American citizens. Their stories underscored the most precious elements of our shared citizenship. Their initiation at revered national sites enriched our appreciation of our own membership in this political community.

Each year at the Easter Vigil Mass we receive adults and children into our Catholic faith community. If not previously baptized, they are baptized, then confirmed. And during that same Mass they join us in the eucharistic meal. When the new members eat and drink the same food we do—the Body and Blood of Christ—then they are full members of our faith family. When they join us at the table to share not only our religious belief but our essential food, they are fully initiated.

The church is very clear on this point of initiating new members. It is not when a body of doctrine has been accepted, or when the newcomers proclaim the same creed with us, or when they are baptized and confirmed, but when they share in Holy Communion that their initiation is complete. In that emphasis all of us are reminded how pivotal this sacrament is to our Catholicism.

2. Connection: Reach out and touch someone
Two older women taught me how Eucharist connects us not only to Jesus but to each other. The first woman, whose name I never knew, sat by the center aisle in the front pew of a parish church where my wife and I were new members. She was a pleasant, dignified woman, quite crippled with arthritis. The priest used to bring Communion to her in her pew.

As newcomers, we didn’t know the woman’s name, but parishioners of all ages obviously knew and loved her. As people passed her on their way to Communion I would see them smile or touch her shoulder or squeeze her hand or bend down to kiss her cheek or hug her. I had never seen this at Mass before. But these gestures brought home to me very visibly how much the Eucharist was a loving bond of faith. These people could not take Communion without expressing their connection to this beautiful woman, this pillar of faith in the front pew. And watching this simple ritual enhanced my own appreciation of the sacrament.

The other woman, Dorothy, was in her mid-80s when I met her. For four and a half years my wife and I brought her Communion every Sunday. Our pastor had a program for parishioners to bring Eucharist and an audiotape of the parish Mass to the homebound each week. The Mass was taped on Saturday and copies were made overnight for Sunday distribution. We would visit with Dorothy, pray with her, give her Communion, and leave her listening to that day’s Mass on a tape player provided by the parish.

More than once Dorothy filled up and cried with joy at the experience. It dissolved the walls that separated her from her local faith community in which she had worshiped all her life. The Eucharist connected her not only to Jesus but to her fellow believers. She was truly in communion with her parish.

When I was a boy Eucharist was an experience of isolation: Come back from Communion with your eyes lowered and bury your face in your hands. Close out everyone around you. It was just me and Jesus. I had been taught to ignore all my fellow believers as if they were a distraction or temptation, because Jesus had just come to me.

Clearly there was something missing in that approach. Communion is a celebration of connection. We had the experience but sometimes missed the meaning. Jesus in this sacrament unites us to himself and to one another. Joining together in a Communion hymn can be a recognition of this connection.

In fact, our celebration of Mass doesn’t allow us to approach the altar for Communion as disconnected individuals. Before we can go to Communion we do two important things. We pray the Our Father together, which expresses the fact that we are one family with the same Father, and we ask God to forgive us just as we are forgiving our sisters and brothers. Then what do we do? We offer one another a sign of peace—a sign that we truly do forgive everyone.

Many families have a rule about not going to bed without making up. In our faith family we don’t go to Communion without making up-because Communion celebrates and intensifies how connected we are.

3. Participation: Moved to tears
I learned from a Protestant pastor that if we celebrate Mass with faith and attention and sing with enthusiasm, we are enriching the sacramental experience of everyone else around us.

This local Protestant pastor came to a funeral at our church because the deceased woman had been married to a man from his congregation. Our pastor invited him to proclaim one of the scripture readings, so he was seated near the altar for the whole funeral. On the way down the aisle afterward, our priest noticed tears streaming down the man’s face. When they got to the sacristy, the priest asked if he was all right. “Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “It’s just that the ritual was so sincere.”

This man came from a church that didn’t believe in ritual. They thought that ceremony and ritual were just window dressing, some decorative flourishes that had no meaning. And this man was experiencing for the first time, up close and personal, the power of religious ritual. “The ritual was so sincere” that it moved him to tears. It was so powerful that he started coming to weekday Mass at our church and attended a whole year of RCIA sessions.

Interestingly, only once did this man experience the sincerity of our rituals from standing by the altar next to our pastor. All the other times he experienced it in the pews from the way parishioners participated and prayed. It made me realize more deeply that we all help to make our liturgical rituals sincere. The question raised by the incident is: If a visitor or neighbor or children from our own family watch us participate at Mass, will they comment on how sincere the ritual is? Will they be moved to tears?

4. Covenant: You are what you eat
The Gospel of John insists that Holy Communion is a covenant, a solemn commitment to live out what the sacrament expresses.

In this fourth gospel we really get caught off guard in the description of the Last Supper. It sounds like the other three gospels at first, the gathering of Jesus and the Twelve for a final solemn meal. And we think we know what’s coming next when John says they are all seated at the table. We’re expecting to hear that Jesus takes bread in his hands and so on. But instead in John’s gospel Jesus gets up from the table and gets down on his knees to wash the feet of his followers. In other words, instead of focusing on the sacramental ritual in which Jesus pledges to lay down his life, John shows us Jesus actually laying down his life in service. To participate in Eucharist means to wash feet, to serve the needs of others.

When we receive Eucharist it’s like a couple exchanging vows in a wedding. That’s the public pledge of their love. But the living out of that pledge is done in nursing sick children, admitting mistakes, forgiving one another. The promise is made by the altar, but the living is done in kitchens, backyards, supermarkets, hospitals, fast-food restaurants, and moving cars.

That’s how Eucharist is, too. To receive Eucharist is to publicly renew our pledge to live out the values and vision of Christ. The public pledge, the reception of the sacrament, is typically done in church during Mass. But the living out of that pledge ?occurs everywhere.

We receive Jesus so that we can more and more become what we eat, so people will see in us the concern for the weak and the poor and the sick that Jesus had. And we know that is how we will be judged. “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was homeless, I was sick, and you helped me.” Jesus says that’s what the test will be. The test isn’t, “How often did you receive Communion?” But we need the strength of many Communions if we are to live by the standards Jesus offers us.

We have all had experiences but missed the meaning. Perhaps receiving Holy Communion is one of the experiences whose fuller meaning has escaped us. We can even walk away from it—the way my friend Nick walked away from the Grand Canyon. (He really thought the problem was with the canyon!) Better yet, we can keep learning from others at every point of our life some of the meanings of Eucharist that we may have missed before.

Jim Dinn, a freelance writer retired in Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the December 2004 (Volume 69, Number 12) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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