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Holy Communion and the Practice of Charity
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is common knowledge that the Holy Eucharist is the center, not only of our faith but of our spiritual life. What may not be so evident, however, is that the cardinal virtue of Christianity, the practice of charity, is intimately tied in with the Sacrament of God's love. We know this from the fact that at the Last Supper Christ did two things, and these two will be the objects of our reflections. He first instituted the Blessed Sacrament; then He gave us His mandate on the practice of charity. In order to appreciate the implications of this relationship, we might profitably look at Christ's teaching on charity and ask ourselves what is distinctive about the love that Christ came to teach, indeed command, at the Last Supper; and then see how the practice of this kind of charity is dependent upon our receiving the graces which come to us only from the Eucharist.
First, the words of Christ: "My little children, I shall not be with you much longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples." We have heard this many times; it is the bedrock of our faith. Note the context of these words. They were spoken on the occasion when Christ was instituting the Blessed Sacrament and before He gave the extensive discourse on the eternal love between Himself and the Father in the union of the Holy Spirit. There are certain features of Christ's teaching which deserve attention.
First of all, it is not a mere recommendation but a commandment simply, "Love one another" (imperative mood). He said, and He meant, it was a new commandment. What is new about it? To begin with, it is to be mutual. It is no longer that we are just to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, which is to love any person who happens to enter our lives whether he is living next door or just crosses our path or is a chance caller on the telephone or a relative. By whatever principal we call him "neighbor", the Old Testament said we are to love our neighbor as our self.
In Christ's command, however, there is mutuality, "Love one another". It is therefore not a one-sided or unilateral practice of charity. Here is the beginning of the Christian community where it is not merely that I love someone else, go out towards that person, but that I love the person and he in turn loves me. There is a reciprocity. The first feature of this new commandment that Christ gave us is that we are to love and be lovednot only activebut passiveas the foundation of that kind of interrelationship which is the basis of communitarian existence in the Catholic Church.
The second distinct feature which makes it new is the norm or the standard which Christ tells us we are to follow in loving one another. In the Old Testament there was already, in Deuteronomy, a commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." The criterion in the Torah, the Old Covenant, was each person's love for himself, which as we know from experience is a constant, enduring, and deeply endearing loves! Is it not a marvel that the one person about whom we know the most bad things, even all about that person's secret sins, is the one we love the most? Now this ethic of the Old Law, this loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, is admittedly a very high ethic. This world would be a very wonderful place to live in if everybody followed even that Old Testament norm. If we loved everyone who entered our lives as we love ourselves, wouldn't that be something? Nevertheless, this is not yet the commandment of Christ.
When He spoke of it being a new commandment, He meant it. We speak of the New Testament or the New Covenant being "new", and we sometimes wonder why. Could it be only for chronological reasons, like everything which follows whatever preceded it is new with relationship to the old which it follows? No. The fundamental reason, from the Church's tradition why the New Testament is new is because of this new commandment of love.
It is new first in that it implies the foundation of a community. Suppose we operated only on the Old Testament commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself". Would that be an adequate foundation for community? Not really, because it would imply that we are to love indeed, but not that we might expect to be loved in return. You could have thirty people in the community, fifteen loving their neighbor as themselves (that is, loving the other fifteen); but unless all in that group were equally commanded to love one another, there would be no togetherness, no loving and being loved. The essence of authentic friendship is love not only given, which is Old Testament morality, but love requited. Christ commanded that we love, but that we should also expect to be loved in return. And whatever else community life is not, it is not just loving people; it is expecting to be loved in return. Whatever sacrifice we make when we enter the religious life, one sacrifice is not, not to be loved. So the reciprocity, the love given and the love requited, what we theologically call the love of friendship, is what Christ commanded.
Second, it is new in the norm that He gave us, "as I have loved you." This is God speaking. How, or whom did He love? The real problem with how we love is whom we are called upon to love. Even the most perverse human nature, as long as it is still sane, loves someone, even besides itself. You know, there is love among thieves.So the real test of how Christ loved and loves us, which He gave us as the standard of how we are to love one another, is not some speculative question on the methodology of love. No, it is very simple, only answering the question, "Whom did Christ love?" He loved those who did not love Him and, as Saint Paul tells us, He loved and loves those who offend Him and who when they sin grievously turn their backs on Him and hate Him.
The night just before He died Christ commanded us to do likewise. He loved, and this is a constant, historical present as I like to put itHe loved those who did not love Him, those who were putting Him to death in a matter of hours. He loved those who were not loving Him in spite of their lack of appreciation, their lack of gratitude. And He loved them enduringly to the end. This is the kind of love that Christ bids us to practice.
Whether we are in the world in dealing with the people with whom we work or for whom we may labor, or are priests in rectories, or religious in communities, we are going to meet people whom we simply don't relate to. Strangely, some meet more of this kind of people than others. But that too is part of the mystery of this virtue. We respect them, recognize their obvious gifts, and excellence, but we just don't take to them. This is quite normal and to be expected. Whatever else Christ would have said at the Last Supper, He wouldn't have said that humanly speaking we would relate to everyone. He presumed that what took place in His life will take place in ours. Christ as man had human sensitivities; He didn't enjoy not being loved. He was human. We all like to be loved, and that is no secret.
Indeed, if we find people loving us, showing kindness and gentleness and forbearance towards us, we even find it hard not to go out towards them. One great Jesuit ascetical writer, Father Meschler, wrote that with people who are warm towards us, we have to hold our hearts with both our hands to keep them from going out to such people. It is spontaneous. But thank God for the opportunity He gives when people enter our lives who are quite obviously not lovable. We are to love them, not in spite of but precisely because of their not loving us or showing us those marks of gentility, affection, and kindness that we spontaneously desire. Christ gave us the example and set down the principal. And what we are likely to forget is that Christ's example, as in this case, is a criterion: as...so. Even as He loved His enemies, so we are to love ours. So much for part one.
Communion and community. We are given this exalted moral mandate; but clearly human nature cannot achieve it and would not have even conceived this kind of love. Consequently, we would expect Christ, who laid down the norm, to also give us the grace we need. So He does. We say that the grace is not only from Christ, in the sense which all grace comes from Christ, but comes literally from Him in our reception of the Sacrament of His love, which I like to call the Sacrament of His love and the Sacrament for His love.
This is the special sacramental grace of the Holy Eucharist as Communion. The sacraments, besides either conferring sanctifying grace if it is absent (as in Baptism or Penance) or increasing sanctifying grace (as in Confirmation), also confer a special sacramental grace. Each one has its distinctive, unique sacramental grace which only that sacrament confers. What is the unique sacramental grace of the Eucharist? It is the increase of charity. Without Communion, Christian charity would be, not difficult but impossible. Notice the adjective "Christian" in the phrase "Christian charity". It is the charity which Christ taught, practiced, and commanded. No wonder Holy Communion is called the Sacrament of Unity, or as I prefer, the Sacrament of Community.
If it is the sacrament which is to unite us, clearly there must be something which divides us. So many things divide us, but especially our natural personal differences. You name it and we are different. First of all, we are persons, and the theological definition of a person is "a distinct individual". So the moment you say "person", you speak of an individual who is so distinct that God Himself, when He created our human spirit which He did at the moment of our conception, created a unique soul which no one else possesses. God planned from the moment of conception that we would have something to do in this practice of charity. We are different as personalities, which includes everything.
We have diversified tastes. I don't mean just in our dietary tastes, but in whatever tastes we have whether it is color or size, heat or cold, or what some people call "fresh air"! We vary in our talents. Some have ten, some are not so sure they have one. We differ in our fears. Some fearless souls tread, not only where angels fear but where even the demons would hold back; but not they! Others are the shy, retiring, sensitive souls. We have distinctive experiences, even though we be perfect twins. We differ in our bodies: in our health, strength, age, and vigor. We differ in our souls in all the differences that God anticipated when He specially created and infused this soul for me which is, no one else's. We are individuals in every possible way in which only persons can be persons.
What unites people. Our differences divide us; then the only thing that can unite us is something outside of ourselves which we have in common with other people. As Saint Augustine puts it, "No two things which are different can ever be joined together except by some one third thing which they share." He was speaking in the metaphysical sense of unification. The only other way would be to erase the differences. Since that is impossible, because God does not want us to cease to be ourselves, if we are going to be united with others, it can only be in virtue of something which we somehow share in common.
This is the basis for business corporations. There may be no particular affection among the members of the Board, but they have agreement on one thingthey have a common goal. There are associations of all kinds from associations for the advancement of science, to associations of those who have a particular hobby, like fishing for trout.
We have read the words of our Savior, that the children of this world can be often much more shrewd in their generation than the children of light. Let us not leave that as a proverb! Let us do something about it, learn something from these children of this world, and apply the same principals, sublimated by grace. We have differences; in fact, if we didn't, we wouldn't be human beings. But the very differences that we have are meant by Christ to be the source of our unity, and here the unity is not only of some common enterprise or object, but is a Person; what we share in common is our one love for the same Jesus Christ.
Here a panorama of our faith opens up. He makes sure that He not only symbolizes our unity by having us address ourselves to the same Lord, follow the example of the same Jesus, invoke the same Name, and do so whenever we can together to exemplify our unity in Him; but He has created the sacrament where we receive the One who unites us. And it is this receiving of the Savior that makes a community, not only because of our free-will decision to join together to form a community, which is true of all other societies. All human societies are joined together by a common will. But our Savior, to make sure we are a unique community, enables us (and the Church bids us) to receive Him who is our common center in order that by receiving Him dailyHis Body into our body, His Will into our will, His Mind into our mindswe might grow in that oneness for which He prayed to His heavenly Father, "That they all may be one even as Thou Father in Me and I in Thee."
Let us ask our divine Savior, not only at Communion time but between sacramental Communions, to help us appreciate not only the graces we receive, so that we therefore cooperate with them to meet our own problems; but also let us ask Him to enlighten us on how, in virtue of these graces we receive from Communion, we may be more effective in living out what He is teaching us to do through Holy Communion, in order to make community life more Christlike.
This matter of profiting from our Holy Communions is not something which we simply talk or hear about, and then expect that since we have gone to Communion we have done our part and Christ is somehow supposed to do the rest. I have stressed grace as light. Grace, of course, is both strength and illumination. We can never see this too clearly, because this itself is a great grace: to see that the fundamental, the primary actual grace is in the mind, the grace to enlighten the mind by illuminating the faith. Through our Communions, we are enlightened.
We get insights, ideas, illuminations that come from Christ, who is as He tells us "the light of the world". And on one dramatic occasion He spoke to the disciples (speaking also to us), "...and you are the light of the world". Both foci are important. Through Communion we obtain insights of how we can put into practice this charity, so that we don't just conceive of practicing charity as avoiding people, either physically or socially, but as giving ourselves to others. We need to reflect daily on how, in the light that we have received through our last reception of Christ, who is the light of the world, what we can do better, more effectively, more generously, more expeditiously and more universally so that in this short life we might effect not one, ten, or even a thousand others; let us pray to Christ to enlighten us how to affect millions, in order to give Him not just glory, but the greatest possible glory that we can.
Let us make spiritual Communions between sacramental ones, when we reflect mentally on what we can do more generously and more effectively until the next Communion, to put into practice the one virtue for which Christ mainly comes into our bodies and souls every day.
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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