Communing with the Community by Gene Ciarlo

Communion time at Mass is a living giveaway as to what Christians gathered for worship think about their assembly. I am not sure if it is a living giveaway or a dead giveaway. Perhaps a bit of an analysis is needed to give it a proper descriptive.

I am distracted by, or perhaps I am a distraction to, the community when I receive Communion. I look at people as I walk back to my seat. I wonder occasionally if many of those who are approaching the altar during Communion notice me, apparently distracted by what is going on, so that they think to themselves, “How impiously casual he is after just receiving Jesus. He should be reflecting on the sacred moment.”

Obviously I am speaking casually and off the cuff. Nobody even notices that I am not focused on prayer with head bowed, maintaining a serious mien since I have just received the Body and Blood of Christ. Perhaps they don’t notice because they are lost in prayer, since they are about to receive or indeed have just received the Sacrament of sacraments.

Communion time speaks volumes about each individual’s personal theology, which, in turn, determines their spirituality, their idea of church, their understanding of Christian community, and even their understanding of what this bread means for them, their lives, the church, their bonding with Jesus the Christ and with each other. Communion time tells a story. It is theology, deep theology, about “Take and eat. This is my body given for you,” words drawn into the Mass from Matthew 26:26.

However, the theology cannot rest there. We must review the whole picture of the early church in order to understand those words, This is my body. What, exactly, is “This”? A reading of the Acts of the Apostles fleshes out the meaning of Communion, especially chapter 2, verses 42 through 47:

They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray. A sense of awe was everywhere, and many marvels and signs were brought about through the apostles. All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common: they would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required. With one mind they kept up their daily attendance at the temple, and, breaking bread in private houses, shared their meals with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those whom he was saving.

What do you think gave strength, depth, and meaning to each individual’s resolve to follow the Way of Jesus? It was their unity and solidarity, their existential acknowledgement of the bond that they had between and among them. They graced each other with strength and bolstered each other’s faith. Did they look at each other when they were together remembering what the Lord had done among them, breaking bread together? You bet they did, and there is little wonder whether they hunkered down in their own little private world of personal meditation in awe and wonder at the bread of heaven that they were eating.

However, we are living in a different world today. We are not persecuted and therefore needing to cling to each other. Or are we? It is two thousand years later, and our church is not like the one described in the passage above. We’ve grown, for better and for worse, in some ways. We have the Vatican, the College of Cardinals, many, many offices and dicasteries, layer upon layer of bureaucracy, hierarchies, ordained and unordained ministries. The list goes on and on, and it all developed and grew over the centuries so that those simple days of literally being at home with bread and wine have been lost in time. The diocesan and parish structures that have developed over the years were and are, in fact, a halting attempt to bring people together, even though we no longer normally meet at each other’s homes to share Eucharist. Not yet.

Faithful Christians today may counter that this apparent unchristian distancing and estrangement is not true to what happens when we come together to worship. We do look at each other in church. Through habit and meeting week after week, we get to know people. Most parish churches are very friendly places, even having coffee hours after Masses, because when people regularly come together for a common cause they get to know and most often to like each other. We call ourselves social animals, and that we are.

That is the social, worldly level of our lives in community, in common. True as it may be, standing alone it is a purely secular condition of engagement. Is there another level that should bind us together and make us sense and realize something more? Is there a spiritual dimension, overt or unawares, in our bonding when we come together to worship? Allow me to clarify by suggesting a more mundane but appropriate example of what draws people together, consciously, intentionally, because of a common belief and understanding.

We are in a time of politicking, the season of elections, choosing our government and governing officials who will carry out the will of the people. It is a democracy. We have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between, to state it simplistically. At the conventions, Democratic and Republican, the crowds that gather at each of the two locations who are called to nominate candidates in each party have distinct and specific beliefs and intentions. They are of a particular mindset. It is an unspoken awareness, a feeling, a sense that we are all in this together, and we know what we want together, and we are going to work for it, together. There is a wordless bond among the gathered individuals in each party, and it is much more than just casual friendliness. There is a cause, and someone is the main subject for their enthusiasm and convictions. There is a person who, in fact, is the reason for their coming together, a person with a message, a definite way of thinking and acting, and the huge assembly has said “Yes,” generally, to what that man or woman is all about.

It is a definite communion of minds, hearts, and souls. They are in communion and it is more than just the fact that “you are a person, and I am a person, so let’s be friendly.” There is an invisible binding force which actually becomes visible in the person who is the central focus and raison d’etre of that particular convening.

Communion of a different, spiritual kind is what we are addressing when we come together to celebrate Eucharist. It is bread broken for us and wine poured out, the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. We have come together as a community of believers to rally ’round what is known as the mystery of faith, in church-speak. We have a focus, a center, a reason to gather that is more than the mere habit of seeing the same faces week after week. Jesus, in sacramental form, is our center and reason for gathering. This person is the focus and reason for our coming together, and we have to know it at least subliminally. It must be more than casual friendship and coffee later that calls us to assemble in this place around this altar. All of us who are together must be conscious of that or we have missed the purpose of our convening, our convention. Yes, I look at you and I may even smile; and I look around at other people and I may even catch their eye. We are sharing more than the milk of human kindness and a friendly gesture. This is to remember and therefore to make real the Lord in our midst. It is a “we” event and not just an “I-Thou” encounter for private prayer.

Of course there must be quiet moments, no organ playing, no guitar strumming, moments of reflection so that this time is not lost and squandered in social superficialities. That would be simply pollyannaish and foolish. There is a confluence of you, me, and the reason why we have come together. It is not right nor left, liberal nor progressive. It is a Way above and beyond that.

Christians today, as in the earliest days of the church, are called to live unconventional lives that will become increasingly so as our world apparently loses touch with the world of the Spirit. We Christians need a greater communion of hearts and minds—and a greater intentional bonding with each other. ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.  

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