Re-Think Communion: Intimate Bond & Covenant
The honorable mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, in an attempt to reduce among his constituents the intake of sugary soft drinks, wants to ban the use of drink cups over 16 oz. in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and arenas. Already some are denouncing this action as an infringement of their rights, big government meddling in the lives of ordinary citizens. The mayor’s office sees it as a public health issue, because of the rapid rise of obesity especially among young people. After giving this some thought, I came to the conclusion that banning drink cups over 16 oz. is only an infringement of my rights if the waiter or the vendor at the concession stand refused to serve me another cup of sugary soft drink after my first 16 oz. serving. But that’s not it. In fact I will still be able to have as much soda as I want. I can even use a 32 oz. cup in the privacy of my own home! The mayor’s intent is that I pause and consider what I am doing before having a second, a third, or a fourth cup. Any opposition to this initiative is really more a refusal to think of the potential harm I bring upon myself, than it is a refusal to be deprived of my right to make bad choices. Maybe I just think too much.
For most Catholics, the experience of church on Saturday evening/Sunday is not complete without Communion. Unfortunately, there are some who think everything else we do at mass is optional. They have little trouble exempting themselves from actually being in church during the Liturgy of the Word, or paying attention when Sacred Scripture is proclaimed and preached. Or they may think mass is over after they get their bread and wine, and think nothing of leaving early because they have what they came for. I do not deny that there are truly legitimate reasons for why some people consistently arrive late to mass or leave early. They may be dealing with illness at home, or a really tight work schedule. But don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that they not receive Communion. Rather, I just hope we take the time to sincerely consider the profound meaning of our Eucharistic celebration. If we are more consciously aware of the mystery we celebrate, what we do and why, our experience of Communion would be more fruitful and effective. In this case, there’s no such thing as thinking too much.
There is so much more to this sacred mystery than our eating bread and drinking wine. For instance, we are well aware that despite our most heartfelt desire to be united with God in the most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, there may yet be obstacles that hinder our true communion. From our younger days we were instructed to avoid receiving the Eucharist unworthily, as when we are conscious of serious or deadly sin. From this caution rose the popular practice of confession on Saturday afternoon, and communion on Sunday. Now as admirable as the intent was behind this practice, it was never meant as permission to commit wanton sin all week, repent on Saturday, receive communion on Sunday, and repeat as desired. But if we were just going through the motions – sin, confession, communion – without desiring true intimacy with the eternal and triune God, we are missing out on so profound a mystery as we take in our own hands.
The scripture passages from the gospel and the book of Exodus today describe the roots of our own Eucharistic celebration. The gospel account of the last supper reminds us that Jesus and his disciples had gathered to celebrate the Passover meal. To them it was no ordinary meal, but a participation in the singular event uniting God and Israel in a covenant relationship. This meal they shared acknowledged the unique bond between themselves and God. So it went without saying that they actively desired to be faithful to the covenant handed down by Moses, doing their best to remove all obstacles to that union with God. And if they were just going through the motions, celebrating the Passover mindlessly, it would seem like just another meal, nothing more.
Although there are striking similarities between the different traditions of Christianity, the way we celebrate Holy Eucharist can be very unlike the way other communities and churches celebrate it. You may have heard some complain that we have too many rules before we admit anyone to the table. Why can’t just anybody come to Communion? Didn’t Jesus welcome everyone without prejudice? Why don’t we invite those who are not Catholic to receive Communion with us? They invite us to their table when we go to their church. Truly, Holy Communion for us means something more fundamentally intimate than a pizza party or a round of drinks with close friends. We are not just pretending an intimate bond between each other, nor between us and God. Rather, we proclaim that intimate bond already exists, and we desire to draw deeper into that intimate bond. The essential bond we share is charity. But according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the unity of the pilgrim church is assured by visible bonds of communion: the profession of one faith received from the Apostles; the common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments; and apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family.” Faith, sacraments, pastoral governance. With many we share the same essential faith handed down from the Apostles. With regard to the sacraments, we share some beliefs with other Christians, but not all. A significant oversight on the part of some Catholics is that we see marriage as sacrament. When we proclaim marriage to be sacrament, we say God is a necessary participant in the partnership of husband and wife. So we celebrate all sacraments within the community of the church. Failing that, we make the choice to break communion with one another. It is not broken beyond repair, as some can attest to repairing that breach. But it is not something we take lightly. And lastly, we diverge profoundly in our beliefs regarding who has legitimate right of pastoral governance over the church of God. So until these bonds exist in reality, sharing Communion at the Eucharistic table merely glosses over the challenges we need to overcome as we work to build communion with one another.
In the meantime, we make a sincere effort to live our baptismal commitment each day, as we proclaim on many occasions, by renouncing sin, and the lure of sin, and Satan author and prince of sin. Each time we take the bread that is the body of Christ, and the wine that is his blood, we mean to proclaim publicly and sincerely that we are mindful of our covenant relationship with God and what it demands of us, that we are making a sincere effort to live by the values Jesus taught, that we truly desire that intimate bond with God and one another as Jesus has with his Father. So whenever we approach Communion, we are proclaiming a lot of profound realities. If we took the time to reflect on what it means every now and again, our experience of Communion would be so much more fruitful and effective. “Take [this bread]; this is my body.” “This [chalice] is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” If all we come for is a piece of bread and a little sip of wine, then it should make no difference how we do it or why.