In an earlier post, I commented on the strange attitude of Protestant churches for whom the sacraments have great importance (i.e.; consider them to be more than just symbols), but whose teachings (both in general and with respect to the sacraments in particular) only serve to undermine the need for those sacraments in the first place. Generally speaking, the root of this confusing situation seems to be in their denial of the reality of sin (particularly Original Sin), combined with a tendency to stress the love and mercy of God over and against his justice and holiness, to the point where He becomes a kind of celestial Santa Claus – indulgent, permissive, and blind to the faults that are holding us back from holiness and happiness.
One particular result of this attitude, which seems to be becoming more and more common – to the point where some of these churches are openly advertising it –, is the practice of open communion, wherein anybody is allowed to partake in the Eucharist; not just the baptised, but anyone at all. As I stressed in my previous post on this topic, this would not be so troubling were it not for the fact that these churches claim to attach great importance to the sacraments, and regarding the Eucharist, consider Christ to be really present (whether He is or not is beside the point – they believe Him to be so, and yet still practice open communion).
The problem is basically this: Baptism incorporates the person baptised into the Body of Christ. To partake in the Eucharist is to have one’s place within the Body re-nourished and re-strengthened. Therefore, for a church that really believes that the communicant is receiving the Body of Christ (however they may choose to interpret that term), they are allowing non-baptised communicants to engage in a lie. Moreover, as Saint Paul says, whoever eats and drinks without discerning the body brings judgement on themselves, and is guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Now, in the case of the hypothetical communicant in question, they are not at fault – they have been led into a situation by their pastors which they believed to be sound. The pastors however, are very much at fault – they have misled those entrusted to their care.
From a less theological point of view, I also find open communion rather strange. Why would you want to encourage people to plunge themselves into something about which (at least on paper) you believe to be a profound mystery? Would you not want them to learn a bit about it first – maybe experience a few services, or have a chat with a minister? Administratively speaking, it would save a lot of potential mishaps too – there is (for want of a better word) protocol in receiving communion, and to have people coming up to the altar not knowing what to do would, I imagine, only create confusion between altar-server and communicant.
To summarise, here is some anecdotal evidence that sheds more light on the issue than many tracts, catechisms and… (ahem) blog posts ever could. It is taken from the (often very insightful) blog of a Scottish Episcopalian minister, but the quote in question is written from a Catholic perspective:
When I was in middle school a hundred years ago, I went to a sort of youth retreat called Happening, which is linked to the Cursillo movement. A monk of the Order of the Holy Cross taught us how to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. In his explanation he used a simile that some might not care for, but which stuck in my young mind.
A visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he said, was like going on a date with Jesus. Anyone could do it at any time they had access to the reserved Sacrament, and use the occasion just to spend time with the Lord. You didn’t need to fast or make any preparation for it, and you didn’t even need to be a member of the Church or baptized.
Holy Communion, on the other hand (he went on), was a much more intimate encounter with the Lord – like making love. And just like making love is reserved for married couples, who had pledged their lives one to another, Holy Communion was reserved for Christians who had pledged their lives to Christ in baptism, and had also made appropriate preparation by examining their lives. He went on to talk about that preparation, the place sacramental Confession might play, and to announce that he would be available to hear Confessions after our time in front of the aumbry. He also pointed out that, just like going to the movies with a boy or girlfriend was no substitute for your wedding night, visits to the Blessed Sacrament weren’t substitutes for receiving Communion.
Like I said, the simile stuck with me. Even today my reaction to someone taking Communion without having joined themselves to Christ in Baptism is that it’s the spiritual equivalent of a one night stand, and threatens to cheapen everything connected with it.
Holy Communion is a blessed and joyous, but also serious business (to illustrate just how seriously we should be taking it, I recommend another anecdote – this time from Dr. Peter Kreeft). To reduce it to a free-for-all that doesn’t require prior commitment not only undermines the sacrament itself, but also short changes the one who has been led to take part under false pretences. Pastors who promote this practice should take another look at what Our Lord had to say about leading His little ones astray. Something about millstones…