Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why on the tongue? that nothing is lost! the swine (flu, that is).

Patricia Snow of New Haven, CT riveted my attention with a delightful reflection on receiving Holy Communion. She brings up angles I hadn't heard before and I simply wanted them in the mix for comment.

This spring I was out of the country for a week. Attending Mass shortly after my return, I went forward to receive the Eucharist and opened my mouth in the traditional way. But I received, instead of Jesus, a frown, a shake of the head, and silence. Distressed, I opened my hands questioningly, and the priest pressed the Host into my palm. Back in my pew I watched as this small drama was reenacted with other communicants. Afterward, on a back table I found a letter from our archbishop, outlining “temporary precautions for the celebration of Mass” due to the spreading of swine flu.

"When I entered the Catholic Church in 1996, I was taught by an energetic, abrasive, and intensely orthodox Dominican priest. He taught mostly from memory, stalking about in a theatrical way, fingering a large rosary that hung from his waist. His teaching was both unsystematic and vivid, and when he spoke about the Eucharist I remember he urged us to receive Communion on the tongue—because, he said, we should be as docile and receptive as children being fed by their mother.

The idea alarmed me, like the idea of kissing a crucifix on Good Friday or viewing a corpse at a wake. Open my mouth and stick out my tongue? Let the priest see the inside of my mouth? In the meantime, when I attended Mass in those days, I watched with interest as the priest washed his hands before consecrating the Host, praying quietly as he did so: “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin.” More than the argument from docility, it was this ritual cleansing on the altar that persuaded me, as if it had been a surface refreshment of the deeper mystery of the priest’s consecrated hands. From his consecrated hands to my mouth! Whatever my apprehensions, I grasped that this was the essential transaction, the core mystery of communication. Lay ministers were a regrettable detour, as were my own hands.

Only recently, in Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness, did I discover the original, all-but-suppressed reason for giving the Eucharist on the tongue: “Communion in the hand is inappropriate, not because the hands are less worthy to receive the Host than the tongue . . . or because they might be dirty, but because it would be impossible to rinse every participant’s hands after Communion (that is, to make sure no particles of the Host are lost).” Read the whole piece on the First Things blog.

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