This is the sixth in a seven-part series on the Mass.
After the “Great Amen” everything looks the same: the appearance of bread and wine, a regular man in unusual garments and a gathering of common people of various ages, races, languages and states in life.
On the surface, it all seems ordinary. But our faith affirms that Jesus Christ is really present. The bread and wine have actually become his body and blood; the priest is acting in Christ’s person; and we, the assembly, are given God’s Spirit so we also become the body of Christ.
What happens next?
Obviously, we do what Jesus does. He said, “I always do what is pleasing to him [the Father]” (John 8:29), and that continues now in heaven where Jesus intercedes at the Father’s right hand. He’s still praying to his Father, and in the Eucharist — his real presence — we join our prayer to his and with Jesus we say, Our Father.
That’s what the Communion rite is all about: joining ourselves as intimately as possible to Jesus. How much closer can you get than having the same parents and actually sharing someone’s body and blood?
Just as husband and wife become one flesh in the sacrament of marriage, in the sacrament of the Eucharist we are joined in the wedding banquet of the Lamb of God, when he takes his bride — the church — to himself.
Notice that this is a communal experience. Receiving the Eucharist is not just about me and Jesus; it’s us and Jesus. I like the double meanings of both the terms body of Christ and Communion: They both simultaneously refer to the Eucharist and the church.
This is why the Catholic Church cannot offer the Eucharist to those not united with us. Only those in communion with the Catholic Church receive Communion in the Catholic Church.
While Protestants, Catholics not in full communion and others are welcome to join us in prayer, only Catholics in good standing receive the Eucharist, though rarely bishops — the overseers of Catholic communion — can make exceptions.
Truth be told, even Catholics in full communion and a state of grace are not always ready for intimacy with the body of Christ. We sin against God and neighbor.
Hence, we must make peace with them. Jesus said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother or sister has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). This is the purpose of the sign of peace.
Ritual behavior is restrained and modest. Just as in the Eucharist we don’t eat and drink until we’re full and drunk, so too the sign of peace should be sober and dignified, offered to a few persons immediately around us. It is not a free-for-all time to empty the pews for chatting with buddies; it’s a sacred moment. We symbolically do what our hearts intend: to be at peace with God and neighbor.
Neither is it a time to literally ask forgiveness for sin; that’s what the sacrament of reconciliation is for. Sometimes our offending God and/or neighbor are serious enough that we may not receive Communion without first going to confession.
And even after ritually making peace, we dare not presume to be perfectly reconciled, which is why we next call out, “Lamb of God, have mercy on us.” As we behold the one who takes away the sins of the world, like the centurion we know we’re not worthy to have him come under the roof of our souls. But he speaks a word — he is the Word — and we are healed.
Receiving Communion is the symbolic consummation of wedding banquet, when the church-bride is so united to her divine groom that she becomes like him. St. Augustine observed that unlike ordinary eating, when the food becomes assimilated into our bodies, when we eat and drink at the Eucharist we are changed into what we receive: the body of Christ.
Such a holy uniting calls for reverent behavior and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal asks all communicants to make a sign of reverence before receiving communion. In the dioceses of the United States, our bishops have determined that to be a reverent bow of the head. While genuflecting, bowing profoundly and kneeling are worthy ways to show reverence, overly showy displays distract others’ attention from the Eucharist onto the recipient and thus can disrupt Communion.
Whether one receives on the tongue or in the hand (the choice is up to each communicant), the most important thing is to be dignified and reverent. Say “Amen” (not “Thanks Father!”), step aside and lovingly consume the eucharistic Lord.
Then, return to your place and spend silent moments in prayer with him who is now within you in the most intimate way. Now is not the time to rush out of the church to beat the crowd out of the parking lot!
Father Tom Margevicius is instructor of liturgical theology at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.