The thing which keeps life romantic and full of fiery possibilities is the existence of these great plain limitations. ~ G.K. Chesterton
Two of my former students are on the road to becoming Catholic, and both recently confided in me their frustration regarding Holy Communion—but it’s not the reason you’d expect.
You’d think they’d be struggling with transubstantiation and the Real Presence, right? That they’d be flummoxed by the Church’s wild assertion that we’re actually feasting on Jesus’ body and blood when we consume the Blessed Sacrament. That’s got to weird them out!
But, no. Like most of my students, they were raised as Bible Christians, so it didn’t take much to convince them that the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist is right out of Sacred Scripture—even according to their own Protestant translations. Sure, the two were incredulous at first—just like the Jews in Jesus’ time: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”—but the Lord’s biblical rejoinder is so matter-of-fact that my students couldn’t avoid its plain meaning:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
After considering various alternative interpretations of that passage in John, and after coming to grips with the fact that all ancient Christians firmly espoused Catholic belief about the Eucharist, my students dropped their objections and were convinced: In the course of the Mass, the bread and wine truly and really become Jesus—weird as that sounds.
Once that was settled, other doctrines started to fall into place for them, and both are currently well along the RCIA path that will culminate in their becoming Catholics this coming Easter—praise God! Here’s the problem though: They really, really want to receive Holy Communion now. Not later—now! They’re tired of watching everybody else feast on the Lord while they have to settle for a mere blessing—and not even that if there’s a lay Eucharistic minister at the end of the Communion line.
In an attempt to console them, I’ve suggested that their waiting for full communion is actually quite romantic—at least romantic in the old sense of the word. And when I say “old sense of the word,” I mean Jane Austen of course.
Take Pride and Prejudice, for example—the book, for sure, but even the screen adaptations. In the BBC marathon version, you detect that Darcy and Elizabeth are head over heels for each other by the end of the fourth episode, and all doubt is removed in the fifth when they exchange “The Look”—that subtle, oh so subtle wordless interchange of tenderness and affection. Now, if this were a modern cinematic treatment of romance, The Look would’ve led in short order to The Sack, and those of us with more traditional mores would be reduced to squirms and winces.
Instead, in the BBC version, The Look is followed by another 90 minutes of drama, conflict, and complication, until all is resolved in the final moments with a chaste, nuptial kiss—a preliminary marital consummation long in coming. Yet it’s the delay that makes a mere kiss way more romantic than the typical Hollywood quickie, not to mention so welcome for us viewers who’ve accompanied the protagonists on their tortuous amorous journey.
Folks joining the Church frequently have similar tortuous journeys, with just as many fits and starts and setbacks as Elizabeth and Darcy did. It’s no small thing to become a Catholic these days, and once folks have made it as far as RCIA and everything is clicking, they’re anxious to get on with it—to receive the Sacraments and commence living out that life of grace they’ve come to yearn.
Nonetheless, wait they must—even candidates for full communion who, by virtue of their baptism, are technically Catholics already. Even if I could convince my students that the waiting is terribly romantic, it’s still a hardship, but it’s vitally important for at least three reasons.
(1) It’s honest. As the bishops remind us, “Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship.” Ordinarily, to admit non-Catholics to the Eucharist is tantamount to a lie—much like extramarital intimacy is a lie, even between the engaged, in that it bespeaks a total life commitment that is not yet present. It’s the same logic that ought to hold back obstinate sinners from the Eucharist as well, for Holy Communion is nothing to be trifled with—something St. Paul clearly spelled out to the Corinthians:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.
(2) It’s healing. Many Protestant groups practice open communion and invite everyone, regardless of church affiliation, to share in their Lord’s Supper rituals. This can lead to misunderstanding and resentment when people from those groups attend Mass and are asked to refrain. Yet there are real and painful divisions in the Body of Christ, and closed communion is a public acknowledgement of that sad fact. Awkward as it might be for us, it’s important to remember, as Cardinal O’Connor once noted, that “Holy Communion is not to be given or received as an act of courtesy.”
Instead, it’s better to think of closed communion itself as courtesy, for it both demonstrates respect for differences in belief and lays bare the wound of disunion to the required cure: Jesus himself. Here’s how the bishops put it:
We welcome our fellow Christians to this celebration of the Eucharist as our brothers and sisters. We pray that our common baptism and the action of the Holy Spirit in this Eucharist will draw us closer to one another and begin to dispel the sad divisions which separate us. We pray that these will lessen and finally disappear, in keeping with Christ’s prayer for us “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).
(3) It’s penitential. The time between coming to belief in the Eucharist and then finally receiving it at Easter is an extended fast of sorts, and a lot like Advent—another example of romantic expectation and longing. Though not penitential in the same degree as Lent, Advent is supposed to be a time of moderated deprivation—of staying hungry while awaiting the greatest birthday surprise the world has ever known. Christmas is a feast, after all, and we don’t want to spoil our appetites, spiritual or otherwise.
Our kids complain mightily about having to wait for Christmas—we did the same at their age—but we all know that the suspense is what makes it all so magical. It’s why we wrap presents and hide treats, and it’s also why we remove the baby Jesus from our nativity scenes until Christmas Eve: The visibly empty manger becomes a focal point of our eager longing for the Lord’s grand entrance into our lives and our world.
And that longing is deepened by the curious presence throughout Advent of all those other Nativity figurines: Mary and Joseph and the shepherds—even the cattle and sheep!—gazing placidly on the empty trough, a month-long Waiting for Godot that is spectacularly resolved when the ceramic child is enthroned on December 24.
That’s what it’s like to have to wait for Holy Communion—and not only for converts, but likewise for converting sinners, and children as well. It’s also the idea behind the one-hour fast we’re all supposed to observe before Communion. We become like pre-Christmas Nativity scenes, and our souls are empty cribs awaiting the arrival of our Eucharistic Lord. Our trust and our hope are deepened, our faith strengthened, and our love made more pervasive and profound. “All who are not receiving Holy Communion,” say the bishops, “are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.” It’s a true maranatha moment—a true cry of the soul, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Yes, Lord, come quickly. We can hardly wait.