As you know, for Communion we now process from the front to the back, whereas before we went from the back to the front. Some people have said they like the new way; some have said they like the old way. And the Church has what are known as rubrics for how the Mass and the sacraments should be celebrated properly, including what order processions should take, and so on. But for communion, it doesn’t say much; it only says that the lay faithful should come forward “with decorum” to receive communion if they are properly disposed.
What is interesting is how different receiving communion is here in the US from many other countries. I can’t speak for the every country, but it seems to me that it’s only in the US that the communion procession is so orderly. But in many other countries, there is no communion procession per se; it’s just people getting up and approaching the altar without any order in particular. In some place it has seemed to my American eyes, accustomed to our row-by-row order, to be at times kind of a like a mob scene. And I don’t know if the word I use to describe it is “decorum”.
But anyway, while at first I thought this was too chaotic, I have since come to appreciate it somewhat. The disadvantage to our way of doing it is that it can become something routine; perhaps we get up to receive communion because now it’s our turn. It can be easy to start to just take it for granted and fail to recognize the incredible beauty and significance of what exactly we are receiving. And heaven help you if for whatever reason you feel that you are not properly disposed to receive communion. I remember when I was out in the pews feeling extremely self-conscious if I didn’t go to communion at Mass. I thought that everyone would be looking at me and wondering, “What did he do?” Whereas with the non-row-by-row way, you don’t have to be a part of the initial mob rush to the altar; you can hold back for a few moments and prepare yourself for a moment and then get up when you feel ready. It makes receiving communion in my opinion that much more intentional. And anything we can do to remind ourselves of this great mystery we are participating in is a good thing.
And the Eucharist is indeed a great mystery. Last Sunday, the feast of the Holy Trinity, I talked about how a mystery when it comes to our faith is not like a problem to be solved but rather something that we enter into and go deeper into, and in doing so have revealed to us more and more what this mystery is all about. And so it is with the Eucharist. Our human brains will never be able to grasp it all in this life, but we can certainly seek to understand it more, and the more we do, the more we recognize the beauty of this gift we have been given.
And we cannot truly begin to understand the Eucharist, this gift of Jesus’ Body and Blood, without looking first at its Jewish roots. We have to remember that our faith is deeply rooted in Judaism. What is significant for the Jews in their faith is also significant for us. And our first reading brings us back to those Jewish roots of the Eucharist. The setting is the Sinai desert between Egypt and Israel. God had just freed the Israelites, his Chosen People, from their slavery in Egypt. And now they were wandering through the desert, on their way to the Promised Land. And God has chosen to enter into a covenant with the Israelites. This of course was not the first covenant God had entered into with humanity: he had also done so with Adam, with Abraham, and with Noah.
What exactly is a covenant? It’s not a contract; it’s not a legal agreement. It’s a “kinship bond” – it’s like saying: we are now brothers; we are part of the same family. And kinship was constituted by blood; blood was seen as the principle of life. In the book of Leviticus, it says, “The life of all flesh is in its blood (Lev 17:14)”. And so ancient covenants were sealed in blood. That is why, as we heard in our first reading, after the Israelites had heard God’s decrees and ordinances and had agreed to live them out, Moses sprinkled both the altar and the people with the blood of the animals that had been sacrificed for the occasion. Why were animals sacrificed? Because blood, being the principle of life of every living thing, was considered something sacred, and so represented atonement for the sins of the people. The blood was sprinkled on both parties who had entered into the covenant: the people and the altar, which represented God Himself. And after doing this, Moses said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.”
It is necessary to know this in order to better understand what is happening at the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread, said a blessing over it, and broke it, and gave it to his apostles, saying, “This is my body.” And then when he took a cup of wine and gave it to them, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant.” Jesus is celebrating a Passover meal with his twelve apostles, which is the annual ritual feast that Jews partake in to remember how God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Only now, Jesus is bringing it to its fulfillment by establishing a new and eternal covenant, not just with the Jewish people, but with all of humanity. Only the bread that they eat has become Jesus’ Body, and the wine that they drink has become Jesus’ Blood – and this sacrifice will be completed the following day when Jesus sheds his blood and dies on the Cross. The blood of sacrificed animals is replaced by the blood of Jesus Christ Himself, God become man, a human being without sin.
For the Jewish Passover, each family had to choose an unblemished lamb – a lamb without any physical defects – and have it sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God. They would then roast the lamb and eat it at their Passover meal along with unleavened bread. And they would drink a cup of wine in thanksgiving for what the Lord done for them.
The Eucharist is the new Passover meal, only Jesus is the unblemished lamb, but He is also the bread, and the wine. He is all three. And the Eucharist that we receive is Jesus’s very Body and Blood. At every Mass, we enter into this one sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross. Jesus is giving us his very own Body and Blood as our spiritual food and drink. In doing so, he is sharing with us his very life. He atones for our sins, so that we might enter into eternal life with Him forever one day. But even after all of this explanation I’ve just given, which only scratches the surface, we can still only say that this is a great mystery that we are participating in.
What can our response to all this possibly be? If we think about just what we are receiving when we come to communion, or rather Who we are receiving, that should change our whole attitude about Communion, about the Mass. We are not worthy to receive the Eucharist; none of us are, but Jesus gives himself to us anyway. And while there’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves worthy to receive such an incredible gift, we can and should prepare ourselves as best we can to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. First by reminding ourselves of who we are receiving, and so being more intentional and aware when we come up to communion, regardless of the order of the communion procession. And also by showing great reverence for the Eucharist, in how we receive communion, and in how we live our lives. We should always prepare ourselves spiritually to receive Jesus in the Eucharist through daily prayer and, if we have fallen into serious sin, by going to confession first. The Eucharist is not a magic pill that automatically makes us holy – we have to do our part as well, and the better disposed we are to receive Jesus, the more his grace can work in us. And nor is the Eucharist something that is owed to us – we should never feel that we are entitled to it. It is a pure gift.
The word Eucharist means “giving thanks.” Let us always be sure to give thanks to the Lord for this gift of His Body and Blood, given to us out of love.