During the week, I act as altar server in my parish Church. Because of this, I am behind the altar and from this vantage point, I have an unimpeded view of what is happening upon that altar.
As the Mass proceeds beyond the Liturgy of the Word and on to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I am – for want of a better description – utterly spellbound. I cannot take my eyes from the altar. This isn’t a pious sentiment – it describes the reality for me. From where I am kneeling, I have an awareness of the congregation in the pews, all of whom are similarly fixed on the altar – these people are daily communicants and so they are there on weekdays through choice and not through habit; that, I think, expresses something of what has brought them all to this little Church each morning regardless of the weather. In short, they believe.
And in the same way as all the others present, I believe; I am all too clearly aware of precisely what is happening upon that altar. I truly believe, in my heart and in the very depths of my soul, that at the moment of consecration the bread and wine become something new – the real Body and Blood of Christ, truly present there among us.
Now, this belief produces various effects within the soul.
For me, there is a profound sense of awe – perhaps my immediate response, and an incredibly powerful one. I have that sense of awe because I simply cannot comprehend the humility of what is taking place in front of me – the Lord is condescending to come down upon this altar in the form of bread and wine, so that He can give Himself to me and to all of us.
And this is what produces the second effect within me – an intense sense of unworthiness. Realising the gravity and the majesty of what the Lord is doing, I am so aware of the gulf between He and I. He – utterly transcendent and yet entirely imminent; and me – in the dust of my humanity, frailty, weakness and sinfulness. And yet despite this – He has come to me.
It has not always been so. In times past – thankfully, now long past – I have taken Him for granted in Holy Communion and received Him very poorly indeed. And yet He continued to come to me. Later, I would wonder about the graces of those Communions – my littleness in no way limits His greatness. His persistence slowly and oh so gently wore down many things within me. Now, that is not in any way to infer that I consider myself presently to be in any way ‘worthy’ to receive Him in Holy Communion – on the contrary; if anything, I see more clearly now my absolutely unworthiness.
I am mindful that at the Last Supper, the Lord dipped His hand into the dish along with Judas – knowing full well that very shortly, that Apostle would betray Him and hand Him over to those who would kill Him. Yet still, He dipped His hand into that dish along with Judas. I see some correlation there with my own position – to a lesser degree, perhaps; but the principle is not so different.
For me, a third effect of Holy Communion is the very real sense of communion – with all those participating in this Mass along with me at that moment, and with the entire Church more broadly. This Communion is the very mark of our unity, of our Church.
All the while, it is hard to forget that it is a Church of sinners – but as the Holy Father has reminded us often, it is the sick who need the healing of the doctor, not the well; it is the sinner who needs healing, not the saint.
At the deeply personal level, I never forget this. I see only too well my unworthiness and my sinfulness. But even more clearly than this, I see the sublime condescension of the Lord in this little Host, who comes to me as bread to sustain me on this journey of life.
And for this, I am forever grateful to Him.