Father Matthew Buettner: Holy Communion: Approaching the sacred banquet with humility and reverence
In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the drama of our redemption is unfolded in three movements during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer and Holy Communion.
The Communion Rite begins at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Prayer. The faithful stand and, at the invitation of the celebrant, sing or recite the Lord's Prayer: "At the Savior's command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say...."
From the most ancient historical documents and records of theologians and saints, the Lord's Prayer was included in the Holy Mass prior to receiving Holy Communion. It is fitting that this prayer is placed between the Eucharistic Prayer and reception of Holy Communion because the seven petitions of the Lord's Prayer summarize the petitions offered in the Eucharistic Prayer, and because the Lord's Prayer is the proper prayer of the whole Church, uniting and preparing the faithful for divine communion.
In the Mass, the celebrant invites us to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness, since it was Jesus, the Son of God, who taught us to call God "Our Father." Through the sacrament of baptism, we have truly become adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly Father through His Son. Therefore, when we pray to the Father, we are in communion with Him and His Son, Jesus Christ. But this communion is a spiritual communion, one which prepares us for sacramental communion when we receive the Holy Eucharist.
From early on, reciting the Lord's Prayer in the Mass contained a unique conclusion. The Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions added a doxology to the end of the Lord's Prayer. This practice is retained in the Mass, but the final doxology follows a prayer recited by the celebrant, known as the embolism, meaning "extension." Developing the final petition of the Lord's Prayer, the celebrant prays for deliverance from evil for the entire community of the faithful and ends with the hope of the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: "Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of Your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."
The short ritual known as the Rite of Peace follows the Lord's Prayer and is introduced by the celebrant with a prayer directed to Jesus Christ, truly present on the altar. This prayer recalls the gift of the risen Christ to His Apostles on the day of His glorious resurrection, and it expresses ecclesial communion and mutual charity before receiving Holy Communion. If appropriate, the deacon or priest may invite us to exchange the sign of peace with those nearest to us. The priest and ministers are not normally allowed to leave the sanctuary to exchange the sign of peace, since the priest has already exchanged peace with the faithful.
Ultimately, what we discover as we approach Holy Communion is that our communion with another (in faith, as well as charity) is to be established spiritually before it is to be expressed sacramentally by receiving Communion.
'BEHOLD, THE LAMB OF GOD'
After the Rite of Peace is a subtle, yet highly significant act called the Fraction Rite. The celebrant, following the example of Our Lord, now takes up the consecrated host and reverently breaks it over the paten. Although this action is accomplished without drama or commentary, it bears great significance in the history and tradition of the Mass. All of the sacred writers of the New Testament affirm that Christ took bread and broke it when He offered the sacrifice of the Last Supper. After His resurrection, He was recognized by His disciples "in the breaking of the bread." And the Acts of the Apostles testifies that the early Church continued "the breaking of the bread" faithfully each day. To the present day, the Church continues "the breaking of the bread" precisely because Christ the Lord instructed His Apostles to "Do this in memory of me."
But why does Our Lord break the bread?
Certainly it was Jewish custom to "break bread" with one's relatives and friends as an act of charity and a sign of unity. And ancient custom dictated that breaking bread was appropriate rather than slicing or cutting it with a knife. But perhaps more important is the spiritual significance of breaking the bread that not only represented Christ's body, but sacramentally becomes His body, pierced and nailed to the cross.
A fragment of the broken host is then placed into the chalice, a gesture called "the commingling." The origin of this custom is uncertain, but there are a number of possible explanations. Centuries ago there was the custom of taking pieces of the consecrated host from the Mass offered by the bishop of a diocese and distributing them to the various parishes in his diocese. The priest would then place the fragment into his chalice, signifying unity with the local bishop.
It is also plausible that this commingling of the Body and Blood of Christ has a more spiritual explanation. The consecration of the Mass occurs in two separate consecrations: first the bread, then the wine. Since this separate consecration symbolically represents death, as Our Lord's Precious Blood was separated from His Sacred Body, uniting and commingling the Body and Blood of Christ in the chalice would symbolically represent the resurrection, the re-union of Christ's Body and Blood. The celebrant recites a prayer in silence during this commingling: "May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it."
Meanwhile, the Agnus Dei is recited or sung. At first, the breaking of the bread was done in silence. But in the seventh century, Pope St. Sergius established the chanting of this hymn, which had been familiar to him since his childhood. The Agnus Dei or "Lamb of God" as a title of Our Lord is most appropriate at this point in the Mass. In the Old Testament, the "lamb of God" was slaughtered for the Passover feast and saved the Israelites from the angel of death. St. John the Baptist saw Jesus walking toward him on the banks of the Jordan River and cried out, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" And the evangelist St. John recorded his visions in the Book of Revelation of the slain Lamb, Jesus Christ, glorious and victorious in heaven.
After the priest has completed his private preparatory prayers, he genuflects and raises the host above the paten or chalice and recites the words of St. John the Baptist: "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb."
We must pause for a moment, look, adore, and behold Him, who alone takes away the sins of the world. It is not mere bread or symbol, but the same Lord who once walked along the banks of the Jordan River.
'Lord, I am not worthy'
All then respond with the words of the Centurion soldier from the Gospel: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."
This final act of humility and trust is the most appropriate preparation for Holy Communion. No one is worthy, per se, to receive the most sublime gift of the Church's treasury, namely, Christ Himself. It is only necessary that the priest receives Holy Communion at the Mass for the sacrifice to be complete and the Mass to be offered validly. However, the Church has encouraged the faithful to receive Holy Communion, so that they too might partake of the innumerable spiritual graces and benefits of the Eucharistic Banquet. The Church even mandates the faithful to receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season.
Who is allowed to receive Holy Communion?
According to canon law, "Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion." Those prohibited by law would include those not in communion with the Catholic Church, children under the age of reason, those who persevere in manifest grave sin, those who are not married by the Church and therefore not married in the eyes of God, etc. For those not permitted to receive Holy Communion, it should be noted that they are not excluded from the worship of God by attending Mass, and they should be encouraged to make a "spiritual communion" – the traditional practice of uniting oneself to Christ in a prayer of self-offering that seeks to receive the graces and benefits of Christ's sacrifice.
Then the priest receives the consecrated host after saying silently, "May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life." Similarly, he receives the Precious Blood after saying silently, "May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life."
At this point, the celebrant may be assisted by other ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, such as concelebrating priests or deacons. If there are not enough ordinary ministers, extraordinary ministers approach the altar to receive Communion and assist the priest. After the celebrant has received Communion, the Communion antiphon is recited or the Communion chant begins. The purpose of the hymn is to express unity of voices and joy of heart while the faithful begin the communion procession, the second principal procession of the Holy Mass.
As the faithful approach the minister to receive Holy Communion, the communicant is to make a sign of reverence before receiving. The general norm in the United States is to bow before the Blessed Sacrament and to bow again before the chalice containing the Precious Blood.
The minister shows the consecrated host to the communicant and says, "The Body of Christ." Likewise, the minister presents the chalice with the Precious Blood and says, "The Blood of Christ."
The communicant makes the sign of reverence and responds, "Amen." This response means, "I believe" or "So be it." This response is simple, yet essential. It is an act of faith that, indeed, the communicant is fully aware that he or she is about to receive the true Body and Blood of Christ.
The communicant always has the privilege of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue since this form is the traditional custom. In the U.S. and other countries that have received permission from the Holy See, the communicant may receive Holy Communion in the hand. However, "Redemptionis Sacramentum" warns that "special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful."
After the reception of Holy Communion, the priest places the remaining hosts in the tabernacle and purifies the sacred vessels at the altar or credence table. While he carries out the purifications, the priest says the following beautiful prayer silently: "What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity."
At this time, it is highly recommended to observe a few moments of silence, since the Body and Blood of the Lord is truly present in the body and soul of each communicant. These are the most precious moments on earth, where we experience communion with God and with His Church.
After a few moments of silent meditation, the celebrant stands and invites the faithful to pray. The Communion Rite closes with the third proper collect or prayer of the Mass, known as the "Prayer after Communion."
Father Matthew Buettner is the pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Lincolnton. This is excerpted from "Understanding the Mystery of the Mass – Revisited." Previous columns are archived online at www.catholicnewsherald.com.
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