Today’s casual approach toward Eucharist betrays Christ

Father John A. Kiley

To this day the Passover meal among Jews remains a family festival. The Pasch, unlike the other great feasts of Judaism — Pentecost, the Day of Atonement — Passover was a day to remain at home.

There was no pilgrimage to the temple at Jerusalem. There were no assemblies in the streets of the capital city. Passover was an intimate meal, presided over by the father, the head of the household, incorporating the youngest child, and even admitting the occasional hired hand to sit at the family table and enjoy the intimacy that aliens and strangers were customarily denied.

Passover was pre-eminently a family hour.

Since the mood of Passover was deliberately intimate and personal, the fact that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas originated at this fraternal table makes Judas’ disreputable deed all the more treacherous. Jesus himself draws attention to Judas’ disloyalty and to this disloyalty being compounded by its taking place at the Passover meal by remarking, “And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”

Jesus perhaps recalled the words of Psalm 41 in which the psalmist had a similar experience of infidelity, “Even the friend who had my trust, who shared my table, has scorned me.” St. Mark was not alone in stressing the hurt that Jesus felt when handed over by his friend. St. John makes the same observation in his Gospel narrative of the Last Supper. “I am not speaking of all of you. I know those whom I have chosen. But so that Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘The one who ate my food has raised his heel against me.’”

The Scriptures do not know a more dishonorable exploit than the hypocrisy of breaking bread with someone who is about to be scorned, or worse, about to be crucified through one’s instigation. The intimacy of the family table has been miserably compromised.

There was a time when Catholics approached the table of the Lord with fear and trembling, lest any sin, any violation, any transgression, give offense. So tremulous were the steps that led to the altar in the Middle Ages that the Lateran Council in 1215 had to mandate the reception of holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season.

In St. Charles Church in Woonsocket there is a memorable stained glass window of Cardinal Borromeo bringing holy Communion to a plague victim in Milan. Perhaps the cardinal was kind enough actually to place the host on the man’s lips, but it was not at all unusual for the clergy simply to bring the host to dying parishioners so that they could gaze upon the Sacrament for the last time so unyielding was their respect for the Sacred Species.

Until early in the last century Catholics had to ask permission of their confessor or spiritual director to receive Communion perhaps two or three times a month.

And of course confession on Saturday afternoon, fasting from midnight, kneeling at the rail, and scrupulously swallowing the host without it touching teeth or hand emphasized the solemnity and dignity of the sacramental encounter in the not too distant past. Any treachery intruding at the Lord’s table would have been manifestly sacrilegious.

Jesus experienced betrayal when his friend Judas sat with him at table while he knowingly had darkness in his heart. Jesus is no less betrayed when throngs of Catholics approach holy Communion Sunday after Sunday without the slightest thought toward compunction, contrition or repentance.

Missing Mass for two months? Living with your girlfriend? Voting for anti-life politicians? A few private vices? Haven’t been to confession in five years? Forget about it! God will understand. No offense.

The Scriptures are undeniably appalled at the callous betrayal by Judas. Our ancestors in the faith were appalled at the thought of belittling the reception of the body of Christ in any way.

The modern casual approach to the Sacrament is noticeably out of step with both Scripture and tradition. No one is truly worthy to sit at the table of the Lord.

But each believer must make himself less unworthy, less undeserving, as best he can.