Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Rite of Communion

For a talk I thought I was supposed to give last night, but which had been canceled.  For a Liturgy Unplugged series at Our Lady of Lourdes:

What I wanted to do tonight was focus a bit on just one small section of the Mass, the Communion Rite. I feel it is a terribly important aspect, but one that is not always reflected upon.  I’ll try to give a few of the historical developments as we go through, as well.  One note of clarification, I will general use the term ‘Mass’ for the celebration, while using the term ‘Eucharist’ for the Sacred Species themselves.  It is true that ‘Eucharist’ can be used for the celebration, but I do it just for the sake of clarity.

As we start, one definition: A Liturgist is someone inflicted on the People of God so that those who do not live during a period of active persecution may know what it is like to suffer for the Faith.

The section of the Mass that I want to focus on is the Communion Rite, the simple rite after the Consecration in which the faithful are prepared to and then actually do receive the Eucharist.  The distinct parts of this segment are as follows:

1)      The Lord’s Prayer and Embolism

2)      The Kiss of Peace

3)      The Fraction Rite and the Commingling

4)      The Invitation to and Distribution of Communion

During some of these aspects, the priest says a few prayers silently, which we will also discuss their significance and how that can apply to the Faithful.

The Lord’s Prayer and the Embolism to the Doxology

It seems as if in the earliest rites of the Church, the Lord’s Prayer was not said during the Eucharistic Assembly, but only said during what has come to be known as the Liturgy of the Hours.  However, by the Fourth Century, the Our Father started to be incorporated, but at different points; some said it before the Fraction Rite, others afterwards.  It came to win out at the point where it is commonly said now, an innovation by Gregory the Great, because it was felt that it was appropriate to pray the prayer that Jesus himself gave us after saying the Canon, which was a prayer composed by men.  At the time of Gregory the Great, up until the reforms of Vatican II, the Our Father was said solely by the priest.  This is not a denigration of the faithful, but rather it is the children being led in prayer by their father, something that we will return to and has its roots in the Jewish customs that were incorporated into the Mass, something we will return to.

At the same time that the Our Father was being incorporated into the Mass, embolisms (statements of praise) were often added in as well.  Especially where the prayer was said by the priest or bishop alone, the people would add an ‘Amen’ at the end of each petition.  Now, this has been formalized in the ‘Libra Nos’ or ‘Deliver Us’ prayer.

The Doxology is something new, actually.  It was added to the Mass after Vatican II, and is a quotation from the Didache, the First Century ‘Teaching of the Apostles.’  As a fun note, Protestants, who claim ‘sola scripura’ often include the Doxology no matter when they say the Our Father, even though it is not part of Scripture.  In its present form, the Doxology serves to unite the Prayer and give a proper conclusion and transition to the Our Father.

The Kiss of Peace

Again something that flows in and out, and has had various arrangements throughout the history of Liturgical Development of the West.  In various places, including still in the Ambrosian Rite of Milan, the Kiss of Peace is placed before the Presentation of the Gifts, following Our Lord’s command: “Before you bring your gifts to the Altar, make peace with your brother.”

The prayer that leads to the Kiss of Peace is an adaptation of a private prayer of the priest that originated in Spain and France, but echoes the words of Our Savior, keeping in mind that the Mass is absolutely dripping with Scripture.  Still, as is seen in the Ambrosian Rite, the Kiss of Peace is a following of Jesus’ command to make peace with one another.  It should be a rather simple affair, and appropriate to the cultural settings of the place.  It seems likely that the exchange of peace at this point in the Mass became normative as the Lord’s Prayer also became normative, for there is a further connection with the Lord’s Prayer, specifically the petition ‘forgive us our trespassers as we forgive those who trespass against us.’

The Fraction Rite and the Commingling

Just as Jesus actual physical body was broken, poured out for us, His Body in the Eucharist is also broken and given out for us.  This is the third of four Dominical Elements to the Mass, emulating Jesus when he takes, blesses, breaks and then gives the bread to his disciples at the Last Supper.  Vatican II encouraged a return to the ancient practice that the faithful should be given the Lord’s Body from the same sacrifice, and not from the reserved species from the Tabernacle.  (Both are legitimate, and it is one Body of Christ, but the visual connection is stressed, and was even more strongly worded in the revisions of the Third Typical Edition of the Mass of Paul VI, promulgated in 2000.  This connection is seen from the very earliest days of Christianity, as St. Paul attests in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

But it is not just the bread broken that is symbolized here, but also the Lamb of God.  In the Seventh Century, Pope Sergius I added the singing of the Lamb of God to the Mass at this point indicating the Lamb slain in the Jewish Passover ritual.  Interestingly, in the Jewish ritual, the lamb is broken by the father of the family, who then gives it to his family.  He leads the family in prayer, and symbolically gives of himself for his family, a clear connection with the Priesthood.

During the Lamb of God, usually, there is one small rite that is easily overlooked, but has a great symbolism: the commingling.  You may notice that the priest breaks off a small portion of the Eucharistic Species and places it in the Chalice, while saying silently these words: “May the mingling of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ bring us all to Everlasting Life.”  The book I consulted offered four explanations, of which I want to focus on just two:

1)      Fermentum as a sign of unity:  In the earliest days of the Church, the Christian Community gathered all together in one place on Sunday mornings (the day of the Lord) to worship in the new way.  However, as the community spread, it soon became impossible for everyone to gather with the bishop of a particular place and the early foundations of the modern parish system arose. In order to show the unity of the diocese under the leadership of the bishop, a small portion of the Eucharist was brought from the Bishop’s celebration to each local parish celebration and ‘co-mingled’ with the Blood in the Chalice as a sign of that unity.

2)      A sign of the Resurrection: This was something new for me.  At the Crucifixion, Jesus poured out His blood to the last drop, completely separating his blood from his body, resulting in death.  This sign, where the body and blood are brought back together is symbolic of his Resurrection, where the body and blood are re-united.  In fact, in some places of the East, hot water is added to the Chalice at this point as well to indicate the warmth of a body that is alive.

The Invitation and Distribution of Communion

There is to be a moment of silence at this point, as the priest prays a prayer for his own worthiness in receiving the Sacrament: “Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy, I eat your body and drink your blood.  Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and in body.”  As the priest prays this, the people, too, are to recognize what they are preparing for in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

As the priest shows the Eucharistic Species to the people, again Scripture drips from the Mass: “Behold, the Lamb of God, behold He who takes away the sin of the world” from John the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus in the Gospels, to which is added Revelation 19:9: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”  The response then echoes the words of the Centurion from Luke 7:6-7: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed.”  One thing to note is that these are obviously not direct lifts from Scripture, but are translations through the Latin and filtered through the history of the Liturgy.  The priest receives first, then the deacon, before distribution to the laity.  This is not a denigration of the laity, but respects the hierarchy of the Church.

In the reforms after Vatican II, there was a desire to return to more ancient practices during the distribution of Communion than had been practiced just prior to the Council.  One fruit of this is Communion in the Hand, which has ancient sources and is not an innovation of the Council, see the Jerusalem Catechesis from the year 400.  This was originally abandoned in the Middle Ages as a sign of respect for the Eucharist, that poor and dirty hands should not touch the Sacred Species.  However, now it is argued on the flip side that to stick your tongue out at the priest is not very dignified either.  The truth is in there somewhere, and I have a preference to distribute on the tongue, but that is simply my preference.

A second change was the distribution from the Chalice, which was called for by the Council in special circumstances, but was widened in the promulgation of the GIRM in 1970.  Not taking anything away from Trent, which taught that one receives the fullness of the Eucharist no matter how big or small a portion one receives, sought this reform out for the fullness of sign: as Jesus said take and eat, take and drink; it was felt this would be good to re-introduce.

Third, Extraordinary Ministers of Communion were introduced to aid in the distribution of Communion to the Faithful.  The important distinction as to why EMOC’s do not take the ciborium or chalice directly off the altar, but instead have it handed to them, is that only the bishop and priest is able to take from the altar directly, since they are, in a way, one with the altar.  EMOC’s are simply to aid in the distribution to their brethren through a human mediation; it is important in the Church’s mind to hear the words and to respond: The Body of Christ, Amen; the respondent giving consent to what he or she is receiving.


These are my thoughts on the importance of the Communion Rite in the Church.  It is the time when we are most connected with Our Lord, for we take Him really and truly, fully and completely into our very self.  How marvelous it is that we are able to do such a thing.  


Anonymous said...

In a Bible study at my church it was brought out that in Jewish marriage rituals, the betrothal was celebrated by the man offering a chalace of wine to the woman. She signified her acceptance of the man by drinking it.

Rich Leonardi said...

In the reforms after Vatican II, there was a desire to return to more ancient practices during the distribution of Communion than had been practiced just prior to the Council. One fruit of this is Communion in the Hand, which has ancient sources and is not an innovation of the Council, see the Jerusalem Catechesis from the year 400.

The liturgical archeologists who introduced this innovation did a tremendous disservice to the Church. If we are free to hunt and peck our way through 2,000 years of history for discarded practices, what use is organic development? Moreover, the Jerusalem catechesis instructed communicants to bless their eyes and lips with the sacred host. So, again, if we're going to hunt and peck ...