By E.T. Malone, Jr.
Recently someone asked me, “Why does the Church require that a person be baptized before receiving Holy Communion?” It was clear to me that he felt this was not fair. “What would Jesus do?” he asked. The implication was that, surely, a loving and inclusive Jesus would not turn anyone away from the heavenly banquet.
There is no short, simple answer to the complicated question regarding why baptism is a requirement for receiving Holy Communion. The Mass has generally been considered “the meal of the faithful,” shared only within the community of believers. Inherent in this is the idea of preparation for Communion. Before preparation begins there must be commitment, and baptism is certainly a symbol of commitment to Christ. In Rite I’s prayer of consecration the celebrant asks that “we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ” (BCP 1979, p. 336).
The old Exhortation was more specific still:
I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup. For, as the benefit is great … so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. … And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discrete and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice. (pp. 316-17)
The early Church often required prospective members to complete months of study and preparation, called the catechumenal process, before receiving first Communion. The process is less uniform now, but many branches of the Christian church provide First Communion classes for young people who have been baptized, to give them a better understanding of the meaning and importance of the Eucharist.
Jesus told his followers that the kingdom of heaven could be compared to a marriage feast (Matt. 22:1-14). In the story, a king prepares a feast for an elite group, but they do not appreciate what has been offered to them. He orders his servants, therefore, to go out into the streets. They “gathered all whom they found, both bad and good.”
Yet even among this wider group, the king required a certain degree of preparation. When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had no wedding garment. That is, he was not dressed appropriately. If we think about this in reverse, it tells us that all the others, after they had been invited on the street, took the time to go home and dress for the event, in order to show respect for the king. Surely people in those days did not walk along the street every day dressed for a king’s banquet.
The man who was singled out clearly did not understand the importance of the occasion or how to participate, or he did not care. He was seated and ready to take part. As he looked at the others around him, clad in their wedding garments, he must have felt that they had gone to unnecessary trouble. Yet the king, the host of the banquet, ordered that this man who felt no need to conform to tradition be thrown out.
There is a parallel between this parable and our participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The banquet is available to all, but something is required of us before we participate. Since confirmation is no longer a requirement, and there is no uniform system of providing First Communion classes for children, responsibility often falls on parents to teach their children at home and explain to them what Communion means. The level of maturity and comprehension will vary from one child to another and is not necessarily a function of any specific age. Priests must often rely on the judgment of parents on whether a given child is ready for Communion. We must all come like little children before the throne of God. Just how Christ is present with us as bread and wine are transformed into his body and blood is a holy mystery that none of us can fully understand, no matter what our ages.
When we open Communion to all we trivialize the sacrament into a kind of drive-through Happy Meal for the mildly curious. Those who have demonstrated no faith and have made no commitment to Christ are like the man with no wedding garment. They should not receive Holy Communion until they have put on that garment.
The canon prohibiting the non-baptized from receiving Communion was not enacted capriciously or in a hard-hearted spirit, but through sound theological reasoning. Yet a growing number of our parishes announce that “All are welcome to Holy Communion.” Many bishops, contrary to their ordination vows to enforce the canons, ignore or even encourage this practice. By doing so, they are engaged in selective non-enforcement of one canon — a dubious practice in the best of times, and a self-deceiving or cynical one when these same bishops strenuously enforce other canons, even to limit traditionalist freedoms. The Lord deserves better.
The Rev. Canon E.T. Malone, Jr., is rector of Trinity Church in Scotland Neck, North Carolina.