In a comment on my Cup a week or two ago about “valid” Eucharist, a reader mentioned the fast that used to be widely observed before receiving Holy Communion. It is certainly something I grew up with – nothing after midnight except water. Like many practices of the pre-Vatican II era this has probably faded away in our new casualness, even in the Roman Catholic Church. I know it is something I don’t observe anymore. What did it mean? Why was it practiced? For a description and history, I can’t improve on this Wikipedia article, which covers not only Roman Catholic theory and practice but Orthodox, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian as well.
My modest riff on the wiki is to reflect, not on the penitential overtones that permeated just about every religious practice in the pre-Vatican II era but on the respect for the elements of the Eucharist that the fast evinces. It seems to be rooted in detailed understanding of human physiology, and an application of that understanding in the reverential treatment of the communion elements, not in just the manner in which the sacred bread and wine were handled, but in the very act of their consumption. Specifically, they knew that if consumed on an empty stomach the bread and wine would be totally digested and assimilated, which might not be the case if they became mixed in with other food. We moderns of course have different understandings of what is happening in the Eucharist, but, one cannot help being awed by the degree of thoughtfulness and reverence of earlier times.
I conclude with a paraphrase of that wonderful prayer of Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi, set forth in the Book of Common Prayer on pages 201 and 252 as especially suitable for Thursdays (because the gift of the Holy Eucharist was given to us by Christ at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday) and on page 834, for After Receiving Communion. “Grant us we beseech Thee , so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption.”
PS: I need to share with all my gentle readers something you probably missed last Sunday if you don’t get the Washington Post. It is a piece that was in the Outlook section entitled “Want millennials back in the pew? Stop trying to make church ‘cool’.” It is by a young woman, Rachel Evans, who found what she was seeking in the Episcopal Church. Here is a snippet to whet your appetite for the whole piece: “What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.” Here is the link:
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 5-May-2015.