Distribution of Holy Communion

We are instructed to be in a state of grace for the sacrament.  We are to fast from food and beverage for one hour before Communion.  This does not include water and medicine.  We are permitted to take the sacrament either standing or kneeling.  We can receive it either upon the tongue or in the hand.  We should always approach the sacrament with piety and devotion, recognizing the one who is present in the Eucharist. There should be a hunger or yearning for the sacrament.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is frequently neglected because many fail to fathom its mysterious depths and meaning. Even some parents allow their children to be spiritually malnourished.  Too many stay away.  Too many no longer believe. Fortunately, there are still many parents mindful of their duty. They believe and extend what they believe to their children.  Similarly, there are those who share their faith in witnessing to their neighbor.  The greatest gift that any Catholic Christian could ever give is his or her saving faith in the Eucharist.  Theirs is not a transitory love but a love that embraces the Cross and eternity.

The priest self-communicates, quietly saying, “May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.” He consumes the host. Next he takes the chalice and says, “May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.” He drinks. He next extends the sacrament to others, starting with the deacon and any other ministers around the altar. If not kneeling, a bow is made by the communicant prior to Eucharistic reception. The people may receive Holy Communion on the tongue (normative) or in the hand (making a throne of the left hand in the right). When taken in the hand, the communicant steps aside, self-communicates and returns to his or her place. The priest or Communion minister says, “The Body of Christ” and the communicant adds, “Amen.” It is customary to bless oneself with the sign of the cross immediately after consuming the sacrament. The blessing of oneself with the host is prohibited. The precious blood may be given out by intinction (dipping the host into the precious blood) or by directly offering the chalice. The priest says with intinction, “The Body and Blood of Christ,” and with the cup,  “The Blood of Christ.” The communicant responds in each case, “Amen.” The Amen means— truly it is so— yes, I believe! The person affirms the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.  

Great care must be taken with Communion that no host be desecrated and that no broken fragments be lost. There is a particular ritual adopted by the Church for Communion and it must be insisted upon at all times. We must allow the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister to place the host on our tongue or in our hand. When the latter option is chosen, the communicant should extend his arms somewhat and raise his hands to chest level. As for the former, the communicant should move close enough so that the minister need not reach out awkwardly. No matter what the mode of reception, Jesus remains truly present in the Eucharist. When taken by mouth the communicant tilts the head back and sticks out the tongue. Too often there are those who snap at the priest’s fingers or who fail sufficiently to open their mouths.

The verbal formula used by the minister of the sacrament today in giving out Holy Communion is a restoration of the ancient form. The Tridentine blessing comes later and is borrowed and adapted from the Franks: “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul for eternal life. Amen.” The priest even says the “Amen.” The priest’s words today, “The Body of Christ,” signifies a different focus and the “Amen” is restored as a true response from the communicant. The Tridentine version is a sacerdotal benediction that WE might find saving and healing grace from the sacrament. The version now used redirects the statement and “Amen” affirmation to the REAL PRESENCE of the Lord. This is the way St. Augustine understands it.  The faith profession is clear: the Eucharist is “truly” the risen Christ, body, soul, humanity and divinity. 

Many suppose these days that Communion in the hand is a modern novelty, while in truth it is the ancient way that believers received the sacrament. The fourth century Mystagogic Catecheses of Jerusalem gives us this witness:

When you approach, do not go stretching out your open hands or having your lingers spread out, but make the left hand into a throne for the right which shall receive the King, and then cup your open hand and take the Body of Christ, reciting the Amen. Then sanctify with all care your eyes by touching the Sacred Body, and receive it. But be careful that no particles fall, for what you lose would be to you as if you had lost some of your members. Tell me, if anybody had given you gold dust, would you not hold fast to it with all care, and watch lest some of it fall and be lost to you? Must you not then be even more careful with that which is more precious than gold and diamonds, so that no particles are lost? Then, after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, approach the chalice with the Blood without stretching out your hands, but bowed, in a position of worship and reverence, and repeat the Amen and sanctify yourself by receiving the Blood of Christ. Should your lips still be moist, then touch them with your hands and sanctify your eyes and your forehead and the other senses. Then tarry in prayer and thank God who has made you worthy of such mysteries (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. myst., V, 21 f.).

The permission for Communion in the hand does not signify that it is the overriding preference of the Church. It is merely an option and Communion on the tongue is still regarded as normative. No matter how one receives, there should be no rebuking of one another over it. The sacrament is to be a sign of Christian unity, not separation and contention. Obviously, Communion in the hand brings with it a whole assortment of concerns that must be addressed. We must distance ourselves from any genuine peril of profanation or hint of irreverence. 

Communion in the hand is the accepted practice for nearly 900 years. Over a long stretch of time, Communion on the tongue replaces it, becoming the norm around 1000 AD. The communicant receives the host in his open hand, left over the right, steps to one side, picks up the host with his right hand, and immediately consumes the sacrament. He literally makes a throne for Christ the King. The communicant must not carry the host down the aisle (receiving it while in motion) or take it to the pew. The minister distributing the sacrament can rightly pursue the communicant and either tactfully compel reception or confiscate the host (if one obviously does not know what it is about). Children must be instructed very carefully. It may be preferable that they receive on the tongue to prevent embarrassing situations. The communicant does not cup his hands, side by side, a situation which might allow the host to slip to the floor. He does not slurp the host out of his hands. He does not snatch the host from the minister’s fingers.  He makes no sacramental gestures, no matter how well-meaning, with the host, including signing himself. Further, if the communicant is holding something, like a purse or hymnal, then Communion is received on the tongue. The situation is the same for those carrying babies. It is very disrespectful for the communicant to stretch out one hand and/or to pinch the host from the minister’s fingers. This violates the posture of receptivity that should be maintained by the communicant. Self-communication only comes after we have been served the sacred host.

Many Catholics feel unworthy to touch the host with their hands. This is well and good. We do not deserve to receive the host upon the tongue either. However, while we may come to the Lord in fear and trembling, we need to trust in the one who forgives his murderers from the Cross. Knowing our unworthiness to receive the Son of God, we recite the centurion’s prayer prior to Communion. Jesus in his boundless love gives himself to us, despite our venial sins and weakness. We need to remember that the God who made the tongue also made the hand. Both can be used to God’s purposes, or distorted in sin. Christ sheds his blood that we might be healed and made holy in body and soul.

When there is INTINCTION, the dipping of the consecrated host into the chalice of the precious blood, Communion in the hand is not permitted. The host, soaked from the precious blood, is placed directly upon the tongue. What the priest may do, the communicant may not. It is an abuse for the communicant to take the host and then to dunk it in the chalice held by the minister.

When the precious blood is given from the chalice, the communicant first receives the host and then moves to the next station where the chalice is offered. The communicant is handed the chalice, takes a sip, and gives it back to the minister. The minister wipes with a purificator the area where the recipient drank and turns the cup for the next communicant. Under no circumstances whatsoever may the chalice be left on the altar for the communicants to serve themselves. The general practice of giving the chalice ceased during the pandemic.

When it comes to Holy Communion, many priests today will give a quick blessing to those who are not Catholic or not spiritually prepared to receive the sacrament.  In truth this is a discouraged practice as a blessing over all comes at the end of Mass. Nothing should be substituted for the Eucharist, even to satisfy a desire for inclusion. Back in the sixth century, if someone were not going to take Communion then he or she is summoned to leave Mass early.  The deacon would announce, “Si quis non communicat, del locum.”  It literally means that the non-communicants should make room or leave. This serves a practical purpose as the churches in those days have neither pews nor aisles.

After the distribution of Holy Communion, the priest or deacon reposes the remaining hosts in the tabernacle and he will dip his fingers into an intinction bowl so as to wash up.  Servers might sometimes be available to assist with the ablutions (as in the offertory). When the vessels are purified, the minister says, “What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.”

What happens in Holy Communion? We receive the one who is the Holy of Holies. God comes to us that we might be made more authentically human. Indeed, that which is human is divinized and made more than before. Christ grants us rations for the journey, a share in his resurrected life. We become flesh-and-blood tabernacles to his abiding and real presence.  While the presence in the sacrament is fleeting, the divine presence endures through grace. The Eucharist is the manner of worship that God establishes and which brings light to the darkness.  It makes our hope real.

While we accept the sacrament in time, it touches us and eternity.  What we have done, we have done.  Harsh words can never be taken back.  Uncharitable acts can never be rescinded.  Much in the way of our sinful history is irreparable. But nothing of goodness is forgotten either and everything is forgivable. What we will do is in freedom and under divine providence. We cling in conscience to the mercy that God promises and extends.  We can be saved, but not because we are deserving or good (left to ourselves) but because God is good. Unlike the angels, we live in time and so can change direction. Redirected by God’s will and grace, the Mass allows us to enter into an eternal NOW. Memory that sorely needs to be healed and often torments, transports us to those first recollections of kneeling at an altar rail.  We see in the mind’s eye the child we once were, with faith and incalculable innocence, receiving the Blessed Sacrament. Where did time go? What happened to us? When baptized we were saints. How could we be so foolish? Why did we listen to bad companions? When did concupiscence get the upper hand and make us slaves to the flesh, inner contradictions to our very selves? Eyes have seen what they should not have seen. Can these eyes still look with adoration upon the upraised host? Hands have corrupted us by signs and deeds; how can we still extend them to Christ in his sacrament or to a neighbor in the sign of peace? Lips have exchanged veracity for deception; can they yet proclaim the truth that Jesus is Lord?  Our bodies have embraced lust and deadly sins; can they once again manifest tenderness and real love? We need medicine from heaven. We require the real food or rations from the Promised Shore. Any particular Holy Communion is every Holy Communion— Sunday after Sunday, on weekdays, on holy days, at funerals, at weddings, etc.  There is an eternal dimension to Holy Communion— the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands of receptions.  While the fallen away and spiritually starving can count on their fingers how many times they have taken Holy Communion; those who go to Mass daily might receive over 25,000 times in a lifetime. Their response to the minister’s words, “The Body of Christ,” becomes an eternal AMEN.  It is their yes to the self-donation and surrender of God’s Son.  It is their acceptance of divine mercy.  It is the password for entry into the eternal banquet of heaven. Akin to vows, we become engaged actors in the divine-human drama of the marriage to the Lamb.  Always it is the Christ who suffers and dies once and for all.  And yet, in Holy Communion we are given the risen Christ, body and soul, humanity and divinity. The eternal NOW of God targets the elderly man in his wheelchair cradling the sacrament in his hand and finds him again in accord with the young child receiving the Eucharistic Christ on the tongue at the altar rail. Everything that Jesus is encounters everything that we are and all that we will become.

Never underestimate the value of the family as the “little church.” The mind’s eye recalls good parents kneeling beside us as we pray and take Holy Communion.  They make possible that day and all the days since.  They show us the way by word and example. After doing what they can, they close their eyes in this world and open them in the next. We know in faith that they have exchanged their pew for a permanent chair at the banquet table of heaven. We remember them, we pray for them and desire to go where they have gone. They directly see the divine mystery that we know behind sacred signs.

It is often my practice to sit and pause after giving out Holy Communion.  Instead of racing to get everything completed, this is an important time to ponder the gift of God’s Son that has been given us and how it should direct our lives.  This is a good period for sacred silence and personal prayer.  We need to exploit this opportunity for private dialogue with God.  We should reflect upon the Word and Sacrament, assimilating what they have to offer and allowing ourselves to be transformed by grace.  The Holy Spirit has been active in the liturgy but must also be effective in persons.

While many hosts are given out, each is the one Christ, whole and complete.  While we are many, we are also one in Christ.  Those who are properly disposed will find that the Eucharist is a medicine for healing and an antidote to sin.  If we are born again in Baptism, this new life is nourished by Holy Communion. It deepens our incorporation into the Church of Christ. 

We recall the critical words of St. Paul back when the faith community is brand new. He tells us about the danger of factions at Mass:

“When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you. . . . That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying. If we discerned ourselves, we would not be under judgment; but since we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that your meetings may not result in judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22, 30-34).

Reverence for the Eucharist necessitates a concern for others, especially the poor.

Given Luke 22:18 and the Lord’s promise to abide with us until he comes again, there is a eschatological component to Holy Communion— we have not been abandoned, our Lord is food for the journey; one day we will see the mystery now hidden in the sacrament.  Christ has redeemed us from the devil and conquered sin, suffering and death.  The Eucharist is our encounter with the risen Christ, the one who has conquered the grave and has promised us a share in his life. Mindful of the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the men on the road to Emmaus, we are all pilgrims on a journey and the Lord reveals himself to us in the “breaking of the bread.” We read:

But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.  Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:29-32).

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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