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Returning to the Altar of the Lord

After a shocking Lent we find ourselves in the Easter season in which our younger relatives would normally receive the Eucharist for the first time and our neighbors would otherwise be fully incorporated into our Church.

This year, however, most of us are like the neophytes who long for the sacraments.

As we approach Pentecost, the faithful are being invited to return to Mass under various protocols released by our Bishops. Some have returned to Sunday Masses, some dioceses have opened only weekday Masses, and some remain closed. But all are considering what it means to return to the Sacred Mysteries with full and active participation. Thus, we face questions not only about proper social distancing and physical health, but also about the pastoral and spiritual protocols for approaching the Altar of the Lord.

My wife and I went 65 and 64 days respectively without receiving the Blessed Sacrament, to which we were recently invited to return in our diocese. In many ways, this return has been like first Communion a second time. Perhaps an adult version of second grade Sunday School is needed.

The importance of Eucharist in the lives of the laity and making the sacraments accessible have been topics of recent reflection.

Some have explored historical parallels to our current COVID-19 responses. Others note the novelty of our situation, especially in the digital age. Here, I would like to note two perspectives from late antiquity, John Cassian’s monastic traditions and Augustine’s insight into the corpus permixtum – the mixed bag we encounter in the fallen world. Augustine articulates that Christian hope lies in the mercy of God which transforms us in this life as preparation for the radical newness of the next life. Christian hope, properly understood, is always eschatological, and therefore includes expectations for suffering in this life. Cassian reminds us that the Eucharist is medicine for the soul who recognizes her need.

Christian salvation cannot be confused with what the works of mercy achieve in this life.

While we do not seek suffering, we know that the joys of this life pale in comparison to what “eye has not seen, no ear has heard.” (1 Cor 2:9) That is, the flip side of Christian Hope in Heaven is an expectation that this life is not that life. We should not expect this life to be wonderful or perfect, but rather a mixed bag of the wounds of Adam and the wounds of Christ.

Augustine’s City of God elaborates this point and also attempts to articulate the deep connection between the Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven. Precisely because hope in the face of adversity is difficult, Christian Hope is a theological virtue premised on God’s grace. No Vandal invasion, no disruption of government structure, no pestilence can rob us of the virtue of Christian Hope.

When a pestilence strikes us, we are painfully reminded not only of the fragility of this life, but also of the glory of the next.

And yet, we cannot simply abandon this life. Rather we must live it to the full. This is an important point as we sort through who or what is to blame for our current situation, as well as our ultimate reason for full and active participation in the Liturgy.

The lynch pin between this life and the next is our Divine Liturgy and Sacraments. Here, Augustine’s sensibilities serve us well. The minister need not be spotless. The singing need not be perfect. The building need not be ornate. But the presence must be real, and the final arbiter of the reality of presence is love.

Augustine, following Paul, assures us that the love by which we are measured is the twofold love of God and neighbor. In his bitter arguments with the separatist Christians of his day (the Donatists), Augustine’s final analysis was that their failure was a failure of love. This is a helpful reminder for us as we return to the altar of the Lord to offer Eucharistic Worship. We may find some things less than perfect as we regain our Liturgical presence, but provided that love motivates us, we can trust that we are genuinely present to Christ who makes Himself present to us.

John Cassian famously recorded conferences he and his friend Germanus had with various monastic superiors. In their written form the conversations are stylized, but they reveal the genuine questions of Catholic monks from antiquity. Germanus asked Abba Theonas when to receive the sacrament of the holy altar and when to abstain. The young monks were worried about embarrassing sexual fantasies and sins in which they encountered themselves at the limit of bodily control, passion, and conscious consent.

The Abba explained that it is difficult to separate our own sinfulness from temptations and the actions of demons; no one remains pure in this life.

This suggests that no one should receive Communion, based on Paul’s teaching about consuming the Body and Blood unworthily. (1 Cor 11:27ff) But Theonas notes, “there is a great difference between being holy and being immaculate (without sin).” (Conference 22.9.1, trans. B. Ramsey) As the conversation continues, Theonas distinguishes the sinner who struggles in holiness from the sinner who abandons himself to wretchedness. Only the complete wretch has no sorrow for her sins.

Thus, struggling to be holy is a sign that we are on the right path.

Cassian commends frequent reception of Communion for those who pursue holiness even if we are not yet immaculate: “Yet we should not keep away from the Lord’s communion because we know that we are sinners, but we should hasten to it all the more avidly for the sake of our soul’s healing and our spirit’s purification, yet with that humility of mind and faith that will cause us, while judging ourselves unworthy to receive such a grace, to seek it instead as medicine for our wounds.” (Conference 3.21.1. trans. B. Ramsey)

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Tommy Humphries

Tommy is a proud father and husband for the Humphries’ outpost in Florida. A native of Arkansas, he grew up in Little Rock. He is paid to teach philosophy, theology, and religion as university professor (CV on, and volunteers his time as a District Chief with the county Fire Rescue Department.

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