National Eucharistic Congress
Nowhere is the truth that we live in a consumer society clearer than in the Eucharist. In several Christian denominations, frequent reception of the consecrated host is far more common now than 50 years ago. At Mass, often only the priest received it, while the laity remained in their places in prayerful contemplation. This now seems strange.
Reception of Communion has become the focal point of the Mass for most Catholics. Even among Anglicans, Sunday parish Communion rather than morning prayer is now normal. Lutheranism has also undergone a eucharistic renaissance.
Eucharistic consumption inverts normal consumption. The ordinary food I eat is taken into my mortal body and broken down by the digestive process. However, as Gregory of Nyssa observed, when I receive the consecrated bread, I am assimilated into Christ’s immortal body and in so doing am myself transformed.
This imagery is based on consumption, even if spiritual rather than physical, but we should see the host as more than a consumable object available to satisfy our longings and serve our needs.
The current renewed interest in eucharistic adoration and in eucharistic congresses teaches an important truth. Being quietly in the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, whether by oneself in silent prayer or with others in a service of Benediction, is a different kind of eucharistic spirituality, and one that we ignore at our cost.
As Catholics from around England and Wales gather in Liverpool this weekend for the first National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and Congress, with its ambitious programme of talks, workshops, liturgical and cultural events in venues across the city, it may be worth recalling the origins of eucharistic reservation. The very first ecumenical council, at Nicaea, in 325, declared that taking Communion to the sick and dying was an ancient practice, so that Christians on the point of death would not be deprived of the Eucharist.
In such urgent cases, it was normal for Communion to be taken and administered outside Mass by laypeople, including women and even occasionally children. Reservation of the sacrament after Mass was justified on the practical grounds that it made it possible for the faithful, unable to participate in the Mass, to be united with Christ and the offering of his sacrifice.
In the Mass, too, laypeople received Communion actively, responding to Christ’s command to his followers in Matthew’s Gospel to “take it and eat”. In the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem instructed adult baptismal candidates to place their hands in a throne shape when communicating, with the right hand over the left, “as befits one who is about to receive a king”. The fifth-century Syrian poet-theologian Narsai described a similar position but regarded the hands as symbolising the cross. In each case, communicants are encouraged to take the consecrated bread reverently into their hands and to reflect on how the position of their hands allows them to receive the suffering and ascended Christ. In contrast, one of the reasons for outlawing the practice of administering the Eucharist to the dead was that, being dead, they are unable to take and eat.
Nevertheless, in the later Middle Ages an increasing sense of awe surrounding the Blessed Sacrament led to restrictions on the availability of Communion outside Mass. Bishops were concerned that groups deemed heretical might misuse the consecrated host, or that even well-intentioned clergy might inadvertently allow it to be desecrated – for example, by mice. Moreover, there were instances of Christians removing consecrated hosts from churches for a wide range of practical purposes, including disease control, crop fertilisation, flood defence, meteorological intervention and even fire-fighting. Parish clergy sometimes felt under strong pressure to cooperate with these para-liturgical deployments, for fear of getting blamed for disasters that might follow their refusal to play along.
In response to these issues, in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council required consecrated hosts to be reserved under lock and key. In 1281, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, mandated a lockable tabernacle in every English parish church. Previously, the host had often been reserved in a pyx, or small container, that sometimes hung above the altar. A hanging pyx appropriately suggests that the consecrated host is part earthly and part heavenly, and modern examples may be seen, such as in the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral. Many hanging pyxes are shaped like a dove, visibly evoking the role of the Holy Spirit in the host’s consecration even if the words of the consecration prayer don’t make this clear. In contrast, a locked cupboard communicates contradictory symbolism, lowering the consecrated host and restricting it within a finite space in the interests of promoting and safeguarding its power and sanctity.
Once the consecrated host became physically removed from believers, the stage was set for the moment of its elevation at the consecration to become, literally, the high point of the Mass. The priest holding up the host above his head became what many attended church to see, even though elevation of the host had previously been regarded as less significant, and sometimes even omitted altogether. The elevation originates in allegorical understandings of the Mass, according to which each part and action of the service is associated with an episode in Christ’s birth, life, passion, death, resurrection and ascension. In such interpretations, the altar symbolises Christ’s tomb, which is overshadowed by the crucifix behind or upon it. Against this backdrop, the primary purpose of the elevation isn’t to invite adoration of the Blessed Sacrament but to represent the lifting up of Christ on to the Cross. At least as important as the host’s elevation is its lowering on to the corporal, which, with the other altar linens, represents Christ’s burial garments.
What of the elevation of the chalice? It was even less important and it was less high, because the chalice’s contents were identified with the blood that flowed downward from Christ’s body. Only in the wake of the Reformation did the chalice’s elevation become as significant as the host’s elevation, as the earlier allegorical narrative and performance of the Mass were supplanted by a heightened concern to defend the doctrine of the Real Presence.
Today the Church needs to recalibrate the balance between clergy control of the Blessed Sacrament and lay access to it. Given declining clergy numbers and continuing church closures, the ancient practice of lay-led reception and adoration of the sacrament outside Mass should be recovered. Reservation of the host at home is endorsed by Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome and Basil of Caesarea, to name but four authorities. It has been the normal practice of desert hermits.
During times of persecution, it helped to keep the Christian faith alive. Today, reservation of the sacrament outside Mass would enable persecuted Christians but also some of those unable to attend Mass due to sickness, old age or long distance from church, to receive Communion. Small eucharistic communities could be created; domestic worship doesn’t entail a deficient liturgical sensibility or lack of reverence. As the sacrament of the Eucharist has long been recognised as nourishing the Church in its formal places of worship, it may in the Church of the future come to feed the needs of the faithful even more powerfully in dramatically different contexts and situations.
An underlying question is, to whom does the sacrament of the Eucharist belong? Don’t forget that the 1962 Roman Missal in Latin might not have survived had not an appeal been sent to Pope Paul VI in 1971 against its abolition. The letter noted its spiritual significance before observing that it has “also inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts – not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs. Thus, it belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians.”
No Roman Catholic bishops were among the letter’s 50 signatories, although the names did include two Church of England bishops, as well as lay Catholics, Anglicans and agnostics such as Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Barbara Hepworth, F.R. Leavis, Cecil Day Lewis, Yehudi Menuhin, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch and Philip Toynbee. Their appeal, along with a separate letter from Cardinal Heenan, secured permission for the continued use of the 1962 Missal for another decade and more in England and Wales, until a similar worldwide permission was granted in 1984. It is worth remembering, as the letter of Agatha Christie and Co. makes clear, that the Blessed Sacrament isn’t the sole property of the Church, or even of ordinary Christians. It is Christ’s body and so ultimately transcends all earthly boundaries and control.
David Grumett is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics in the University of Edinburgh and the author of Material Eucharist, published by Oxford University Press at £83 (Tablet price, £74.70). He is delivering the keynote lecture at the first of a series of symposia on Visual Communion today at Ushaw College, Durham.