People can’t see their own faces when they come for Holy Communion. But I can see them, because I’m on the distributing end. I’ll have to preface this reflection by putting it in context. None of what follows applies if you receive Communion in the hand. This is not intended to be a polemic on that controverted issue, but rather a reflection on what I see. I do prefer the traditional way, for several reasons (not the least being the potential for abuse and desecration which, at least here on the west coast, is a regular occurrence). I’m grateful that in the Byzantine tradition it is literally impossible to receive in the hand, because all the Hosts are placed in the chalice full of Precious Blood and then placed directly in the mouths of the communicants with a spoon. Occasionally someone who does not know our tradition comes forward with hands extended. I just smile and say, “Open your mouth.”
I see faces change when they receive the Holy Eucharist. This may not be true in all cases, for not all have the same inner spark of grace and love within them. But for the many who do, the inner transformation of communion with Christ shines through their faces. “With unveiled face we reflect the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into his likeness…” (2Cor. 3:18). Faces become innocent, childlike, pure, as they open to receive the Bread of life. Perhaps this is because it is a moment of surrender, of the vulnerability of love, of the humility of worship. For a brief moment all is openness, receptivity; it is a mystical threshold across which all control is relinquished, and all distance vanishes. Innocence is restored, and illumination descends from on High, resting like a dove on God’s beloved. Close your eyes, open your mouth, and receive Heaven.
I don’t see this happen on the occasions I concelebrate the Mass, at which the majority of people come to receive in the hand. Perhaps this is because the communicant thus retains the distance and the control, picks up the Host and puts it into his or her own mouth, instead of letting Christ do it through the hands of the priest. The element of personal “sacrifice” is absent, the making of oneself vulnerable, defenseless. The precarious point of balance between Heaven and earth, the moment of waiting for Christ to descend, is lost, or at least something of the meaning of his Gift precisely as gift is obscured. When I happen to attend Mass without concelebrating, I always receive in the mouth, just to give the good example, even though as a priest my hands are consecrated to touch the Holy Gifts.
Someone once told me that modern Catholics have “come of age,” they are adults and do not have to be fed like children, so it is right that they take the Host in their own hands. Pardon me, but that is the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever heard. Adults? Take it yourself? The ushers should have to pry your adult face off the floor, where you ought to be prostrated before the Divine Mystery, so that you can receive the Sacred Body of the God-Man in reverence and awe. “Open your mouth,” says the Lord, “and I will fill it.” He goes on, lamenting: “But my people did not listen to my voice… O that my people would listen to me… I would feed you with the finest of wheat…” (Psalm 80/81:10-16).
People commonly say that they “take” Communion, and I don’t like that expression at all, though is it probably said often enough without reflection on what that sounds like. One can only receive Communion, as gift, as a divine mystery which we have no right even to receive, let alone take. But that “taking” mentality is part and parcel of the self-centered, pseudo-sophisticated and proud generation that refuses to bend the knee to the Almighty, refuses to humble themselves enough to adopt the attitude of simple receptivity and reverent readiness to let God have his way with us, appropriately symbolized by opening our mouths and letting Him fill them. (While it is true that Jesus said to his apostles, “Take, eat…”, it ought to be known that the word used can mean both “take” and “receive,” and I’ve even seen a minority of translations that read: “Receive, eat…” In any case, in the English language, “take” has connotations inappropriate for Holy Communion.)
Our founder, Archimadrite Boniface Luykx, an expert on religious anthropology, once told us that the Eastern Christian approach to worship is more contemplative, receptive, listening, while the modern Western approach is more cerebral and intent on comprehension (that is, wishing to make God intelligible at all costs—which is one of the reasons that certain feast days and hieratic language of mystery were suppressed after Vatican II, and this goes way back to Bultmann and his ilk: modern man cannot accept these things). I’ve noticed in our monastery that visiting Easterners (and contemplatives in general) are content to enter the church for services and simply listen and absorb, while Westerners must have a service book to read and follow, so they can intellectually "manage" what is happening. The more intelligible to little human minds the Mystery is made, the more we make it shrink from its true dimensions. The more we understand, or think we do, the more control we think we have. To “take” Communion is to try to take hold of the Mystery. Etymologically, to hold the Mystery in your hand is to “manipulate” it. But to open your mouth is to stand in awe; it is to humbly admit that you don’t understand the Mystery and can’t take hold of it. By your very manner of approach you signify surrender, receptivity, abandonment to the Ineffable, the Secret of the
When I see pictures like the one above, and faces like those who come humbly and lovingly to the Mystical Supper, I see a readiness for intimacy, an innocent beauty that is of Heaven, a mystery that only my own Communion with Him can begin to open for me. I place God in the mouths of those who hunger for Him; I feed them with his finest Wheat. May we never “come of age,” if by that we mean we think we are so “adult” that we ourselves should take what can only be received, for we must repent and become like children if we would enter the Kingdom of God. The external manner of receiving Communion is not essential to salvation, but it says a lot about our interior regard for the holiness of God.