Now that the regular schedule of liturgies has resumed at All Saints, I have noted, with some amusement, that a significant number of people have forgotten some of the routines and habits necessary for participation in the Liturgy. I am thinking specifically of the point at the beginning of the Offertory Rite when the congregation is supposed to stand; months of watching televised and live streamed Masses from the comfort of a couch or recliner has retrained many people into a state of liturgical lethargy. I must confess that I’ve taken mischievous delight in reminding the congregation to stand at the proper time.
Habitual behavior is such a part of daily life that, once a habit is disturbed, one’s whole life seems out of balance. We rely on habitual behavior to provide a sense of ease and comfort about our activities and endeavors. Eucharist is intended to be a habitual behavior, but one with an ulterior motive.
This Sunday, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, focuses our attention on the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the third of three Sacraments called Sacraments of Initiation. The term “Sacraments of Initiation” refers to those Sacramental rituals that incorporate a person into the Catholic Church. Eucharist is the third and final ritual of Church membership. Just now, a question arose in the minds of many of you. Many Catholics think of the Sacrament of Confirmation as the third and final ritual of Church membership.
In the United States, Infant Baptism is followed by First Reconciliation and First Eucharist; Confirmation is conferred several years later. It is important to note that the practice in the United States is irregular and the result of an historical accident. The proper order of Sacraments for those who become Catholic is Baptism first, followed by the Confirmation of Baptism, and completed by Eucharist. This proper order is still followed for adult baptism because the practice of adult baptism is both older and normative.
The irregular practice of the Sacraments of Initiation in the United States has led to misunderstandings about the nature of membership in the Church. When Confirmation is the final Sacrament of Initiation received, Church membership is perceived as something that is completed fully by a single event (Confirmation). For this reason, pastors and catechists joke that many parents and teens view the Sacrament of Confirmation as being “Catholic Graduation”: when an Eighth Grader is confirmed, she or he graduates out of Religious Education, Mass attendance, and the life of faith.
On the other hand, when the proper order of the Sacraments of Initiation is practiced, Church membership is perceived as something that is renewed regularly by a habit of receiving the Eucharist. There is a reason that the final Sacrament of Initiation (Eucharist) is the repeatable one; the final Sacrament of Initiation is repeatable because of the necessity to form and maintain a habit of participation in the community of the Church.
As I said above, reception of Holy Communion is intended to be habitual behavior, but it is habitual behavior that has one, specific ulterior motive. The ulterior motive is not the most obvious aspect of habitual reception of Holy Communion. Rather than being a habit of having one’s religious needs fulfilled, regular reception of the Eucharist is intended to be a habit of experiencing incompletion and imperfection.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is an encounter with the Risen Lord, but it is an incomplete encounter. In the Eucharist, Jesus is truly and fully present, but our human nature is not capable of being and remaining fully present to God. Being present to God and accomplishing God’s will is a lifelong effort; as soon as we cease trying to grow in faith, our relationship with God ceases.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is also an encounter with our fellow believers in the Church, but it is an incomplete encounter. In this imperfect world, there will remain always room for growth in charity and fidelity. Like our relationship with God, our relationship with one another ceases as soon as we stop growing in unity.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is also an experience of the Reign of God. In our communal celebration of the Eucharist, we see the full potential of our human nature – in which individuals are formed into a community which gives God fitting worship. Like every aspect of our lives, however, our unity with one another remains imperfect; like our faith in God, unity in the Church is a lifelong project that needs continual renewal.
The Sunday celebration of the Eucharist is God’s gift to us, our self-expression as Church, and a sign of our hope for Resurrection. The Sunday celebration of the Eucharist is intended to be a habit with the specific ulterior motive of keeping us engaged in the lifelong process of growing in faith.
We repeat this act of worship habitually because we are incomplete and our worship of God is incomplete; we worship God as best we can, and we look forward to the day of Resurrection when God will bring about the perfection that our human nature cannot accomplish by its own efforts.