On the surface of things, there’s no mystery how one ought to receive Communion: Stand up, file out of the pew, wait your turn in line, eat the Host, and head back to the pew. But beneath these mechanics of receiving, the mystery of the Eucharist requires much, much more. At the very least, how we receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ affects our potential sanctity. At worst, how we receive may cost us our lives, as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it in the Sequence for Corpus Christi, Lauda Sion: “Life to these [who receive properly], to those [who don’t] damnation: See how like participation / Is with unlike issues rife.” The economy of language in this lyric to the Blessed Sacrament requires that we tease out the meaning, but the contrast between the two alternatives, as St. Thomas notes, is striking: heaven or hell.
How, then, do we prepare to receive Christ in the Eucharist not unto our damnation but, rather, unto our divinization?
The good news is that, through Scripture and the liturgy, the Church shows us how. The bad news is that receiving Christ in the Eucharist well is harder than it looks. For the dynamics of receiving Holy Communion is about God increasing Jesus’ divine life in us, but it is also about our efforts to decrease the sin and selfishness we have inherited from Adam and developed in our own lives. That’s an easy thing for God — but not so easy for us (at least not without God’s help).
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) explains that “it is desirable that in accordance with the Lord’s command his Body and Blood should be received as spiritual food by those of the faithful who are properly disposed” (80, emphasis added). The first feature of a “properly disposed” soul is its “state of grace,” that is, being free from mortal sin. Mortal sin is the bad fruit yielded from the deliberate choice to commit an evil we know to be gravely serious. St. Paul warns of mixing mortal sin with the Blood of Christ: “A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29). Hard words to hear, perhaps, but St. Paul is instructing us in the first step toward a holy communion: possessing a soul worthy to receive God. Don’t eat or drink your own judgment!
But the state of grace, while clearly no small thing, is only a starting point for receiving the full power of the Eucharist. Further preparation is required by the soul, and the Mass’ rites and prayers immediately before receiving Communion help foster its “proper disposition.” A second step in our preparation takes to heart the humble words of the Roman Centurion of Capernaum. When this powerful commander asks Jesus — he who was without home (Matthew 8:20), a member of a conquered people, and the son of a mere carpenter — to heal his servant, he does so in unexpected humility: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8). The Church puts these lowly words on our lips, hoping to foster in our souls the Centurion’s own faith and humility.
When we express true docility, God can work a miraculous transformation in us. St. Augustine imagines that at the time of reception Jesus is speaking to him, reminding him from the Host that “I am the food of grown men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you change me, like the food of your flesh, into yourself, but you shall be changed into me” (see Sacramentum Caritatis, 70). A human’s humility (related to “humus”; both words remind us of our earthly origin) invites heavenly grace in abundance.
As another way to foster the often-unpopular disposition of humility, the Church encourages us to assume a certain posture and manner in receiving. For much of the Church’s life, she directed her children to receive kneeling and on the tongue, both meant to express and foster passivity, receptivity and humility. But here, too, the body’s posture must correspond to the soul’s devotion. Even though current norms permit us to receive kneeling (see GIRM, 160), my bended knee must also bend my pride. GIRM 160 grants us permission to kneel and receive; but the same paragraph states that Communion’s normative posture is standing, itself a posture expressive of Eucharistic victory, readiness and respect. Likewise, GIRM 160 also states that “the consecrated Host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant.” So, which should we choose: Stand or kneel? Receive in the hand or on the tongue? After St. Paul, “each person should examine himself” and determine the posture and manner that best fosters the greatest meekness within the soul.
Receiving Communion successfully — that is, like a saint — requires more than meets the eye. Worthy reception requires being in a state of grace, voicing heartfelt humility like the powerful yet lowly Centurion, and expressing and fostering the docility of our souls in our bodies. A post-Communion prayer will also help, something along the lines of, “Jesus, make me like you! Jesus, turn me into you!” In each instance of reception, this high point in our weekly life of faith — or even daily practice — to paraphrase St. John the Baptist, allows God to increase and me to decrease.
What happens when an unstoppable force such as an all-loving God meets an immovable object such as my stony heart? Nothing — or at least nothing good! Receiving Communion like a saint means approaching the altar with docility, humility and the sincerest desire to be transformed. Only then can God achieve communion with each one of us. It is a formula for sanctity that reaches deep into the meaning and purpose of the sacrificial Presence transmitted from the altars in our churches to the altar of the human heart.
Christopher Carstens writes from La Crosse, Wisconsin.
He’s editor of Adoremus Bulletin and author of the book
A Devotional Journey Into the Mass:
How Mass Can Become a Time of Grace,
Nourishment and Devotion.