We spent Christmas Eve with my side of the family, as we often do, attending 4:30 Mass in my hometown. And by attending Mass I mean perching in the window sill of an overflowing school gymnasium balancing still-ill babies on hips and shushing angry toddlers in increasingly uncharitable stage whispers amidst the dulcet tones of the pitchy children's choir. (All honesty though, lead female soloist KILLED it on the Ave Maria. Solid gold.)
I wonder if anyone has had a similar experience attending Mass at Christmas time or Easter, when the (not)church/auditorium/parish hall is stuffed to the gills with worshipers in varying arrays of holiday finery, kneeling or not kneeling at all the wrong moments and just bringing a general sense of chaotic merriment and outside-the-normness to the moment, marking this day as something altogether different from any given Sunday?
When I was younger and even more selfish than I am now, I resented the crowded pews and the, um, let's go with "eclectic" dress code. I was a brat, and I wanted a seat, darn it, and don't I deserve a seat for coming every single Sunday and not just twice a year?
(Prodigal son's older brother, anyone?)
Now that old age, motherhood, and sleep deprivation have mellowed me somewhat, and probably due to an enriched understanding of the meaning and nature of evangelization, I actually really look forward to the C & E crowd. I love the overstuffed church, the chaotic parking lot (okay that part might be a stretch) and the haphazard feel to a liturgy filled with participants who may not quite be all the way there, so to speak.
"The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" (Ad Gentes, Vatican II)There's never more of a missionary feel to my parish church than during our major holy days, when the doors are flung wide and everyone from agnostic Uncle Tom to gay Cousin Jeff gather with family to attend and to worship (or to stare in confusion/wonder/boredom) as a family, as a body of Christ.
Yes, it's inconvenient. Christianity is inconvenient through, and I make the too-frequent mistake of forgetting that I exist for it and not it for me.
The Church does not owe me anything. Jesus didn't die for my sins in order that I may vaguely acknowledge Him in some kind of moral therapeutic deistic fashion. So what if I have to stand in a drafty gym for 90 minutes on Christmas Eve, so that the visitors who have swollen our attendance by 400% can have a seat for their biannual pilgrimage -- isn't it worth it?
Because what if somebody does come back because of Christmas? What if this year is "the year" that something clicks in their heart and head and the blinding light from the manger cracks open a channel of grace into their soul and...oh, holy night.
Wouldn't that be something?
And then, oh what joy, if that revert or convert-to-be were to formally approach the Church via RCIA and ask to be received into full communion, to become one with the Bride of Christ and to be welcomed into the mystery of the Sacraments.
That's what it's all about.
I'm wandering far from my title here, but that backstory is important because it lays a foundation for understanding the difficult beauty of the Catholic Church's teaching on the Eucharist.
It is He.
When we approach the altar to receive Communion, we truly believe we are receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We don't celebrate a symbol, but a Sacrament.
We don't merely recreate a reenactment from a story in the Bible, rather, we are ushered in a mysterious, time-bending way into the one, eternal sacrifice He made of Himself.
And because He is truly there, dwelling among us, present in the Eucharist, humble and unexpected (kind of like a peasant child lying in an animal's feeding trough), we only dare to receive Communion if we are properly disposed to do so, which looks like this:
1. Am I a practicing, baptized Catholic,
2. In a state of grace (i.e. recently confessed, no mortal sins on my soul)
3. living in accordance with the Church's teachings (i.e. I believe in and consent to her dogmas?)
If the answer to those conditions is affirmative, than one may worthily receive the Eucharist.
Or at least, as close to worthily as any of us poor sinners may hope to be.
This is emphatically not a condemnation of anyone who doesn't meet the conditions. On the contrary, the teaching of worthy reception of Communion is a great mercy intended to save a person from committing the grave offense of receiving unworthily.
St. Paul warns us "whoever shall eat this bread or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord."
There's also the small matter of Communion being an act of, well, communion among members of the body of Christ.
And just like you (hopefully) wouldn't throw back the covers and invite just anyone into your marriage bed, the Church joyfully opens the doors to her sanctuary for any and all who wish to enter, but reserves the ultimate expression of intimacy, Communion, for practicing Catholics, aka fellow members of the body of Christ.
So that awkward paragraph on the back page of the missal? That imperfectly phrased blurb in the bulletin that made Grandma squirm? That moment when you try not to fall into your cousin's lap while extricating yourself from the crowded pew to join the communion line? All evidence that there's work to do yet, and that we all share in the call for a new evangelization.
The beauty of the Gospel is that it is for everybody.
The Church is for everybody. And even if you can't yet receive the Eucharist, please know how very welcome you are, and that we're looking forward to the day when you are able to.
(And if you could maybe find it in your hearts, could you please forgive my children for that noise they made during the entire homily. You know the one, that sustained whine in f minor, punctuated by increasingly threatening motherly whispers? I promise, it's not like this every Sunday.)