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ALL ARE WELCOME – JESUS DEMANDS OPEN COMMUNION
As a little boy, I was lucky to worship with my mother in lieu of consignment to Sunday School. I loved Mass: the music, the vestments, the incense, the ceremonies. But more than anything else, I wanted to receive Holy Communion. Not only did I want to join my mother at the communion rail, I wanted to receive Jesus. I was told – and believed – that the Mass changed the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. But there was one problem: I was not confirmed! In those days, the Episcopal Church did not admit anyone to communion until confirmation. So I asked the priest what I had to do to get confirmed and was told, “learn the Catechism.” Hence, I made it my business to learn the Catechism and was duly confirmed at age 9 on May 13, 1962, and thereafter, began receiving communion every Sunday no matter where I lived, vacationed, or worked.
Throughout my life, I have almost never missed Mass. I have often gone to great lengths to receive communion, like staying home from family outings and riding the bus to church, organizing my vacation plans to be sure I was near a church after scoping out appropriate churches on the Internet before leaving, and of course, arranging for communion to be brought to me when I was ill. Receiving communion has always been the most important thing I do in life.
Fast forward to 2013, when my wife and I began attending St. Matthews Ecumenical Catholic Church in Orange, California. Other than the fantastic music, which immediately stimulated us to join the choir, what I recall most about my first visit was the invitation to communion, when the presider announced explicitly that everyone, absolutely everyone, were welcome to receive communion. My reaction was, why, of course, why should it ever be otherwise?
As a small boy, I experienced a barrier to the Lord’s Table, although I did not recognize it as such. Such barriers continue to characterize many Christian denominations. Officially at least, the Roman and Orthodox Churches limit communion to their members, as do some protestants, notably Missouri Synod Lutherans and many Baptists. Mainline denominations, officially at least, allow only the baptized to commune. As can be expected, Catholic denominations look to tradition to support their position while Protestants look to scripture. The Catholic tradition of closed communion dates back to the earliest of times and is found in the Didache, an document of unknown authorship dating in the late first or early second century when being a Christian was dangerous. Persecution of Christians was a regular governmental activity in the pre-Constantinian Roman Empire. The theory was unless one was willing to risk life and limb, one should not be admitted to communion. The Didache explicitly limits communion to the baptized.Protestants, particularly some species of Baptists, point out that no one except the twelve apostles were present at the very first Eucharist, or “Lord’s Supper”, to use their terminology, and certainly, this is explicitly stated in Matthew.They also point out that when the first communion celebration after the ascension occurred, those baptized shared in the breaking of bread.They further argue that a closed table insures worthy reception, a condition they believe was commanded by scripture. They postulate one cannot eat the Lord’s Supper with those with whom one differs. And they also contend that one should examine oneself before receiving communion, and abstain if one has sinned grievously, lest one go to perdition.
Both the Catholic and Protestant arguments are weak. The former amounts to “that’s the way we’ve always done it” while the latter is bald proof-texting similar to a lawyer focusing on dictum to cite a case which does not stand for a proposition advanced in a brief, or in ecclesiastical parlance, Satan quoting scripture for his own purposes similar to what he did when tempting Jesus.What both have in common are resistance to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to evolve both tradition and scriptural analysis. Both lack a realization that adaption to changing circumstances is not only a reality, but a necessity to continue the advancement of God’s Kingdom.
All of this speaks to our conception of God the Creator and by implication, Jesus as Redeemer. Do we believe in a judgmental God who sorts and excludes humanity, and by implication, a judgmental Jesus, or do we believe in compassionate God, who accepts us as we are, and a Jesus who redeems us as we are. To thumb through scripture to engage in proof-texting like narrow-minded conservatives seeking verses here and there to support open communion is tempting indeed, just as it is to establish by ecclesiastical fiat, either concilliarly or episcopally, that henceforth, open communion is the law. Neither, however, would be Catholic. Scripture and tradition, taken together, have always been the hallmark of Catholic authority, and can be applied here. Scripture and tradition have a dynamic relationship; one supports the other. This dynamism is what enables the church to adapt to changing circumstances.
Those of us who are California lawyers know well the maxims of equity in our Civil Code, one of which is, “When the reason for the rule ceases, so should the rule itself.” In other words, law evolves to fit new circumstances, or to quote from the hymn “Once To Every Man and Nation,” one line reads, “new occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.” For the Church is a living entity, and by definition, a growing entity. One need only consider plant life: a plant that does not grow, dies. The Church today is not the Church of 1870 nor the Church of 1962 nor the Church of 2009. The entirety of the Catholic world – Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, Old Catholic – has changed in many ways over time, in liturgy, in governance, in theology, and in discipline. One need only compare liturgies over time to ascertain the Church’s evolvement; the movement from Latin to the vernacular tongue is but one example of many. The point is, Church is not static. Tradition can, and does, change.
Though the words of scripture are somewhat fixed, meanings attached to the words are dynamic. That is, as the Church’s interaction with scripture evolves to continue to synchronize with evolving tradition, in some ways, evermore refining the relationship between scripture and tradition. Nowhere should this be more true than in the Church’s most important activity: celebrating the Eucharist. Understanding Eucharist as only the re-enactment of the Last Supper is a far too narrow focus to accommodate the natural repercussions and implications that flow from it, in particular, the fellowship among believers as a natural concomitant of the Lord’s Table.
At bottom, Eucharist means “thanksgiving” and Liturgy means “the work of the people.” It is not a sacerdotal performance that awes and subjugates the laity. The Presider serves, not dominates, the assembly, and therefore, by definition, the Presider is not a gatekeeper of the Sacrament of the Altar. Nowhere is the proper relationship between Presider and assembly more poignantly displayed than in the mass feedings recorded in all four Gospels. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John all recount the Feeding of the Five Thousand, while Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus also fed an assembly of Four Thousand. In all such narratives, Jesus, in presiding over these assemblies, does not focus on Himself, but on the needs of those assembled, in particular, the necessity to satisfy both their bodily and spiritual hunger. Similarly, we contemporary Christians materialize at Church hungry, to be fed spiritually by the Word and tangibly by the Body and Blood of Jesus as we gather to sample the heavenly banquet that eventually awaits us.
All these feedings have a common element: the only way so many people could be fed was via a supernatural miracle. In the same, supernatural way, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. Some variation of the Real Presence, be it transubstantiation believed by traditional Catholics, transignification by modern Catholics, Real Mysterious Presence by Orthodox and Anglicans, or even the consubstantiation of Martin Luther, appears in all Eucharistic liturgies celebrated throughout the Catholic word. The relationship between the mass feedings and Mass is not attenuated; an authority no less than the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church says, “The miracles of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through his disciples to feed the multitude, prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of His Eucharist.”
One thing is clear: Jesus did not place any limitations on who could be fed at these events; those who presented themselves, no matter who they were, shared in the loaves and fishes. Jesus was not one picky about with whom he would eat: he gave communion to Judas, even though Jesus foreknew that Judas would betray Him. He also was known to dine with tax collectors and sinners, much to the dismay of his followers.
But perhaps the best example of the inclusiveness with which Jesus approached the context of a dining table is the story of the Canaanite woman.The context into which His meeting with Her is set tells us what the meeting means. He visited her home after a confrontation with the Pharisees, pillars of the religious establishment of His day, over why His disciples broke the “tradition of the elders” by not washing His hands before eating. Jesus responded by asking them, “Why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of tradition?” He then explicates an example of how they have perverted a commandment of the Decalogue concerning parents, and emphasizes his point by quoting Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” Despite being told by His disciples that He was offending the Pharisees, Jesus goes on to criticize another Mosaic law pertaining to clean and unclean foods, proclaiming that demonstrates impurity not by what one eats, but by what comes out of us: evil thoughts, speech and actions.
Against that background, Jesus goes to Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, an area inhabited by Canaanites, whose theological thought and liturgical practices Jews found abhorrent: multiple gods, fertility rituals that amounted to orgies, and the sacrificial offerings of human infants. The gospel writers identifies her, who is not named, as one of “them.” She wants Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. She addressed him pleading, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” Initially, Jesus responded with silence. His disciples, being Jewish and knowing fully what she was, urged Jesus to send her away. Jesus then challenges her by telling her that He was sent to save “the lost sheep of Israel (meaning the Jews).” Jesus’ disciples, seeing her as both an annoyance and religiously unsatisfactory, urged Jesus to send her away. Jesus challenged her: “I was sent only to save the lost sheep of the House of Israel [meaning the Jews].” The woman’s response was to humble herself, beseeching Him, “Lord help me.” Jesus challenged her again: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” In this context, “children” refers to the Jews and “dogs” refers to Gentiles such as Canaanites, with whom Jews did not mix – history recounts Jews conquering the Canaanites after bloody battles.The woman rose to the challenge, responding to Jesus, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus was ostensibly referring not to household pets but to scavenging wild dogs. What she was trying to tell Jesus is that God’s message reaches Gentiles as well as Jews. Jesus, blown away by the way she met His challenge to her, exclaimed, “reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Impressed by her faith, Jesus healed her daughter.” Yes, this is a story of faith, but it is also a story of how the love and healing power of Jesus extends not only to those of his own ethno-religious tribe, but to those whose faith His tribe regards as undesirable.
The next major event for Jesus after the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman encounter was the Feeding of the Four Thousand in Matthew and Mark.Once again, Jesus responded to the needs of the people for food; he did not limit access to the good based on religious belief. If one examines the entire context of these stories in Matthew and Mark,the common thread is how Jesus addressed the question of who can receive food at a meal He hosts, and how Jesus interacts with his disciples and the religious hierarchy of His day. In all of this, Jesus deeply engaged scripture and tradition with one each other and crafted a way forward to adapt to the changing circumstances surrounding Him. Those circumstances were His mission to make the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heavena reality in the post-resurrection Church. Visions of the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven are set out in all the canonical gospels and in Paul’s Epistles. One thing is certain: Jesus did not proclaim the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven only to the Jews.
All three pericopes– the handwashing (or lack of it) story, the mass feedings, and the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman – demonstrate how Jesus reconciled scripture and tradition in a way that does not support those churches practicing closed communion. Jesus’ approach, in all three situations, was pragmatic, driven not by abstract principles, but by events on the ground occurring when he was ministering to the people involved. Jesus recognized that slavishly following traditions sometimes leads to absurd results: operating “by the book” and ostracization of disfavored people based on past history does not further the Kingdom of God/Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was prepared to be a bit antinomian to further greater values. In feeding the 5000 or 4000 hungry people, Jesus was responding to the “sensus fidelium,” the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people.The people to whom Jesus was ministering, and their immediate needs led to Jesus discarding or reinterpreting rules to further his greater goal, the reign of God’s love and justice.
As in Jesus day, when the sensus fidelium confronts traditions and laws, the sensus fidelium wins. Nowhere is this more true than in breaking down barriers to Holy Communion. Despite announcements from the pulpit and in church bulletins, people who “shouldn’t” receive communion anyway in violation of denominational rules. Why? Is it deliberate disrespect for one’s host? No. The Real Presence of Jesus is a powerful force indeed. Just as the presence of Jesus attracted people privileged to experience him in the flesh, the same Real Presence, realized sacramentally, draws people to Holy Communion, human precepts notwithstanding. Jesus is the host of the Eucharist! It’s His Altar, not the Pope’s or that of any other denominational authority. Just like the Jewish laws about hand-washing and honoring parents, those authorities are turning human rules into divine precepts. No can do. The Jesus who welcomes us to His table is the Jesus who fed throngs of hungry people without limitation: if one was hungry, one was fed. It is the same Jesus who healed the Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, even though was not Jewish, the ecclesiastical in-crowd of Jesus’ day.
Open Communion is as catholic as one can get. It is consistent with scripture and with Jesus’ approach to interpreting human ecclesiastical traditions. It merges scripture with the “sensus fidelium” tradition. Food for all who hunger, drink for all who thirst, as a response of faith, not checking theological pedigrees, is what counts in a relationship with Jesus. To paraphrase an anonymous hymn, we should all decide to follow Jesus, no turning back.
The Didache, ¶10, in “Early Christian Writings” translated by Maxwell Stanforth