"Cum Amore Ac Timore"
1. In his last encyclical, the great Pope John Paul II gave the Church a strong warning which sounds like a real testament: "We must carefully avoid underestimating any dimension or requirement of the Holy Eucharist. We thus show our awareness of the greatness of this gift . . . there is no risk of exaggerating in respect for this Mystery."
Awareness of the greatness of this mystery is shown in the way in which Christ's Body is given and received. Being aware of the importance of the moment of Holy Communion, the Church in her bimillenary tradition has tried to find a ritual expression to testify to her faith, love and respect in the most perfect possible way. Thus, in the wake of an organic development, by at least as early as the 6th century, the Church began to give the Holy Eucharist directly into the mouth. This is testified in the biography of Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 to 604, and by an indication of the Pope himself.
The Synod of Cordova, which took place in 839, condemned the sect of the so-called Casians for their refusal to receive Holy Communion directly into the mouth. After this the Synod of Rouen of 878 confirmed the current practice of placing the Body of Christ on the tongue, threatening priests with suspension from their office should they give the Eucharist to lay people by placing it in their hands.
In the West the custom of kneeling and prostrating oneself before receiving the Eucharist was established in monasteries as early as the 6th century (e.g., in the monasteries of St. Colombanus). Later, in the 10th and 11th centuries, this custom became even more widespread.
At the end of the patristic age, the practice of receiving Holy Communion directly into the mouth became so widespread as to be almost universal. This organic development can be traced back to the spirituality and Eucharistic devotion of the Fathers of the Church. As early as the first millennium, owing to the highly sacred nature of Eucharistic bread, the Western and Eastern Church in unison and almost instinctively realized the urgency of giving the Eucharist to lay people in their mouth.
The well-known liturgist J. A. Jungmann explained that, thanks to the distribution of Holy Communion directly into the mouth, several problems were sorted out: the necessity for those about to receive the Eucharist to clean their hands, the even more serious problems of preventing fragments of consecrated bread from being lost, and the necessity of purifying the patens of the hands after receiving the sacrament. The cloth and later on the paten were expressions of greater respect for the Eucharist.
2. As John Paul II pointed out in the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: "In the wake of this great sense of mystery it becomes clear how the Church's faith in the Eucharistic mystery has found expression, through the centuries, not only in the exhortation to an attitude of inner devotion, but also in a series of outer gestures."
The most adequate attitude towards this gift is receptivity, the centurion's humility, the attitude of someone ready to receive food, i.e., a child's attitude. The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of Heaven like children, can find its most suggestive expression in our gesture of receiving the Eucharistic bread kneeling and directly into the mouth.
John Paul II highlighted the necessity of outer expressions of respect for the Eucharist: "Although the banquet connotes the idea of familiarity, the Church has never given in to the temptation of banalizing this 'familiarity' with her Bridegroom, forgetting that He is also her Lord . . . The Eucharistic banquet is a real sacred banquet where underlying the simplicity of signs is God's unfathomable holiness. The bread broken on our altars is the angels' bread, which we can only approach with the centurion's humility."
The child's attitude is the Christian's deepest and most authentic attitude towards his Savior, who nourishes him with His Body and Blood. As Clement of Alexandria points out in a moving passage: "The Word is everything to the child: father, mother, pedagogue, nourisher: 'Eat My flesh and blood, says Jesus!' . . . What an amazing mystery!"
Another biblical reflection is found in the story of the Prophet Ezekiel's calling. Ezekiel received God's word in his mouth symbolically: "Let your stomach make a meal of it and let your inside be full of this roll which I am giving to you. I looked, and lo, a hand outstretched towards me was holding a roll. Then I took it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth" (Ezekiel 2, 8-9; 3, 2-3).
In Holy Communion we receive the Word-made-flesh, food for us little children. When we receive the Eucharist, therefore, we can remember the gesture of the Prophet Ezekiel.
Christ's giving us real nourishment with His Body and Blood in Holy Communion was compared to breastfeeding in the patristic age, as shown by St. John Chrysostom's impressive words: "Through the Eucharistic mystery, Christ unites with each believer; he himself nourishes those he gave life to, without entrusting them to anybody else. Do you not see how newborn children rush to their mother's breast? We must approach this sacred banquet and take this spiritual drink with the same fervor; rather, with an even more burning desire than a baby."
3. The most typical manifestation of worship is the biblical gesture of kneeling down, as understood and practiced by the early Christians.
According to Tertullian, who lived between the 2nd and 3rd century A.D., the highest form of prayer is the worship of God, which is also to be manifested in the act of kneeling: "The angels pray, all creatures pray, cattle and wild beasts pray and bend their knees."
St. Augustine warned believers that they sinned unless they adored Christ's body when receiving it in the Eucharist.
As established in an ancient Ordo communionis of the liturgy of the Coptic Church: "Let all, young and old alike, prostrate themselves and in this way begin the distribution of the Eucharist."
According to the Mystagogic Catecheses ascribed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the believer was to receive Holy Communion with a gesture of worship and veneration: "Do not hold out your hands, but with a gesture of worship and veneration come close to the cup which contains Christ's blood."
St. John Chrysostom invited those on the point of receiving Christ's Body in the Eucharist to imitate the Magi of the East in their spirit and gesture of worship: "Let us therefore come close to Him with fervor and burning love. The Magi themselves worshipped Him even though they found Him in a manger. Those men worshipped the Lord with awe and respect, though being Gentiles and barbarians. So we, who belong to the Kingdom of Heaven, must at least try to imitate those barbarians! Unlike the Magi, you do not only see this body, but have also experienced its strength and power of salvation. Let us therefore spur ourselves to show greater awe, reverence and devotion than the Magi."
Benedict XVI speaks about the same close link between worship and Holy Communion in his recent post-synodal exhortation Sacramentum caritatis: "Receiving the Eucharist involves an attitude of worship towards the One we receive" (n. 66).
Even as a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger stressed this point: "Receiving the Eucharist is a spiritual event affecting the whole of human reality . . . Holy Communion affects us completely only when supported and understood by worship."
In the Apocalypse, the book of the heavenly liturgy, the 24 elders prostrating themselves before the Lamb of God provide a model of how the Church is to treat the Lamb when believers come into contact with Him in the Eucharist.
4. The Fathers of the Church showed the greatest concern to prevent even the smallest piece of Eucharistic bread from being lost, as St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorted with highly suggestive words: "Be careful not to lose any part of the Lord's body. Should you drop anything, it would be as though you had severed a limb from your own body. Pray, tell me, if anyone were to give you gold beads, would you not keep them with the greatest care so as not to lose any of them? Should you not be more careful and vigilant to prevent even the smallest crumb of the Lord's body from falling to the floor, this being far more precious than gems and gold?"
As early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Tertullian voiced the great anguish and concern of the Church to prevent any fragment of bread from being lost: "We are exceedingly worried to avoid dropping the smallest crumb of bread or spilling the smallest drop of wine."
This is what Saint Ephrem, who lived in 4th century, taught: "Jesus filled the bread with Himself and the Spirit and called this bread His living body. What I have given to you, Jesus said, you must not regard as bread or tread on any fragment of it. The smallest fragment can sanctify millions of men and is enough to give life to all those who eat it."
A warning in the liturgical tradition of the Coptic Church reads as follows: "There is no difference between larger and smaller pieces of the Eucharist; even fragments so small as to be invisible are worthy of the same veneration and have the same dignity as the unbroken bread."
In some Eastern liturgies the consecrated bread was referred to as pearl (margarita). The Collectiones Canonum Copticae read as follows: "God forbid it! No pearl of consecrated bread must fall on the floor or stick to the fingers!"
The great care of the early Church in preventing fragments of Eucharistic bread from being lost was all over the Christian world: Rome (see Hippolytus, Traditio apostolica, 32), North Africa (see Tertullian, De corona 3, 4), Gaul (see Caesarius Arelatensis, sermo 78, 2), Egypt (see Origenes, In Exodum hom. 13, 3), Antioch and Constantinople (see John Chrysostom, Ecloga quod non indige accedendum sit ad divina mysteria), Palestine (see Hieronymus, In Ps 147, 14), Syria (see Ephraem In hebd. Sanctam, s. 4, 4).
5. In the early Church, men had to wash the palms of their hands before receiving the Eucharist. Also, believers had to take a deep bow and receive Christ's Body directly in the palm of their right, but not their left, hand. The palm of the right hand was used, so to speak, as a paten or as a corporal (especially for women).
A sermon by St. Caesarius of Arles reads as follows: "All men who desire to receive Holy Communion are to wash their hands. All women are to bring a linen cloth upon which Christ's Body is to be placed."
The palm of the hand was usually washed after reception of the Eucharist, as is still the case in the Communion of the clergy in the Byzantine liturgy.
The ancient canons of the Chaldean Church prohibited even the priest from bringing the Eucharist to his mouth with his fingers. He was to take the Lord's Body from the palm of his hand; the reason for this was that it was not ordinary, but heavenly food: "The priest is commanded to take the piece of bread directly from the palm of his hand; he is to take it directly with his mouth, as it is heavenly food."
6. In the ancient Syriac Church, the distribution of the Eucharist was a rite compared to the scene of Isaiah's purification at the hands of a seraph. In one of his sermons, St. Ephrem puts the following sentences into Jesus' mouth: "The coal sanctified Isaiah's lips. Now I, who have come to you in the appearances of bread, have sanctified you all. The fire tongs whereby the coal was taken from the altar and which the Prophet Isaiah saw were an image of Me in the great sacrament. Isaiah saw Me, in the same way as you see Me when you hold out your right hand and bring the living bread to your mouth. The tongs are My right hand. I am in the seraph's place. The burning coal is My body. All of you are Isaiah."
In the Liturgy of St. James, before distributing Holy Communion to the congregation, the priest said this prayer: "May the Lord bless us all and make us worthy to receive the burning coal with immaculate hands and bring it to our mouth."
7. If every liturgical celebration is a sacred act par excellence (see Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7), this applies most of all to the rite of Holy Communion. The great Pope John Paul II stressed the need for the Church to take into particular consideration the sacred nature of the Eucharist, given the tendency of contemporary culture to ignore the sacred: "We must always remember, perhaps most of all in times like these when we perceive a tendency to obliterate the distinction between sacrum and profanum, given the widespread inclination (in certain areas at least) to desecrate all things."
In this context, the Church is called on to secure and strengthen the sense of the sacredness of the Eucharist. In our pluralistic, and in certain respects deliberately secularized society, the living faith of the Christian community secures the right of citizenship for this sense of sacredness. As a result of the experience of the early Church, of the increase in the overall theological understanding of the Eucharistic mystery and the ensuing changes in the liturgy, the distribution of Holy Communion was limited, at the end of the patristic age, as is still the case in the Eastern liturgy. For the laity, the distribution of Eucharistic bread directly into the mouth began to come into use. In the East only non-consecrated bread, called antidoron, was laid on the palm of the hand. The difference between Eucharistic bread and simply blessed bread was thus clearly shown. The most frequent warning of the Fathers of the Church about the attitude towards Holy Communion was expressed thus: "Cum amore et timore!" ("With love and awe!"). At the end of ancient times, the organic development of Eucharistic devotion by the Fathers of the Church, in the West and East alike, resulted in the distribution of the Eucharist into the mouth and the gestures of prostrating oneself (in the East) and kneeling (in the West).
Would it not be consistent with the innermost nature of consecrated bread if, even today, believers prostrated themselves and opened their mouth before receiving Christ's Body and let themselves be nourished like children, Holy Communion being food for the spirit? Such a gesture would also be an impressive manifestation of faith in God's Real Presence amongst the congregation. Should any non-believer find himself there and see such an act of worship, perhaps he too "would prostrate himself and worship God, proclaiming that the Lord is really amongst you." (1 Cor 14:24-25)
Schneider is auxiliary bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
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