Last week we considered how our whole Christian life can be summed up in relation to the Eucharist understood as sacrificial worship. But there is a second element to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is sacrifice as Christ lies on the altar, but it is also communion as we receive him in our mouths. Communion, too, is a good way to define the whole of the Christian life.
First, let us understand what happens at Mass. Christ becomes present on the altar. But he becomes present as bread, “the living bread come down from heaven” (John 6, vv. 33, 41, 50, 51, 58: Jesus rather repeats himself on this point). He comes to nourish us, to be our daily bread.
The imagery of the bread is nice. On the one hand, yes, by eating we are united to him. But even deeper, by eating, he becomes our strength. We live with his strength. John’s Gospel gives us a whole series of images for this in Jesus’s teaching at the Last Supper. As Jesus institutes the Eucharist, he teaches us that he will send his Spirit into our hearts (John 14); that he is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15); that we will be one with him (John 17) – and more. In short, in Communion, he becomes our strength, our soul, our life.
But when we are united to him, we are also united to everyone else who is united to him. The “body” of the Eucharist creates the “body” of the Church. Thus he begins his Last Supper discourse with the washing of the feet (John 13), and ends with the prayer “that they may be one” (John 17).
It is popular among orthodox Catholics to pooh-pooh the idea that the Eucharist is a community meal. But it is! The problem is that people fail to appreciate the depths to which this communion among believers goes. We’re not just hanging out. We are being nourished by the one Body and Spirit of Jesus; we are united with one another by our union with him. That’s why the sign of the Peace is really a profound moment in the liturgy – even if (I know, I know) it can be done inappropriately.
All of this takes us to the depths of the commandment to love God and love our neighbor. In fact, that commandment, the very heart of the Christian life, sums up Eucharistic communion. It is a command to live Eucharistic communion. The Church’s discipline surrounding communion – the necessity of being visibly a member of the Church, and of not being in mortal sin, that is, of being in friendship with God – is precisely an affirmation that Eucharistic communion means nothing if we don’t live that communion, with God, and with those who are in communion with God through Jesus (i.e., the Church), in the rest of our life.
How can we practice devotion to this Communion? First, of course, by our love of the Eucharist: by daily Mass, by spiritual communions (even a fervent prayer of “give us this day our daily bread”), by making visits to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
But again, the point is that Eucharistic communion doesn’t make sense unless it expresses itself in the rest of life. Two ideas.
First, we can practice devotion to communion by obeying the law. Strange idea! But the Church is very insistent that the only reason for laws within the Church is to nurture communion. We have liturgical rules, for example, as a vivid expression that we do not celebrate the liturgy alone, but in union with the rest of the Church.
Law does two things: first, it means submitting my view to someone else’s. There are lots of non-legal ways to do this, of course, but see how obeying law is a way of expressing that mine is not the only opinion in the world that matters.
Second, it means submitting myself to the good of the community, doing what works for everyone, instead of just what works for me.
Think about this, for example, the next time you get in the car . . . .
Second, communion is precisely the key to the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” This is what Mother Teresa meant by her strange claim that she saw the poor as “Christ in his most distressing disguise”: she saw that union with Christ means union with every human being, for whom he died.
But we express that union most powerfully when we live it out in union with those who have nothing to give to us in return. “If you love those who benefit you . . . do not even the tax collectors do that?”
How do you live communion?