Open Hands and Open Hearts

Communion ministers will tell you that they see an interesting array of approaches as people come to the “table of the Lord.” As we all know, it is the communicant who chooses between “on the tongue” or “in the hand” according to personal devotion. And that, of course, is as the Church wants it to be.

But priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will tell you that some not very attractive (and occasionally humorous) “encounters” occur in both modes of reception. Some tongues become moving targets; others make saliva-soaked stabs toward the fingers of the minister. Some receiving hands raise a pinched thumb and forefinger in an “I’ll take one of those” posture, while many open palms present themselves at almost-out-of-reach lower levels. Having experienced these and other styles of reception over the years, I was prompted recently to track down an ancient text about reception of holy Communion in the hand. It suggests a few catechetical points about both hands and hearts at Mass.

Cyril of Jerusalem, back in the fourth century, instructed communicants in these words: “So when you come forward, do not come with arm extended or fingers parted. Make your left hand a throne for your right, since your right hand is about to welcome a king. Cup your palm and receive in it Christ’s body, saying in response, Amen. Then carefully bless your eyes with a touch of the holy body, and consume it, being careful to drop not a particle of it. . . . After partaking of Christ’s body, go to receive the chalice of his blood.”

It is the image of the “left hand as a throne for your right” that has stayed with me since I first read those words years ago. That image conveys both the reverence and dignity associated with open hands awaiting the arrival of the Lord.

You cannot receive Communion worthily and have your heart closed to others in the human community, especially to those immediately around you. Moreover, you and all others who feast at the Table of the Lord receive not only the same food — the bread of life — but the exact same portion, the one body and one cup, the one Lord. And, wonder of wonders, unlike the reality of ordinary food that becomes part of you, in this unique sacramental meal you become part of it, you become what you eat. In receiving holy Communion, you are not simply nourished, you are divinized.

At First Holy Communion Masses, I sometimes ask the children to look and think “left-to-right” as well as “up-and-down.” Their elders would, of course, say, “horizontally and vertically.” Whatever the vocabulary, an imaginative stretch of heart and mind up to God and out to others is a helpful catechetical predisposition to understanding the reality of Holy Communion. This is indeed “the bread of life.” This is the bread “come down from heaven.” But this is also the same portion of the same meal shared universally wherever we — young or old, rich or poor, black or white, friend or foe — do this “in remembrance” of Him.

If people do not or cannot (because they are simply too young) believe the Lord to be truly present under the signs of bread and wine, they have no place at the table. If belief is there, then the believer knows with the certainty of faith that the flesh of Jesus “is real food” and His blood “real drink,” and that Christ is really and truly present at Mass under the signs, the appearances, of bread and wine.

Unlike so many families that set up a “children’s table” for holiday meals, the Church has no such table for the Eucharist. To take your place there you have to be old enough to believe, and, in that sense, you are a child no longer.

Open or outstretched hands at Communion time, can serve to remind that faith also is a gift. Without it, the communicant would not be there before the altar to receive the bread of life.

Thinking horizontally — in the direction to your brothers and sisters in the community of faith — is also expected of those who gather at the table of the Lord. A worthy Communion means being united with them. A worthy Communion might also mean doing what you can to make sure that whenever you enjoy the bread of life, your hungry brothers and sisters worldwide have their share of the bread for life.

It can never be just Jesus and you associated with the reception of holy Communion. It is you, Jesus, and everyone else who shares the human nature Jesus made His own when He came to save us from our sins. You are at table with all of them whenever you find yourself at the table of the Lord. TP 

Father Byron, S.J., former pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., is author, most recently, of The Word Received: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year; Year C (Paulist Press).