I don’t remember much about my first communion. But I do remember Sister telling us that after receiving we were to process quietly back from the altar rails with hands joined and eyes downcast to keep our focus on Jesus and stop us from being distracted by those around us.
Two decades later I became the Sister preparing children for their first communion. I taught them to return from the altar table not with eyes downcast, but reverently being aware of those around them. So what changed in our understanding of communion in that short time?
At my first communion I was taught that Jesus came to me as gift in the form of bread. I prepared for this wonderful moment with simple prayers that I read from my new Mass book while the priest offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At that time Catholics spoke of taking, going to or receiving holy communion. Now we are invited to share communion at the memorial table. Words matter.
With a renewed focus on the Eucharist as meal we eat and drink from the table of the Lord. The scriptures tell us that Jesus – in the manner of Jewish table sharing – took, blessed, broke and shared bread and wine. Sharing is the final but not the only act. At the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist we take bread and wine and offer it along with the gift of our lives. We bless God for these gifts by calling the Spirit to come down and make them (and us) holy. Then the presider breaks the bread and pours the wine. The one bread is broken so that it can be shared.
Having engaged fully in this memorial meal we come to the table, not for an intimate personal encounter with Jesus, but to eat and drink together. Saint Augustine reminds us that to come to the table is to accept that all of us are caught up in the mystery that is the Body and Blood of Christ. We say yes to Christ in bread and Christ in each other and we share the cup of our shared suffering made one through Christ’s death. Saint John Paul II affirms that ‘communion with Christ is deeply tied to communion with our brothers and sisters’.
Much has changed since Augustinian Sister Juliana of Liège received a vision in 1209 that resulted in the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi. At the time a strong cult had developed around the Blessed Sacrament. Devout Catholics wanted to see the host and adore it, because they had no other access to the Mass.
It would be many centuries before receiving or taking communion as a more intimate personal encounter with Christ even became an option. Today the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ commemorates the Lord’s Supper. We come to the table to encounter Christ and go from the table to serve that same Christ in our sisters and brothers, especially reflected in the poor, the needy and the oppressed.
Carmel Pilcher rsj