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Terence SweeneyAugust 15, 2022
Deacon Rachid Murad offers the chalice to a communicant after his ordination to the diaconate at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 25, 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)Deacon Rachid Murad offers the chalice to a communicant after his ordination to the diaconate at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 25, 2019. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

On Sunday, May 22, I received the precious blood at a small Dominican priory. When the time came for Communion, I stepped forward and received the host on my tongue, then the priest placed the chalice in my hands. I lifted the chalice to my lips and, for the first time in two years and two months, I took and drank.

As I knelt afterward, slightly taken aback by this moment of grace, I found myself thinking of why we call this blood “precious.” In Latin it is actually “most precious”—pretiosissimus. To say that it is the most precious is to say that it is of the highest value, the greatest worth and the most honor. But after two years without it, I fear we are forgetting what is so precious about Christ’s blood and the reception of Communion in both forms.

After two years without it, I fear we are forgetting what is so precious about Christ’s blood and the reception of Communion in both forms.

When I was a child, my mother taught me not to receive from the chalice. Jesus was fully present in both the consecrated host and the consecrated wine, so you did not really need to receive both. My mother was, in a real way, right. To receive the body is to receive Christ fully; to receive the blood is to receive Christ fully. And yet, to receive only one is to miss something important.

Since the beginning of Covid-19, we have been missing that something. Withholding the chalice was a worthwhile precaution (even if there is little reason to believe drinking from the common cup brings a high risk of contracting Covid-19). But as restrictions on daily life during the pandemic continue to be dropped, the time has come to reconsider this sacramental restriction and recommit to the preciousness of receiving from the chalice of salvation.

The preciousness of reception in both kinds is grounded in Jesus’ Last Supper. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his apostles: “Take and eat; this is my body.” But he does not stop there. “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you’” (Mt 26:27). For Jesus, the presence of both body and blood was crucial to the liturgy he celebrated and initiated. In celebrating the Last Supper, Jesus acted with intention, prioritizing what is essential to the liturgy: bread, wine, eating, and drinking. In commemorating the liturgy he initiated, we carry forward Christ’s intention in our reception.

While reception from the cup became uncommon for the laity in the Roman Rite, it was rightly restored after the Second Vatican Council. The restoration is a testimony to the proper recognition of the dignity of the laity. We too—thanks to the grace of God, the power of baptism and the contrition of our hearts—are welcome to receive, even if none of us are worthy that he should “enter under my roof.”

Reception under both kinds is a deeper understanding of the eucharistic sign. This is not to say that a sacrament is merely a symbol. I am with Flannery O’Connor: “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.” But believing that it is not only a symbol does not mean that the symbolic is unimportant. The symbolism matters if we are to understand and live out the substance of the Eucharist.

We need the sustaining spiritual nourishment offered by bread and wine.

In one important sense, the symbolism of food and drink is clear. We need the sustaining spiritual nourishment offered by bread and wine. St. Augustine, knowing that Jesus “has redeemed me with his blood,” thought about his own role as a priest in relation to the sacrament. “I am mindful of my ransom. I eat it, I drink it. I dispense it to others, and as a pauper I long to be filled with it among those who are fed and feasted.” As empty, we long for the spiritual food that fills us. As thirsty, we pray for the sacramental saturation of the deserts of our hearts. And in the experience of both, we live in solidarity with all those who lack food and drink and are called to share our food and drink with them.

But why wine? Wouldn’t water be a better option to express our neediness? Rehydrating with water is certainly wiser than with alcohol. True, during many historical periods, wine was safer to drink than water—which could not always be trusted. But is that really the reason people drank it? If so, Jesus could have just purified the water at the wedding feast of Cana. Instead, he made 180 gallons of wine—enough to fill about 1,000 bottles. Seems a bit excessive for hydration purposes.

If wine is not about quenching parched throats, what is it for? Psalm 104 offers us the real reason: “Wine makes glad the hearts of men.” Bread sustains us, but wine is the stuff of celebrations, not just of weddings at Cana but of the ultimate wedding banquet in heaven.

The symbolic importance of the wine is the rejuvenating joy of communion in Christ. Wine is excessive, just as God’s love for us is. As wine fills us with joy, so too does the precious blood, which washes us of our sins and fills us with joy. The reception of this joy is a summons to “be people who wish to share their joy,” as Pope Francis teaches in “The Gospel of Joy.” To receive the blood is to experience the joy of our reception into the body of Christ. We should invite others into this joy.

At many parishes, after Mass you can now grab a donut from a tray. But you cannot receive the precious blood.

These days are not exactly filled with joy in the world or the church. Exhausted by partisanship, anguished by gun violence and abortion, and anxious about rising costs and declining opportunities, we would like to look to the church for solace. But within the church, too, we often find scandal and embittered political partisanship. In a time of scandal and anger, of anxiety and grief, we need the joy of reception again. We need to remember what is most precious.

People have continued, legitimate concerns about Covid-19 and will make decisions about their own health. Nevertheless, as we open society, we should not leave the chalice off limits. At many parishes, after Mass you can now grab a donut from a tray, pick up a Styrofoam cup of coffee and chat with fellow parishioners. But you cannot receive the precious blood.

Certainly, no one should be pressured into reception from the chalice. That being said, we need to be reminded of the value of the Eucharist, and that is best done in the practice of reception. There may be ways to offset the concern of a common cup through practices like intinction, good cleaning protocols and well-trained eucharistic ministers. In doing so, the goal should be to offer both the bread of life and the chalice of salvation as Jesus did in the upper room.

The bishops are calling for a eucharistic renewal, and Pope Francis is calling for a renewed commitment to the contemporary celebration of Mass. We need both desperately. But if we are committed to both, then we should be committed to reception of Communion in both forms. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal teach, “the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.”

Eucharistic renewal, societal renewal and ecclesial renewal require remembering what is important to us. This entails reordering our loves to put what is most precious first: communion with God and one another.

After I received from the chalice in that small Dominican chapel, I thought about these loves and the communion found in Communion, the sustenance found in the shared bread, the joy found in wine, the completion found in both. And the salvation found in the most precious blood.

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