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Liturgy Corner August 8: Receiving Communion- The Mechanics

Each of us, before our first communion, received instructions for how to receive communion. As time goes on and this training drops further from memory and practice, we often develop our own idiosyncrasies (most of the time, unintentionally) in our methods of receiving Jesus. Much of the time, these are perfectly fine. Sometimes, they are ok but impractical. And sometimes….well, they are just not good. Proper reverence is a matter of obedience to the reality we are approaching. In imitation of Christ who went with obedience and humility to the cross, we ought to approach him with a posture and practice that encourages our own interior disposition of obedience, humility, and worship. And It is only by the merciful will of Christ that we can draw close and receive him in this magnificent way. So, here is a quick refresher on how to properly receive the Eucharist.

First, a note on the procession forward to receive. Lest we feel like we are in line at a grocery store, we should remember that this procession is not about individuals but a community; a universal one. At the grocery store, we are concerned only about our own business. In the procession for communion, the very process is meant to be an expression of the fact that the effect of receiving communion is that of reaffirming and making real our unity as the body of Christ. We concretize once again our unity with every person who faithfully receives the Eucharist, both here on earth and in heaven. So, try to think of it less as a bunch of individuals moving forward slowly in a dogged line. Rather, think of it as a unified body of people moving in harmony and unison. It is also the reason why expressions of piety in this particular moment of the Mass should take somewhat of a backseat to expressing unity.

Second, on how to express reverence immediately before receiving. If you don’t do it yourselves, you may notice that many people bow before stepping forward to receive. The united states conference of Bishops has decided that this is the way we should reverence the Eucharist before receiving. I am not going to tell you not to genuflect, but you should know that bowing is the norm here. The type of bow here is called, in the liturgical stipulations, a head bow. However, this is not a head nod, like you might give to a neighbor on the street. The best practice is to slightly round your back as you incline your head so that it is an actual bow. 

Now, a point of practicality. Many people wait until the distributor has raised the Eucharist and said, “the body of Christ,” before bowing. There is a problem with this. If you bow too deeply, your hands which are held out at this time (if you are receiving in the hands), dip down. As a result, it is easy for the distributor to miss and for the host to drop to the floor. To avoid this, it is best to make your bow as the person in front of you is receiving the Eucharist (or directly after.)

Third, how to actually receive. With regard to posture, it is acceptable either to stand or kneel. Although there are strong views on whether receiving in the hand or receiving on the tongue is better, we should focus on this: the Church says both are acceptable. That being said, there is certainly a right and a wrong way to do it either way.

If receiving in the hand, the process is simple and should be respected. The person places their left palm on their right palm facing up. After the host is deposited, the person uses their right hand to pick the host up and place it in their mouth. Some practices that are either impractical or inappropriate include placing both hands side by side (it is difficult as the distributor to decide where to place the Eucharist and placing the host in the middle of the hands, which is often the instinct, sometimes leads to the host falling to the floor as the person receiving tries to get in a position to grasp it.) It is also inappropriate, except for times when health or circumstance requires it, to take the Eucharist from the distributor.

Once again, this is all about proper reverence by which we express with our bodies the disposition or humility we are trying to cultivate in our hearts and minds; it is a disposition of receiving a gift rather than that of taking a possession. When we receive Jesus in our palm, one hand places on the other, we essentially make a throne upon which Jesus, the King of Heaven and Earth, is placed.

If receiving on the tongue, the emphasis here should be….well, on the tongue. You open your mouth looking straight ahead, stick your tongue out just a little, and let the distributor put the host on it. The moisture makes it stick and you can simply pull your tongue back in. Practices that are unhelpful or less appropriate include bending your head/body forward which can make it difficult for the distributor to place the Eucharist, moving your head forward to ‘grab’ the Eucharist with your teeth (it’s an easy way for the distributor to miss or for the person receiving to drop the host), and only opening your mouth a smidgeon, which is unhelpful for obvious reasons.

After the distributor announces, “the body of Christ,” the person receiving says, “Amen.” We say this word and not something in English because it has such deep meaning. It does not simply mean, “I believe.” It means something like, “I believe, and give my whole self." We are not just saying we believe in the presence of Jesus (though we are indeed saying that), we are also uniting ourselves to everything that goes along with that belief. By this act, we willingly unite our minds to Christ’s full truth and teaching right before he unites our body to His body.

The communicant then, if having received in the hand, places the host in their mouth. Note: the person must consume the host immediately. It is our duty to properly care for Jesus who, in giving himself to us in the Eucharist, has made himself vulnerable to desecration. And it is an unfortunate reality that there are people out there who will go to lengths to procure a consecrated host for just this purpose.

That pretty much sums it up. I hope you find this helpful. Please note that most of these rules and recommendations are dependent upon the circumstances (aka. a parent holding a child will probably not be able to receive in the hand the same way as others, and someone with a back problem does not have to bow.) Please, consider sharing this article around.


Further Resources

Sacraments 101: How to Receive Communion

USCCB Instructions



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