Monday, October 27, 2014

Who May Receive Communion? - A Reflection on Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,

nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;

who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.
Psalm 15

Reflection – This psalm is one of a several that are likely to make us modern prayers of them just a bit uncomfortable. Namely, the psalms where the psalmist speaks of the need—need—for moral purity to enter the presence of God, to be in communion with Him.

In the original context, the reference to tents and hills would have been to the temple in Jerusalem, and the state of life necessary to enter into that temple and offer sacrifices to God. Meanwhile, the ‘blamelessness’ referred to wholly exterior matters of ethical conduct and ritual purity.

When we who are Christians pray this psalm, we run into a problem, in that we understand blamelessness in a much broader, deeper, and more interior context. We just heard yesterday Jesus identifying love of God and love of neighbor as the heart of the Law, and both the Sermon on the Mount and the new commandment in John 15 to ‘love as I have loved you’ bring out for us just how total this demand of love is, and just how little any of us can claim to be truly blameless, how little any of us can seriously say we always ‘do what is right.’

The temptation for us faced with a psalm that contains at least implied claims of moral perfection (although this particular psalmist at least does not say, ‘And that’s me, Lord, yep!’) is to simply not pray it. Wrong answer! This is Scripture; this is part of the prayer patrimony of the Church. It is for us to see what this psalm really means for us, and to go deep in our meditation for that purpose.

Well, Jesus is the blameless one, of course. So first, this psalm has to be prayed Christologically if it is to be prayed at all. Only the man Jesus can truly merit to dwell in the courts of God, and our ability to enter those courts and dwell in them is only possible through, with, and in Him. When this psalm makes us feel a little uncomfortable, that discomfort is meant not to drive us away from the psalm, but towards Jesus who is the Just One who makes possible what is impossible for us by our own power.

But in our Catholic understanding, Jesus does not simply cover over our blame with his blamelessness. Yes, He does this, but in doing this He communicates His moral righteousness to us. Grace does not simply make up for what is lacking in us; grace transforms us into what we are not. In other words, it is the very nature of the grace of communion with Christ that it both calls us into a process of conversion and effects that conversion.

In the painful discussions going on right now around the Eucharist and who may or may not receive it, this fundamental dynamic, the intrinsic connection between communion and conversion, has to be kept in view. No, the Eucharist is not only for the perfect (I would be the first one to excuse myself from the table if that were so). But the Eucharist is for those who desire to be perfected, and who have made the first graced movements towards that perfection by repenting of grave sin and receiving the forgiveness of God lavished freely in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Jesus, and His Church, do indeed welcome all to the banquet table of the Lord. But it is the Lord’s banquet table, not ours, and God calls us all to examine ourselves thoroughly, with great humility of heart and contrition, for we all have sinned, and to not approach that banquet with hands and hearts unwashed by the fountains of mercy made so easily available to us in the sacrament of mercy.

To deny one is a sinner, to insist that one has a ‘right’ to enter the banquet, to stand on one’s own blamelessness, or to define all these terms in one’s own way and not God’s way—these are terrible, spiritually dangerous stances to adopt. And the Church, in my view, is being profoundly merciful in instructing people who will not humbly accept God’s laws as they are and so amend their lives in accordance with those laws to refrain from approaching the table. Not because ‘they are not worthy’ – none of us are worthy. But because they are not in their current state allowing Christ to communicate his blamelessness to them, and hence are not able to truly receive the gift of communion.

It is deep stuff; it is painful stuff; it is stuff that implicates all of us and calls us all to searching self-examination before we ourselves approach the altar of God. But that is the way it is, and the way it must be, and the way it will always be, for that is the nature of God and His righteousness, and His mercy in Christ Jesus.

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