Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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What is reverence for the Eucharist?
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Dec. 17, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
There is no question about it. Many of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II – the relaxing of the rule requiring fasting from food and water from midnight before receiving Communion, the option of receiving Communion on the tongue, standing to receive, tabernacles placed in a separate chapel outside the main body of the church, the waning of Benediction and other Eucharistic devotions – these and other changes have caused some Catholics to believe that reverence towards the Eucharist is declining. But reverence for the Eucharist is found, not first of all in external actions and gestures of reverence, but in how we meet the ethical demands of the Eucharist. In other words, reverence and respect for the Eucharist is found first of all in how we respond to what the Eucharist, by its very nature, requires of us.
It is not unlike a marriage relationship. The Eucharist, after all, is not primarily a sacred object but an action of the community and of each individual – an action that discloses a relationship – the relationship between us and the risen Christ. In a marriage, external gestures of love and respect do not necessarily affirm that the relationship is healthy. There has to be more. A couple must constantly nurture their relationship with conversation, with being and doing things together, with a deep commitment to reestablish unity when anything might try to draw them apart. These are some of the ethical demands of marriage. External gestures like sending flowers and special occasion cards are important, but they are not of the essence of respecting and reverencing a marriage relationship.
The same holds true of reverence for the Eucharist. One may be good at all the externals of Eucharistic reverence, and may edify others in the process, but the external signs are not the reality. The reality is what the Eucharist really is and means and requires of us. I may genuflect quite properly but have little interest in the person in the pew next to me, yet the Eucharist is supposed to make us more deeply united to that person next to us and to every other member of the Body of Christ. I may fret about where the tabernacle is located but spend precious little time fretting about the poor, and yet by the very nature of the Eucharist we have an ethical responsibility to be committed to the poor. Why worry about hands properly folded and kneeling at all the proper times during the liturgy and only reluctantly exchange the Sign of Peace with the stranger next to me in whom Christ dwells? How can I respect the sacrament of love and charity and at the same time be blind to the social injustices around me? How can I reverence the Bread of Life and still stubbornly cling to my support of the death penalty or other forms of organized killing? I suspect that neither am I respectful of the Eucharist if I do not leave Mass on Sundays, in the words of St. Hippolytus in the third century, “eager to do good works.”
We are a church with a lot of ritual in our tradition, and one of the risks of ritual is that we can do the ritual well but be unaware of the reality that the church is attempting to express by that ritual. Perhaps that is one of the pitfalls of our human condition, that we get ourselves addicted to the forms and forget about the substance.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)