When I was a kid, without giving it a whole lot of thought, we used to speak of “going to communion.” It amounted to leaving one’s pew at “communion time” to get the wafer. If that sounds crude, how’s this: we were always interested when the Church gave out stuff: ashes on Ash Wednesday, palms on Palm Sunday, and “communion,” alas, at every Mass. So much for the commodification of the liturgy.
Who knew that “going to communion” had untold depths of meaning? Of all the theological developments that helped prepare the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council, the restoration and subsequent enrichment of the understanding of communion was of the first order of importance. There was, to begin with, the connection between communion and life. The biblical teaching is oriented in this direction: where there is life rich in relationship, there is found life in the full. Where there is isolation, life seeps away. In the Old Testament, the land of the dead, “Sheol,” was a shadowy place marked by the absence of relationships. With this as a background, we are allowed the first deepening of “going to communion:” it means receiving life by entering into a relationship with another. Jesus speaks of this truth with stunning directness in today’s Gospel: “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
The second reading from 1st Corinthians sheds further light. Speaking of the sacrament, St. Paul says, “Our cup of blessing, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” Throughout the Bible, blood always stands for life, so that going to communion brings us into a “blood relationship” with Jesus Christ. This means that Christ’s life interpenetrates our life. But blood also stands for sacrifice and for self-giving, as in the words of the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my blood poured out for you.” By receiving communion, we enter into the dynamic of Christ’s outpouring of his life for others. This is so that we in turn may become energized in such a way that our life becomes “a being for others.”
That brings us to the second part of this passage. “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ. Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Bread stands for a bodily communion with Christ. There is a great mystery here. Normally, when we eat bread for our nourishment, it is assimilated into ourselves and becomes a structural component of our body. But this is bread of another sort: it is greater and more substantial than we are. Going to communion means not that we assimilate the bread into ourselves, but rather it assimilates us into itself. We thus become conformed to Christ as members of his body.
Our membership in the body of Christ, effected by participation in the sacramental life of the Church, is what makes us who we are. It forms our identity at the most fundamental level. Who am I? Without prejudice to race, ethnicity, professional affiliation or anything else by which I might identify myself, I am, before everything else, a member of Christ’s body. I recall the story of Godfrey Diekmann, the Benedictine liturgical scholar, who in his last years was known to walk through his monastery saying to anyone within earshot, “Remember who it is that you are.” He was not demented. He understood how counter-cultural it was, even in the monastery, to be, first and foremost, now and forever, a member of Christ’s body.