Why do we kneel during the Communion Rite? A small change in liturgical procedure at my parish church stimulates a reengagement with the meaning of the posture of kneeling. I’ve also written about postures in the liturgy here. I’m thinking now not of whether we stand or kneel while receiving Communion but of kneeling in our pews throughout the Communion Rite. That is the new thing that my parish is doing. Previously we sat until the usher got to our row and knelt only when we returned to our pew. For some of us it’s quite a bit more kneeling so it warrants some thought.
Not a private devotion
For me the thinking starts with noting that Communion is not a private devotion. My Communion doesn’t start when I receive Communion. If it were that, then I suppose sitting, kneeling, or standing while waiting for the usher to get to my row wouldn’t matter. Kneeling after receiving Communion would be my chance to commune with the Lord, present in me until the host I swallowed no longer had the form of bread. I remember being taught long ago that the Real Presence was inside me only that long and wondering how long that was. A few minutes, tops.
But what a strange way to think about a communal action and a meal! The Church has long urged us to get beyond thinking so privately by, among other things, encouraging communal singing throughout the Communion Procession. Personally, I have adopted the habit of paying close attention to this procession and rejoicing inwardly at the sight of so many responding to the call of the altar. I think of it as a brave and mighty work, which we can do only through, with, and in Jesus.
The point is that it’s one work, one meal. It’s not like the restaurant server who says (or used to say) to a table-full of guests, “Enjoy your meals.” (Plural! I used to cringe when they said that.) And speaking of lasting, this one meal last as long as the Communion Rite lasts. In other words, I’m not just waiting for my turn as I watch others go up ahead of me. I should adopt a posture suited to active involvement in a community work.
Kneeling and work
Sitting is not a posture that we associate with doing a great work. But is kneeling? What do the moments before my reception of Communion call for from me?
I’m thinking now of the moment when a warrior of old is waiting for the king, with sword in hand, to approach. He’s kneeling, and the king will tap his shoulder with the sword, saying, “I hereby dub thee knight.” At least that’s the picture that the stories give us. That gives to my mind a special meaning to the act of kneeling during liturgy.
Kneeling means devotion to the point of being ready to get up and risk one’s life in battle for the King. In the liturgy it’s the King of Kings, allegiance to whom can unexpectedly take us out of our comfort zones. I like to imagine the Communion Rite as a time of offering oneself for a dangerous mission. The posture of kneeling makes that more real.
One gets used to things that happen over and over. It’s easy to perform the same action week after week without thinking of the act’s significance. But the meaning is there – in sight and sound and posture. It filters in through the cracks in the world of one’s mind. Then one is faced with the terrible decision. Do I join this dangerous effort? With Jesus the answer can be, Yes!
Liturgy as hard work
Catholics commonly think that the Mass prepares and strengthens us for the work we as Christians must do in the world. True enough, but this thought misses a lot. In fact, the liturgy itself is work – as the meaning of the Greek word has it: the work of the people.
I’ve written before about the liturgy as hard work. It’s not an entirely obvious concept. Here I give in slightly modified form a long selection of an earlier post on the Communion Rite. It starts with the Doxology and Amen that ends the Eucharistic Prayer and leads into the Communion Rite. I suggested one way of making the idea of “lit-urgy,” people’s work, more meaningful.
All honor and glory and everything else
Through him and with him and in him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, forever and ever. Amen.
Here the sacrifice of praise that is the Eucharistic Prayer comes to its climax. We get specific about what we are giving up, and, if we’re paying attention, we know how hard it is. We sacrifice that claim of our ego that something, however small, is all mine. It may be this space or this role that I take on in my relationships. This ego craves credit for something and maybe even blame. But it’s my own, my way of separating myself from you. It’s what I imagine I need to be me.
We have built walls separating ourselves into private individuals and competing groups. We see the resulting conflict, bitterness, and pain; but it seems impossible to relinquish these walls. Then we come to liturgy and in one sentence we say we give it all up. “All glory and honor” are God’s. We profess that we no longer need or want that image we claimed and struggled to maintain to the detriment of everyone else’s and even our own happiness. Jesus makes it possible to say this and mean it. “Through him, with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” we make our prayer. Jesus already offered to God perfect praise once and for all. We can honestly say, “We offer,” because Jesus’ sacrifice embraces our imperfect struggles.
More than words, battering down walls
In the Communion Rite we live the meaning of what together we have just said. This is one steady progression of knocking down everything that would make walls, and has been making walls.
The Communion Rite is actually a long reconciliation rite that reaches its climax in the sharing of bread and cup. It includes:
- the Lord’s Prayer,
- the Sign of Peace,
- the Breaking of the Bread and the Lamb of God,
- the prayer “Lord, I am not worthy,“
- the Communion Procession,
- and a final prayer.
To an objective observer, it’s the most exciting part of the Mass.
Our daily bread is enough
The Lord’s Prayer starts the movement toward Communion. It first echoes the praise of the Eucharistic Prayer: Father, hallowed be thy name, not ours. We ask for bread, i.e., just those things that we need, not unsustainable wants, pursuing which makes us rivals. And we specify that reconciliation means forgiving and being forgiven.
Peace be with us!
The way the Sign of Peace rite begins takes a person by surprise. The presider prays,
Look not on our sins …
Logically, you’re expecting to hear next something like
but do look on the good that we’ve done, on what we are like in our best moments.
When I don’t just let the words flow by, I have to admit that the actual words are a shock:
Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.
The opposite of a sin is not a good deed, but faith. We ask God for peace not because we’ve ever done anything to deserve it but because, together as God’s Church, we simply trust God will do it.
Here’s another odd thing. The priest opens arms wide and says to all the people, “Peace be with you.” We answer politely and then turn to each other and say exactly the same thing. Was once not good enough? But what if I turned to my wife at this time and said, “Peace be with us”?
That would add a new dimension to the blessing the priest just gave. Little conflicts and divisions (sometimes not so little ones) sneak into our relationship. My peace wish is not just a general good feeling that anybody could wish anybody else without any cost. I want us to have the peace that addresses specifically this situation. Our presider doesn’t know all the dividing walls that I cherish. Only I can say, “Let Jesus break down my own particular dividing walls.”
Though many, we are one.
The symbol Breaking of the Bread had great significance in the early Church. In Paul’s words,
Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:17)
This rite is a symbol of unity partly obscured by the convenient practice of using small, mass-produced wafers (“hosts”) for the assembly with a larger host for the priest. Still, the breaking is a dramatic moment. We can see the smaller pieces from that large host as the priest puts them on the plate with the other hosts. Occasionally when I approach Communion, I receive a piece from that broken “loaf.” I remember that Breaking of the Bread is a title early Christians gave to the entire liturgy.
While the presider breaks the bread, the people sing the Lamb of God. This is a plea for mercy and peace from the one who breaks down walls of the sins of the world.
We echo the centurion’s prayer.
Our “Lord, I am not worthy” ends with the confident “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The new translation has “my soul” where the old translation just said, “I shall be healed.” It sounds more like the centurion’s request to Jesus:
Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. (Matthew 8:8)
But unfortunately it means less. The centurion didn’t ask Jesus to heal the servant’s soul. Neither do we need healing for just our souls but for our whole selves. I like the older translation, “I shall be healed,” better.
Either way it’s a beautiful prayer, especially as it echoes the centurion’s admission of unworthiness. Only God is worthy, and we build all sorts of walls by forgetting that.
Sharing in the bread and cup
Going through all these steps, one can imagine Jesus breaking down one after another of the dividing walls with which we surround ourselves. It is an act of courage to join in the banquet of unity.
The Communion Procession is one long reverent act. It feels like an altar call, a commitment. It’s a community action; we find support in each other. This is a solemn, serious undertaking. In this long Communion Rite, we enact in symbol the reconciliation that God has provided for us. Here, and not at the “Lord, have mercy” at the beginning of Mass, is where God forgives our sins.
I remember old debates about meal and sacrifice. The Mass is both, but which is more important? Some lined up on one side, some on the other. Others supposed that the two must be about equal. Much better, I think, is to see the Mass as both meal and sacrifice all the way through. At each of the two main parts of the Mass we are nourished and called to give of ourselves at the same time.
We are nourished in the Liturgy of the Word with the encouragement that comes from knowing that we are together in a common story, but there is also a giving up of self here. Our stories are not our own. They are all God’s story. We don’t belong to ourselves. We are God’s.
Jesus nourishes us in the sacred meal of the Eucharist. But this nourishment also means sacrifice. Meals in common usually do include elements of sacrifice. We lose some control over our lives when we join another for a meal even when we’re guests and can reasonably get out of most of the work. We’re accepting something from another and that leads to future obligations. Jooining in a meal with Jesus is at least that scary.
The people’s dangerous work
I have heard people complain that the priest should wait until all are served before partaking of the meal himself, as if the priest were the host and we the guests. We need to think of God the Father as the honored guest at this meal. It’s not just a meal, at least, no ordinary one. It’s also a daring, dangerous leap into communion. For the priest to stand by while everyone else goes first is not the considerate thing to do.
The words that we say when receiving Communion tell us what we are getting into:
The Body of Christ . . . Amen.
Food certainly, but not just that. Eucharist is a serious undertaking. No abstract, easy commitment, either. The presence of Christ is real, not just an idea and not just a person in an old story. The Body of Christ is a body with members. Those members include people present and far away, especially the very ones with whom we spent so much energy building up walls.
We say AMEN to our union in Christ with all of them. We do this while joining in song, not privately meditating. Joining together for the entire duration of the Communion Rite assures us of who we are—a body in Christ. It tells us what we are just now working at—committing ourselves to each other and to Christ. We are in this together. We rejoice with each one of our sisters and brothers making this same commitment.
Silence and the Prayer after Communion
The Communion Procession over, there is a moment of deliberate silence. Some use this time to thank Jesus for coming in Communion. Others don’t quite know what to do with this silent time. I think the latter confusion has a serious bit of reality to it.
Communion is more than Jesus coming to us. It’s a difficult work that all take part in. I remember being part of a group working hard at a difficult task. One unexpected detail after another demanded attention. Finally the job was done. We breathed a sigh of relief and stood around doing not much of anything. There didn’t seem to be anything to do for a moment. Wordlessly, perhaps, we honored the work that had been done.
That’s the way I think of the silence after Communion. We honor the work of becoming one body joined to Christ and each other. It is Jesus’ work to which he welcomes us, so we also honor and thank Jesus.
The presider sums up our silent, perhaps wordless, prayers and closes the Communion Rite with the Prayer after Communion.
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