In the past three weeks we’ve looked at preparing for the Lord’s coming by singing and lifting up our hearts, seeking reconciliation with God and others, and by giving of the gifts we’ve received. As we celebrate this last weekend of Advent, the way of preparation I invite you to join me in is reflecting on how we respond when He comes to us here at Mass. It’s been said that each Mass is like a mini-Christmas, with the Christ coming in flesh and blood her on the altar, surrounded by swaddling altar cloths and receiving the song of the angels as on the night of His birth.
The Gospel is the continuation of the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her the plan of God and her place in it. Some have said that Mary goes out in haste to Elizabeth’s house because she’s afraid of what Gabriel revealed to her, but that doesn’t sound like the Blessed Mother who joins her Son in crushing the head of Satan. Instead of hastening in fear, she does so filled with a heart of charity. Having given her ‘yes’ to the Lord through the angel, she conceived the Lord God in her womb and having contact with Christ, she is compelled by charity to reach out to her cousin Elizabeth, who will most certainly be in need of assistance. Upon her arrival, St. John the Baptist leaps in the womb of Elizabeth and the proclamation of the Savior begins. St. Elizabeth, being filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice praising God and acknowledging Mary as the mother of her Lord. What strikes me is that each of these three people encounters Christ and responds immediately with some physical response – hastening to the countryside, leaping in the womb, crying out in praise. So how do we respond?
Before we look at how we respond, let’s look at how we prepare. The Church invites us to prepare for Holy Communion in specific ways. First is to be able to fast for one hour before receiving Holy Communion (this includes gum!). Some of you may remember a time when you were prohibited from eating or drinking anything other than water after midnight. The point of that was to have a little bit of hunger in the stomach to remind us that we ought to hunger for Christ above all things and that he alone is the one who can satisfy the longings of our hearts. The current practice of a one hour fast doesn’t give us the hunger pangs in our stomach, but it can provide us the chance to simply be mindful about preparing ourselves to receive Our Lord. A second thing the Church invites us to do in preparing for Holy Communion is ensuring that we’re in a state of grace. If we are in a state of mortal sin (from having intentionally skipped Sunday Mass or some other serious sin), then the Church advises us not to receive Holy Communion because we have separated ourselves from the Lord by sin and so what is done in our body (Communion) is not the reality in our soul (separation). Being in these two states, the Church further advises (but doesn’t mandate) that we spend some time actually preparing our mind and heart for the encounter with Jesus Christ by observing silence, spending some moments in prayer, and entering into the prayer of the Mass.
The preparation leads to the encounter itself: the joy of receiving Holy Communion. Prior to the 1970’s Holy Communion was received kneeling and on the tongue exclusively. Since then the practice has become rather widespread to receive standing and in the hand. Interestingly, the Church never said we should change the posture of receiving Holy Communion and still sees reception standing and in the hand as a permission in certain conditions, but not a universal norm. The reason is because the Most Blessed Sacrament is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ our God and we are invited to acknowledge such in our actions, much like Mary, John & Elizabeth. Kneeling to receive Holy Communion forces one to be humbled before the Lord and experience it as a unique moment. When else do we kneel down in the course of our daily life to celebrate the arrival of a particular person? Never. Not only that, but the reception on the tongue also has spiritual and practical implications. The spiritual aspect is that in simply opening our mouth to receive the Host, we acknowledge that it is the Lord who feeds us our daily bread – including the Eucharist – and increases our trust in Him. We can call to mind the words of Psalm 81 when the Lord says to us “Open your mouth and I will feed you.” Practically, it helps to reverence the Blessed Sacrament. Some of you may have noticed that after consecrating the Sacred Host I keep my thumb and forefinger together for the rest of the prayers until the vessels are purified. This is because I know that the bread for the hosts isn’t entirely crumb-free, but that there are small pieces of the Blessed Sacrament on my hands and I don’t want them to be lost in the book, on the altar, the floor, my microphone or any other place. My invitation to you is that if you do choose to receive Holy Communion in the hand, then be mindful of what you’re doing. Bow before you come forward to receive, but then after receiving, look at your hand to see if any small pieces remain. The Council of Trent in the 1500’s clearly stated that if a particle of the Consecrated Host can be seen, it contains the fullness of Divine Life. So…please, look at your hands. Notice if there is even the smallest of pieces and consume it rather than letting it fall to who-knows-where. If we held the Infant Lord in our hands, we would reverence Him with great care and love. Why not honor the Eucharist the same?
And after encountering our Lord…we ask ourselves ‘what should we do?’ like the people last weekend. We should pause for a moment and speak the Lord. In the silence of our heart we respond to the fact that our Lord is not an impersonal Lord but a person who desires to speak and be spoken to. In the encounter we speak the desires and needs of our hearts, we lift up praise like Elizabeth for the good things He’s done. Then having conversed with Our Lord we then go out and share the good news of the God who love us.
So how do we prepare for the coming of the Lord? Celebrate Him well each week and draw nearer to Him each day. What better way to honor ‘God with us’.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Source of Eternal Life. Come, O Come, Emmanuel.