Receiving in the Hand: A Meditation

Like many people, I have reservations about the view expressed recently by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on the method to be used when receiving Communion. My aim here is not to examine which method(s) may be more ancient or whether ancient methods are to be preserved by reason of their antiquity. Nor do I wish to examine whether one method is more closely associated with affirmation of Christ’s Real Presence in the consecrated elements. I offer here simply a meditation on what receiving Communion in the hand has meant to me lately.

Over the Christmas holiday, I traveled from Pennsylvania to visit family in Georgia. On the last day of my stay in Georgia before heading on to Washington State, I broke a bone in my left hand. It was not my first go-round with such an injury. Back in 2010, I broke my right wrist in a fall from a bicycle. That injury required the surgical placement of screws and a plate to realign the bones in my wrist. In 2013, I underwent surgery again, this time to address a life-threatening problem with my heart. Happily, the procedures in 2010 and 2013 were both successful. My right wrist experienced essentially a 100% recovery and my heart, though it will require monitoring for the rest of my life, is out of the immediate danger zone. As for the most recent incident, I thought my finger was only badly sprained. When a doctor confirmed that it was indeed broken and that I would need surgery, I was disappointed, of course, but I knew well the incapacity I would have to live with until healing fully set in.

From the end of December 2017 until early February 2018, my typing had to be done with one hand (hence no recent Pray Tell posts from me). I had to ask friends to open bottles of medicine and jars of salsa. I had to ask them to change the linens on my bed. I had to buy shoes that I could close with velcro (no tying shoelaces for me). Since I wished to continue receiving Communion in the hand, I had to improvise the formation of a throne, resting my right hand in the cast wrapped around my left hand. I had to carefully transition the consecrated bread from my right hand to my mouth, unable to maneuver it to my fingertips. The cast came off on 5 February so at Mass on the weekend of 11 February, I again used my right hand to cup my left hand, received in my left hand, and picked up the consecrated bread with my right hand. I was thrilled to be able to perform this exercise again.

However, this meditation is not simply about using my injured (and now healing) left hand again. As I noted, the injury to my right wrist years ago was caused by a fall from a bicycle. My heart condition, corrected by surgery in 2013, was one over which I had no control. The broken bone in my left hand in December was different. It took place on the last day of my visit to family. I said goodbye to my 2-year old nephew Leo and his twin brother Simon. I picked up my 1-year old nephew Perry, gave him a kiss and a hug, and put him down on the couch. I turned to make my way to the door to catch the shuttle to the airport. Perry was faster. He scrambled off the couch and unaware of his surroundings, placed himself directly under my right foot as it was coming down to the floor. I had already shifted my balance to that foot. It was *going* to come down and it was simply a question of where. I pivoted on my left foot so that my right foot would not stomp on Perry. I knew that I would lose my balance. I fell, with very little control over my body and terrified that I would land on one or more of my nephews. I reached out with both hands for anything I could grab. On my left hand, the pinky, ring finger, and middle finger felt the ledge on which a fireplace was set. I shifted *all* of my weight to those fingers. I snapped the shaft of my ring finger behind my left palm. As for the children, Leo sustained a bloody nose but there were no other injuries.

My bone broke because as best I could I directed the risk of harm from my fall to myself and away from my nephews. Addressing the break required the surgical insertion of pins to realign the pieces of the shaft of my finger. The hand that received the Body of the Lord on that February weekend had scars where the pins had been. The place of my self-offering, the outcome of placing myself at risk of harm, cradled the One whose being was self-offering.

I am not seeking to glorify myself here. When I regarded others as they received, I wondered what their hands had done in service of another’s well-being by changing soiled diapers, by holding the hand of one who is frightened, etc. I wondered about those who lose limbs and lives in service of others while my hand is well on the way to a full recovery. I was reminded of Lumen Gentium, no. 34:

The laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.  Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

In however small or haltingly a way, my hands consecrate the world to God. My / our hands also engage in desecration when I / we choose sin. For that, I / we need healing. And of course, the point of the consecration of the bread at Mass is not merely that members of the assembly may hold the Lord in their hands. Yet when the Lord is in their hands, there is an encounter worth pondering.

Featured image: a “selfie” of sorts of the author.

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15 comments

  1. What of the democracy of the dead? Don’t they get a vote?

    We can come up with all sorts of after the fact justifications for manual reception of communion, but the fact remains that the hoary weight of a millenia of pious tradition argues against it.

  2. I’m increasingly concerned that this conversation all over internet is making the Church less unified. Since the res tantum of the Eucharist according to Thomas Aquinas is the union of the mystical Body of Christ – that is to say, the sacramental sign (the res et sacramentum) is really important, but the union among those who receive it is more important, I think all of us, all over internet, should try to contribute to this discussion by asking ourselves the really key question: how can we build up the unity of the Body of Christ? How is the Eucharist calling all of us (I include myself in that) to be changed by our reception of Communion and to live out that change in us by how we discuss this issue? I’ve done too much trying to prove my eucharistic theology is better than someone else’s. I’d like to move beyond that.

    Believing in the doctrine of Real Presence is important. But that’s kind of the easy part. The really hard part is living it out. Being reverent is important. (I try to be reverent why I receive in the hand, and from the chalice.) But that’s kind of the easy part. Recognizing Christ is my neighbor is ten times more difficult, and I’ll need my whole lifetime to do better at that. Let’s set our goals higher.

    awr

    1. Chesterton’s dictum about the ‘democracy of the dead’ included sneering comments about experts and historians, comments reminiscent of idiocy that has emerged from the US White House in the last year.

      But setting that aside, tradition as ‘the democracy of the dead’ has at least two problems when applied to the liturgy. The first is that, if you take it literally, nothing would ever change; yet many things have changed, even for the “trads”.

      And this brings us to the second: at every point, choices need to be made. This was the heart of Pope Pius XII’s struggle in Mediator Dei, about “archaeologism”, for example. It’s reflected in battles within the “traditionalist” camps about the Holy Week reforms that Pius enacted.

      I don’t know of even the most progressive “progressive” who wants to discard everything past and start anew. “Progressives” and “trads” alike want “continuity” with the past, want to hear the voices of those gone before. Nobody seeks “rupture”. The question is: what changes? What stays the same?

      Glibly quoting Chesterton, himself a master of the glib aphorism, simply ducks the problem.

      1. I’m not sure how far I’d be willing to go in the defense of Chesterton (he’s got some nice aphorisms, but they get wearying after a while), but I at least have always read his dictum as suggesting that, by our attention to tradition, we give the past a vote, not a veto.

      2. Fritz, maybe a better way to put it — so that we get away from the silliness of counting years and popes who celebrated this way or that — is to say that the dead should be given a voice. i know of no Catholic, however “modernist”, who would deny that. But it simply shifts the problem: who listens to the different voices and strikes a judicious balance? We all want “continuity”. Some change is inevitable. Who decides?

    2. At the risk of sounding like an Episcopalian or UCCist, sometimes the way to build unity is to welcome diversity in nonessentials! Perhaps, except in extreme cases, popular piety ought not be taken as a sign of disordered theology, especially if it comes from the heart and not the head. There are good and bad arguments for both modes of reception, but the explanations are, for most, merely secondary and love of God is first. As in our families and workplaces, uniformity is not a precondition for unity.

      By now we’ve had enough time with manual reception for it to be a part of our culture, no longer just an imposition or an archaeologistic affectation. If that isn’t clear Mr. Brunk’s beautiful reflection makes it so. Both camps can’t take it as given that the other is rejecting what they are affirming.

      1. Thank you, Ben! If it were not for the welcome of diversity in the ECUSA, my Anglo-Catholic parish would not exist. Even as some of the early rectors risked trials and defrocking for having a Cross and candles on the altar, and wearing a stole. By the time that full sacerdotal vestments, incense, daily Mass, and reservation of the MBS were introduced, my parish and others like it were tolerated if not full on accepted. That we can have rite I and rite II liturgies existing in the same parish shows that diversity of practice is a good and healthy thing, and not disordered or rebellious.

    3. Hello Father Anthony,
      My understanding of Saint Thomas is that there is a differentiation between the res and the sacramentum. Your comment seems to suggest that both constitute the sacramental sign. As I understand it, in the case of the Eucharist, the res (or signatum) is the body of the glorified Lord, whereas the sacramentum is the consecrated elements.

      For example, in his sequence, Lauda Sion salvatorem there is this phrase:
      “Fracto demum sacramento….nulla rei fit scissura, signi tantum fit fractura, qua nec status nec statura signati minuitur.”

      And incidentally, in relation to the issue of hosts being found in hymn books etc. it is helpful to remember this distinction. That is that while the signs may be (inexcusably) inappropriately treated, the status and stature of the thing signified, i.e. the Lord’s body and blood, are not in any way diminished.

      1. Dear Gerard,
        Yes, of course, hence the et. I should have written “The sacramental sign which is the Body of Christ.”
        Thanks for the clarification.
        awr

  3. Thank you Tim, you have eloquently stated the mystical Beauty of the Eucharist which you received, and through which you offered yourself and the world back to the Trinity, so that all might be one as They are one. An exquisite proclamation of the communion of saints through our common baptismal priesthood. May your hands ever proclaim that sacramental offering!

  4. I’ve always wondered: what does it say about our church if we can’t let two ways of receiving communion (kneeling and standing. hand and mouth) coexist in peace? How can there be any hope for ecumenism, for example?

    1. Many thanks especially to Anthony and Rita, among others, for providing the voice of sanity and reasoned scholarship over the past few days on these related threads.

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