In the build to this fall’s Synod on the Family, the question of who can receive Holy Communion has taken on renewed interest. With renewed interest has also come increased confusion. Many leading churchmen have argued that communion should be permissible to those in relationships incompatible with Catholicism under the guise of mercy to sinners. While I’m pretty certain most of the readers here at Catholic Exchange would scoff at such an idea, we should not underestimate its allure. It should also cause us to reflect upon what “receiving Jesus” actually means. In most circles, it is a cliché. While we correctly emphasize that one cannot receive communion while in a state of mortal sin, we really do often present communion as a reward for the holy, which is not the case at all. With the feast of Corpus Christi being celebrated today (transferred to Sunday in most American dioceses), the propers of the Extraordinary Form offer a useful corrective to mistaken notions about Holy Communion.
In the Collect, it is stated that one of the fruits of the Eucharist is to “feel within us the fruit of Thy redemption.” If one is looking for a reason to receive Holy Communion, it is this. We don’t receive communion for a participation badge, or as a reward. We receive communion because, though sinners, we wish to be redeemed from our sins and live within Christ’s kingdom. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims “Holy gifts for holy people” shortly before their reception of communion, and when they use “holy” they use it in the ancient biblical sense of the Hebrew word qodesh, which is the Greek word hagios. When we see qodesh used throughout the Old Testament, we see a sense of “set apart” more than “really good.” There is something unique about that which is holy, and that sets it apart from everything else. In a sense, God is giving a unique gift (the Introit describes God feeding his people) to a unique people.
What is so unique about us Christians? Aren’t we sinners like everyone else? According to St. Paul in today’s epistle, we are indeed like everyone else, save for one major difference. We “prove ourselves.” What are we proving? Only that we are sinners, incapable of living the life we were called to live on our own. As a result, we acknowledge our sin, and ask for the fruit of redemption within our souls.
At this point we see the problem with why certain people cannot receive communion. If one is living in a way that Christ has said we cannot live, and resolves to continue doing so, are they really seeking redemption from their sins? The question we must ask with communion is not “are we a sinner”, but “are we willing to change our life?” While all sin separates from God, it is clear that certain sins, and persistence in said sins, are a declaration to live a life God has said we cannot live. At that point, we are taking a holy thing, and using it for our own selfish purposes.
If we cannot use communion for selfish purposes, what should it be used for? The Gospel tells us that not only do we receive the life of Christ (sacramental grace), but that we live by Christ. We receive the grace and the ability to live a life worthy of being called unique. I think this latter part is the thing we Catholics are missing today when we talk about the joy of communion. We talk all the time of receiving Jesus, but seldom about being able to live by Jesus when it comes to communion. Since we don’t talk about the second, it really does sound like we are denying sinners the ability to receive Christ. If the Church did that, then the Church would cease to exist.
When I returned to the faith 15 years ago, I had a pretty impressive doctrinal understanding of Catholicism, but I was never very good at living the Catholic life. For one example, I never said grace. Sure, I had an intention to say grace, always said “I’m going to say grace next meal” but the minute a steak was put in front of me, I simply devoured it in as few bites as possible. Yet as the years went on and I combined that resolve to say grace with frequent reception of the sacraments, I found something was changing: I started saying grace more. As the years continued, not only was I saying it at every meal, but now I started understanding what it meant to be genuinely thankful for my food. (Being thankful still doesn’t prevent me from devouring it in as few bites as possible, to my wife’s eternal dismay.) Now I wonder why it was so hard to say grace in the first place. Sin is why it was so hard. Sin changes the way we think and the way we act. While our repenting of sin leads to forgiveness, the light of Christ makes it possible to not only stop sinning, but to start living in virtue.
In the end, that’s what Holy Communion is about, and that’s what the liturgy teaches us. It is not some abstract “receiving Jesus.” Instead, it is having the light of Christ permeate our souls, and helping us truly move past the sins we have repented of. Only in this sense can Holy Communion be seen as a medicine for the sick but still maintain the call to fidelity to the light of Christ.