I recently taught my first communion class to receive the host on the tongue, mostly because Cardinal Sarah is really in my head right now. I’ve actually been teaching first communicants this for a few years now and I always take the opportunity to talk to receptive (ahem) adults about it, too. His Eminence explains it in more blunt language than I would, but on the whole he, and the entire weight of the Tradition of the Church, has convinced me. There’s one aspect of receiving on the tongue, though, that fascinates me. It is awkward. It’s really, totally awkward.
It’s fairly unusual to allow yourself to be fed. My guess is that the only experience of ever seeing this this is when a bride and groom celebrate their nuptials by shoving a piece of cake shoved into each others faces. I don’t get it. But everyone does it, so there must be some basic, human instinct for this practice that has escaped me. There’s the laughter, everyone smiles. It’s a good photo op. And cake does taste good. Mostly, though, the ceremonial feeding is a sign of love and trust, a way of declaring, “I don’t mind being vulnerable with this person.”
I was thinking about the way that brides and grooms so willingly embarrass themselves. It’s silly. Except it really isn’t. It is pure vulnerability, a pathway into the heart of the beloved.
The liturgy of the Church is also odd in this way. The priest wears strange clothes that, quite honestly, are laughable to an outsider. We have numerous traditions that, without any context, seem very strange. For instance, last week I walked down the center aisle and threw holy water all over everyone. Even if it didn’t show on my face I was laughing on the inside while doing it. I may also have targeted a few parishioners in particular for reasons that shall remain my own. The signs and symbols of the Church are big and brash. When a bishop is ordained an entire jar of chrism oil is poured over the top of his head. When you come for Ash Wednesday, if Father is holding a secret grudge against you he might oh so carefully smear a massive black cross onto your forehead (aka “Father’s Revenge”). At confirmation, the Bishop slaps you on the cheek. I tell the 8th graders that their spectacles are going to fly off.
There is much good humor and whimsicality in Catholic culture. I really love it. And simply because we talk about it with a smile doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. Chesterton and Belloc covered their theological talks in a boozy haze, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t entirely earnest. We can do penance and practice devotion while, at the same time, enjoying a fantastic piece of fried fish on Fridays. Every time I’ve taught children to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, they giggle and talk about how odd it feels. But here’s the thing, it’s just like a bride and groom, because it’s part of this great wedding feast that we call the Mass.
The point is, almost everything we do in the Mass is ridiculous. We gather to sing some songs, chant a few things in Latin, the priest harangues you for a bit about some topic and inevitably quotes a poem or something at you. Then we pray at an altar with bread and wine and consume them. Then we go home. To an outsider, this seems madness. And it is. Unless it is true.
Think of it like a child at play. There’s no purpose to the playing because the playing itself is the purpose, and it is good and beautiful simply for what it is. It is ennobling and worthy simply to at Mass in the presence of God together.
The very first words the priest says at the foot of the altar are, “I go to the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth.” There is an innocent joy that is connected with our worship such that we become like little children before the face of God. Fr. Romano Guardini says that the liturgy unites us to a supernatural reality, a childhood before God.
When I was a child, I played baseball with my friends in the park. The fence of the tennis court was the backstop and we would tape a strike zone to it. First base, which was a frisbee, was carefully laid out by counting our steps down the imaginary foul line. Second and third base were both baseball gloves of whichever teams was batting. A line of pine trees was a home run. We had elaborate, serious rules about every detail of the game. We were earnest and so intent on the rules that we spent most of the time arguing balls and strikes. It was all very awkward. This may seem ridiculous and I’m sure our parents all laughed at us, but this game was a vital part of our growing up, the way we negotiated with each other, encountered the ups the downs of success and failure, and discovered moments of delight when we had a perfect afternoon and played until the cicadas came out and the voices of our mothers called us home to dinner. The liturgy, too has laid down the serious rules to a sacred game.
Now, as an adult, think about those times a child has guilted you into playing. Chesterton says that, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.” Here’s the thing, though, God loves doing it again. Each morning he says to the sun, “Do it again.” Each evening he says to the moon the same. “He has the eternal appetite of infancy,” says Chesterton, while “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” The Mass is the same every, single, day. In that repetition we are made young. Each time you worthily receive the Eucharist you are made young. This is the all too awkward, long explanation of the meaning of the elegant words uttered by the priest before he steps up to the sacred altar of God.