An Encouraging Word — Eucharist: A reward or a medicine?

Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them… John 6

Father J. Ronald Knott
Father J. Ronald Knott

The little old lady arrived midway through the 10 a.m. Mass. Even though it was summer, she was attired in several layers of dresses, an apron and a coat. Her red wig was twisted to one side and secured by a tight-fitting knit cap. To top-off her outfit, she wore heavy boots — cast off combat boots.

As she passed pew after pew, people moved books, purses, anything they could find, to make the pew appear to be full so that she would not sit beside them. Pew after pew, she kept looking, a shopping bag dangling from each arm, until she found an empty pew beside a new and unsuspecting visitor. Even with the weight of all she wore and carried, she managed to genuflect, cross herself and make a nest for herself among her bags.

During the Mass, she would make eccentric gestures and mumble either to herself or to those around her or at the priest, but when Communion time came, she became very still and reverent.

When the ushers came forward to escort people into the Communion line, they didn’t bother with her. They simply passed her up. The old lady looked around, bewildered. There was a slight panic on her face as she realized that she had been bypassed and excluded.

Maybe used to it, she simply shrugged, started rooting through her shopping bags and pulled out a loaf of bread. She untied it and took some slices out and offered them to her neighbors, who politely refused. She took a slice for herself and put the rest back into the bag and retied it.

She held her bread on her palm, until she heard the priest say, “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” Then she carefully and tenderly ate her slice of bread and bowed her head in prayer. I remembered this story from years ago because this bag lady has a lot to teach us about the Eucharist.

This story always raises for me the question about who is worthy to receive the Eucharist.

Is the Eucharist a reward for good behavior or the medicine sinners need to be healed? Early Christianity preserved this idea that the Eucharist is medicine for sinners, placing the marginal and the wounded in the center of their communities in order to give them greatest care. As time went on, probably because of doctrinal and discipline concerns, the idea of “worthy and unworthy” crept in.

The church has a right and duty to protect the Eucharist. Those who trivialize it by coming to it unprepared, unbelieving, unrepentant and unconscious of what they are doing should absent themselves. This sacrament is cheapened, not so much by giving it to sinners who recognize their need for healing, but by giving it to unconscious people who fail to recognize the presence of the Lord.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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