By Bryan Owen
Looking back on my childhood, I feel fortunate that my parents made me attend Sunday School and church services on a regular basis. I didn’t always want to go. But in ways I will probably never fully appreciate, being raised in church formed a deep love for Jesus and planted seeds that would later bear the fruits of a call to ordained ministry.
I cannot honestly say I remember a lot about those Sundays at the United Methodist Church in Tunica, Mississippi. But there is one thing from those childhood days that I vividly recall. It happened on communion Sundays. And it was when the congregation recited these words from the Prayer of Humble Access, which appeared in our hymnal, and which Episcopalians will recognize from Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer:
Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us (Book of Common Prayer, 337).
Eating flesh and drinking blood — now that got my attention! That was language I did not hear every day. And it impressed upon me that something utterly unique and special was happening when we knelt at the altar rail to receive Holy Communion.
I sometimes think about that when, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. … Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 51).
Bread that when consumed gives eternal life: you can’t get that at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. And you can’t make a trip to Target or Walmart to pick up a case. But it’s offered every Sunday morning in church. And every time we come to church to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation, we have the opportunity to deepen our relationship with the risen Jesus.
But taking full advantage of that opportunity and the ways that it can change our lives is more than a matter of just showing up. It helps to be prepared. Fortunately, the Book of Common Prayer points us in the right direction.
According to our prayer book, in preparation for receiving Communion “we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP, 860). When we honestly examine our lives, we see the truth that all of us are guilty of taking God’s grace in vain. We all fall into sin and we all need repentance. This is one of the primary reasons why we corporately confess our sins before exchanging the Peace and moving to the Eucharist. And there are few better ways to discern where we need to get back on track than by examining our lives against the Ten Commandments and the vows of the Baptismal Covenant before coming to church.
True repentance, however, is not merely about saying a general confession for sin in the liturgy. True repentance means having “a troubled spirit” and “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:18). It means being sincerely sorry for our sins and shortcomings, owning up to what we’ve done or left undone, genuinely desiring to live in accordance with God’s will, and, whenever possible, seeking reconciliation by making appropriate amends. With God’s grace, we have to be willing to do what it takes to set things right.
Self-examination, repentance, amendment of life, and reconciliation: these are critically important ways to prepare ourselves to receive communion. Because the truth is that when we receive communion, we are consuming the real presence of the risen Christ given to us in the bread and wine. By the end of the eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a way we cannot fully understand, the bread and wine have been consecrated, set apart as holy, spiritually transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
How that happens is a mystery that defies rational explanation. Fortunately, we don’t have to figure out how it happens in order to believe in and respect the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist anymore than someone has to have a theory of love before they can get married or give a friend a hug.
But even without a theory of how it happens, we do believe that it happens. When Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” and when he took wine and said, “This is my blood,” he really meant it.
Perhaps that’s the inspiration for these wonderful words in our hymnal (the second stanza is attributed to Anglican priest and poet John Donne):
When Jesus died to save us,
a word, an act he gave us;
and still that word is spoken,
and still the bread is broken.
He was the Word that spake it,
He took bread and brake it,
and what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it. (The Hymnal 1982 #322)
It’s precisely because we receive the real presence of our Lord that the church invites us to examine our lives and conduct before we partake of communion. Coming forward to receive the body and the blood is not something to be done “unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which” our Lord instituted this sacrament (BCP, 423).
The work of preparing to receive Holy Eucharist is not meant to scare us off. Nor is it meant to erect barriers. On the contrary, our preparation is meant to instill within us reverence and respect for the incredible gift of the Eucharist. And our preparation is meant to provide an opportunity to intentionally respond to our Lord’s self-giving sacrifice by offering in return “our selves, our souls and bodies” as a living sacrifice for Christ’s sake (BCP, 336). And so the practices of self-examination, repentance, amendment of life, reconciliation, and discerning Christ’s body in the sacrament are all means by which, with God’s grace, we may “worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood” of our Lord (BCP, 336). This serves as an important reminder that receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist is not a right but a privilege worthy of our best preparation.
For in the Eucharist we receive nothing less than Christ himself. We receive his risen life into our souls and bodies, strengthening our union with the one who loves us more than we dare imagine. Made more fully one with Christ and with each other, we anticipate the fulfillment of the promise that we who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever and be raised on the last day to join the company of God’s faithful people at the mother of all feasts.
There is no greater gift of love, grace, and mercy. May we never take that gift for granted.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.