Sunday, July 13, 2014

Not Just a Rule, but a Metaphysical Reality

As a Catholic, I have heard many times that the Church has "too many rules". Are you civilly divorced? Well, you also need a "catholic divorce" in order to receive communion... If you aren't "in the Catholic club", you can't receive communion... You can't live with your significant other unless you're married... You can't have an abortion... You can't use contraception, but "catholic birth control" is fine... You can't receive communion if you miss mass on Sunday until you go to confession...

I think you get the picture and have probably heard these and many others yourself. The problem with this attitude towards the Church is that it reduces guidance passed down over 2,000+ years of experience to arbitrary rules. The Church does not tell us that we should not receive communion if we have a civil divorce and remarriage without a declaration of nullity because of "tradition". It tells us this because we are, presumably, engaging in sexual relations outside the context of a valid marriage. The Church is letting us know that this behavior is objectively grave matter that can destroy the life of grace in our hearts. When we are given "rules" from the wisdom of the Church, it is always to point to transcendent reality. Abortion is not condemned because "it always has been" in the eyes of the Church and we just need to "get with the times". Abortion is condemned because, whether we recognize it or not, it is the destruction of a human life deserving of dignity. Similarly, the Church's "rule" against a couple using contraception within their marriage is not because it's "artificial" and only "natural" methods of family planning are acceptable, but because there is an unseen language of the body and to use contraception is to hold something back from the self-gift that is spousal love. As the saying goes, "we are telling lies with our body".

So how does all this relate to communion? First, we can look to St. Paul's advice in this matter.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:23-29)
St. Paul speaks very clearly about the fact that receiving the Lord in the the Eucharist without being properly disposed brings judgement, not redemption. St. Thomas Aquinas also makes this quite clear in his prayer for after receiving communion. The entire prayer is a personal favorite of mine, I have included just the first two sections here.
Lord, Father all-powerful and ever-living God, I thank You, for even though I am a sinner, your unprofitable servant, not because of my worth but in the kindness of your mercy, You have fed me with the Precious Body and Blood of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this Holy Communion may not bring me condemnation and punishment but forgiveness and salvation.
Both of these holy men are pointing us to the unseen reality of what the Eucharist is. The Eucharist is God Himself; it's the Holy of Holies. Just as the high priest on the Old Testament would not enter the Holy of Holies to offer the sacrifice for the Day of Atonement without first offering a sacrifice for himself, lest he die, so also we must be properly disposed to receive God in communion.

A few days ago, I attended this month's session of our local Theology on Tap where Fr. Michael Champagne talked about Mass, the Eucharist, and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I thought he did a fantastic job of explaining why it is that we should not receive the Eucharist without the life of grace in our soul. He said very simply that you don't feed a dead body. He gave the example of if his heart were to suddenly stop beating right there in the room. We wouldn't try to feed him a hamburger, we would give him CPR to resuscitate his heart. If it was successful and he became conscious again as the EMTs carried him to the ambulance, he said he would definitely want a bite of the delicious burger to strengthen him for the ride to the hospital, but while his was heart wasn't beating, it wouldn't be helpful. It would actually be counterproductive and may even prevent him from being resuscitated. The sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation are both spiritual CPR. If your spiritual life is dead due to serious sin, as opposed to simply weak or damaged, then the Bread of Heaven will cause more damage. You first need to be resuscitated before you can be fed.