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 June 7, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 11   •   Oakland, CA

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Eucharist: Christ’s sacrifice made present
Instructions on receiving Communion properly
Eucharist: Christ’s sacrifice
made present

“Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor 5:6-8)
This passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians ushered us into the Easter season which we have now recently concluded, as it is one of the readings for Easter Sunday Mass.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone elevates the Sacred Host during Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

St. Paul is alluding here to the Jewish feast of Passover, in which the ancient Israelites were saved from the angel of death by the sign of the blood of the lamb on their doorposts and so were liberated from the slavery of Egypt and delivered into the freedom of the Promised Land.

Because they had to leave Egypt in haste, they had to eat their bread without leaven in it. “Since the dough they had brought out of Egypt was not leavened, they baked it into unleavened loaves. They had been rushed out of Egypt and had no opportunity even to prepare food for the journey” (Ex 12:39).

Indeed, this is part of the prescription for the Passover ritual, as the Lord commanded his people on that fateful night:

Keep, then, this custom of the unleavened bread. Since it was on this very day that I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt, you must celebrate this day throughout your generations as a perpetual institution. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day of this month you shall eat unleavened bread. For seven days no leaven may be found in your houses. Anyone, be he a resident alien or a native, who eats leavened food shall be cut off from the community of Israel. Nothing leavened may you eat; wherever you dwell you may eat only unleavened bread (Ex 12:17-20).
St. Paul, then, brings out the deeper spiritual meaning of this saving event and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ: we are saved from eternal death by the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who liberates us from sin and delivers us into the freedom of his Kingdom.

This, along with the Incarnation, is the central mystery of our faith, and so the Church provides us not just with a particular day but an entire liturgical season to celebrate them.

Moreover, the Christmas and Easter seasons both have several feast days within them, and some even extending beyond them into Ordinary Time, to draw out more fully the meaning of these two great mysteries in all of their richness and complexity.

One such great feast day in connection with the Easter mystery is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, or “Corpus Christi” for shorthand.

This feast day, which began to be celebrated in Belgium in 1246, was extended to the entire universal Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264, prescribing its celebration for the Thursday following Trinity Sunday. (In many parts of the world, including our own, it is now celebrated on the following Sunday, in order to accommodate the participation of as many of the faithful as possible).

In the Eucharist, Christ’s sacrifice is made present to us here and now on the altar, and our partaking of the sacrament signifies our participation in his dying and rising by our own death to sin in union with his sacrifice on the Cross. This is the Christian Passover to which St. Paul refers.

The “old yeast,” harkening back to the bitter years of slavery in Egypt, represents for the Christian the old life of sin, which we are to cast off in order to become “a fresh batch of dough,” the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

This, in fact, is the reason why it is our tradition to use unleavened bread for Communion. As the Eucharist is the Christian Passover, so the bread we use for Communion can be considered “Catholic matzo.” It is a special bread, unlike any we use for every day purposes.

The Church, therefore, requires Communion bread to be made from only wheat flour and water and, insofar as possible, that freshly made bread be used for Mass. This helps to preserve its purity for its sacred use and to connect it with this symbolic meaning, as well as having the practical purpose of minimizing the danger of spoiling.

The response we give to this mystery, this unmerited gift of God, is likewise packed with meaning. “Amen” is a Hebrew word which means, literally, “to be solid.” It is one of the three Hebrew words still retained in the Christian liturgy (“Alleluia” and “Hosanna” being the other two). The allusion here is to the image of God as a Rock, the sure and solid foundation upon which the believer stands.

We find this image, for example, frequently throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms (e.g., Psalms 42, 62, 71, 89 and 92). It also calls to mind Jesus’ promise to Peter that he would be the Rock upon which he would build his Church (Mt 16:18) such that we can always be confident in the truth of the Church’s teachings and certain of the true path to salvation.

It reminds us as well of the parable about the man who built his house on rock, such that it remained standing even when struck by the fierce storm (Lk 6:48).

While often translated as “I believe”, “so be it,” or simply “yes,” the meaning of “Amen” really conveys this deeper meaning of staking one’s entire existence on the sure foundation of God’s love and truth.

Since no word in any other language can capture all of this depth and richness of meaning, the Church has always concluded her prayers with this Hebrew expression of affirmation of faith. All the more so is this the appropriate response to the mystery we receive and are called to live out when sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ.

May our celebration of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi this year be for us an opportunity to renew our commitment to live faithfully the meaning of the Eucharist: that we stake our life on God’s Word, ridding ourselves of sin and living lives of sincerity and truth, pleasing to Him in all ways.

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Instructions on receiving Communion properly

All Catholics, before receiving Communion, are to be free from serious sin and fast from all food and drink (except water and necessary medicine) for one hour before receiving. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1385; Code of Canon Law, canons 916 and 919)

The proper posture for receiving Communion is standing. When receiving in the hand, the communicant should bow, and then say “Amen” after the minister says, “The Body of Christ.”

The proper posture for receiving Communion is standing. This is to show the respect that is due the Most Blessed Sacrament (in our culture, standing up shows respect to someone of importance who enters the room); the bow before receiving Communion signifies the humility with which we must approach the Sacrament.

The deeper meaning of this posture, though, is that the position of standing is symbolic of the Resurrection, and so — as is done in the Eastern Rites of the Church — we assume this position when we receive the Sacrament of our salvation.

Receiving Communion kneeling, or genuflecting before receiving, while often motivated by the praiseworthy desire to show greater respect to the Most Blessed Sacrament, is not proper according to the liturgical norms.

It can also create practical difficulties, such as people inadvertently tripping over the person in front of them in line. It should also be remembered that the greatest respect we can show is to always ensure that when we receive Communion, we do so worthily.

When receiving Communion on the tongue:

Hold your hands in front of you in a gesture of prayer, and when you approach the minister of Communion, bow, and then say “Amen” after the minister says, “The Body of Christ.” After the minister places the Host into your mouth, return to your place in the pew (or approach the Communion station for the Blood of Christ, as the case may be).

When receiving Communion in the hand:

When you approach the minister of Communion, hold one hand on top of the other and extend your hands flat, like an altar top. (This follows the counsel of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who instructed the faithful: “make a throne of your hands in which to receive the King [in Holy Communion].” He also urged them to exercise great care for any fragments which might remain in one’s hand.)

Bow, and then say “Amen” after the minister says, “The Body of Christ,” and places the host in your hand. Step to the side, reverently place the Host into your mouth with the other hand, taking the Host from the hand that it rests upon.

Take care to consume any particles which may remain in your hand and return to your place in the pew (or approach the Communion station for the Blood of Christ, as the case may be). Note: if one of your hands is impeded such that you cannot receive Communion in this way, you should receive on the tongue.

When receiving Communion from the cup:

Approach the minister of Communion, bow, and then say “Amen” after the minister says, “The Blood of Christ.” Take the cup with your hands and reverently place it to your lips to take a sip of the Blood of Christ. Hand the cup back to the minister, and return to your place in the pew.

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