Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reverent Reception of the Body of Christ

A few weeks ago I argued, at a Lutheran online community, ie., the Wittenberg Trail, for the reverent handling of the Blessed Sacrament, going so far as to gently advocate, ie., give voice to, traditional rubrics regarding the priest's careful use of his fingers. The immediate reaction was that two Lutheran clergy persons proceeded to deride me, one calling me pharisaical and legalistic, and the other calling me a hyper-ritualist. The longer term reaction is that this little unpleasantness between Lutheran brothers has spawned a vast multi-front debate in the e-world.

I have not had the time to keep up with even reading all of the resulting arguments. I have noticed that one of the arguments put forward by my original interlocutor is that the concern for particles of the consecrated host which might fall to the ground is not Lutheran, and it is not patristic, but rather medieval, that it results directly from the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation. In support of this theory, the argument has even been raised that in the early church the Body of Christ was routinely administered in the hand of the communicant. It is for the purpose of shedding more light on the early church doctrine that accompanied this practice that I would like to comment today.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, who died in March of 386, composed a series of catechetical lectures. He comments, in a very pointed way, on the Church's liturgy in his 23rd lecture. In the course of that lecture Saint Cyril writes:

"After this ye hear the chanter inviting you with a sacred melody to the Communion of the Holy Mysteries, and saying, O taste and see that the Lord is good. Trust not the judgement to your bodily palate, no, but to faith unfaltering, for they who taste are bidden to taste, not bread and wine, but the anti-typical Body and Blood of Christ.

"In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread, but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a king. And having hallowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then, after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the holy Body, partake of it, giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof. For whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?" (19th century translation of Edwin Gifford)

I am a fan of neither receiving the Body of Christ in the hand, nor of the practice of saying Amen upon communion. For I see both as practices which are efforts, most directly inspired by the post-Vatican II reforms of the Mass, to renew the liturgy by repristinating ancient customs more at home in a time and place that is not ours, which is to say they overturn the longstanding tradition of the Western Church. You might expect no less of a traditionalist Lutheran. Of course I will condemn no man for saying Amen at the altar rail, or receiving the Body of Christ in his palm. To put it another way, it's not my thing, though as Jerry Seinfeld once said, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Nevertheless, I love this passage in Saint Cyril's catecheses. For it shows, in no uncertain terms, that the early Church believed firmly in the real, true, substantial, presence of our Lord in the Eucharist, and that such a precious gift as His true, awesome, and salutary presence is precisely what has always inspired the Church to teach her children to be most careful and reverent when receiving so noble and precious a Sacrament.

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