Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Come To The Table Of Plenty: Divine Mercy and Moral Responsibility

One recurring theme in last Sunday’s readings was the reality that God provides for all of our needs, and that we should have faith that He can and will do so even in the worst or most difficult of situations. And the benefits of God’s gifts are directed towards all people, not merely a select few.

 

Yet, one of the songs sung at my parish this last week was Dan Schutte’s “Table of Plenty.” The lyrics and the style were in many ways reminiscent of the liturgical music of the 1970’s. The priest at many points during his sermon spoke of “approaching the table.”

 

While all this is true and good, there is something missing: namely, that to partake of “the table of plenty” (to limit myself to Mr. Schutte’s language) requires the proper disposition on our part towards the acceptance of the great graces we receive in the Eucharist. God’s gifts are given gratuitously, as a result of His mercy; yet, they (particularly the Eucharist) require as a response on our part the living up to certain moral responsibilities bestowed onto us by God in order to be properly disposed towards the reception of, and cooperate with, these great gifts.

St. Thomas Aquinas summarizes the great amount of evil involved in not being properly disposed to the reception of the Eucharist. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, he writes that there are three ways in which we could partake of the Eucharist unworthily. One of them – to approach the Eucharist “with a mind not devout” – is described in the following manner:

 

This lack of devotion is sometimes venial, as when someone with his mind distracted by worldly affairs approaches this sacrament habitually retaining due reverence towards it; and this lack of devotion, although it impedes the fruit of this sacrament, which is spiritual refreshment, does not make one guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But a certain lack of devotion is a mortal sin, when it involves contempt of the sacrament, as it says in Malachi 1:12 – “But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted and its food may be despised.”

 

Another, similar sin is described as one approaching the Eucharist “with the intention of sinning mortally.” Aquinas describes this in the following manner:

 

For it says in Leviticus 21:23 – “He shall not approach the altar, because he has a blemish.” Someone is said to have a blemish so long as he persists in the intention of sinning, which, however, is taken away through contrition. [2]

 

When one approaches the Eucharist in a manner not as reverend as they ought, then that is considered a venial sin; yet, one sins mortally when their sense of reverence towards the Eucharist is so lacking that they feel a sense of contempt towards the Blessed Sacrament. When one approaches the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin, without any desire to repent, then one commits a further mortal sin. Aquinas states that, as a rule, since contrition (feeling a sense of sorrow for ones sins) is only the first step towards conversion, and it is only through confession and satisfaction that our sins are wiped away, a person in a state of mortal sin should receive confession and make satisfaction for their sins prior to receiving the Eucharist. The only exception is when there are a lack of ministers to administer the sacrament of confession, in which case contrition is sufficient for the reception of the Eucharist.

 

Yet note: insofar as one remains in a state of sin, they cannot be truly receptive to the fruits of the Blessed Sacrament. Contrition, absolution of sins, and penance is necessary. In a state of emergency and absolute necessity, there still must be a sense of contrition, that is, a realization that one has sinned, and a desire to repent. One must turn from their sin to be truly receptive to the fruits of the Eucharist. This is because the fruits of the Eucharist are an expression of grace. Man cannot be open to grace unless he has first turned from His sin.

 

Now, this can easily lead to a whole series of issues on the relationship between grace and free will. And while the Catholic Church teaches that the will is dependent on grace for all things – even in order to make the choice to accept God’s grace in the first place – in the end of the day, man, as a being with free will, must chose to accept God’s grace, and be properly disposed towards its reception, in order to reap the fruits of grace. One cannot reject God (which one does through sin, and continues to do through a lack of repentance), yet still expect to reap the fruits of a relationship with God. We can see this in the Eucharist in specific. The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1382 notes, “To receive Communion is to receive Christ Himself Who has offered Himself for us.” In paragraph 1391, it says, “The principle fruit of receiving Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus.” Yet, the Catechism also notes, in paragraph 1415, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic Communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive Communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.” That is, the primary fruit of the Eucharist is union with Jesus. Yet, through mortal sin, we cut ourselves off from union with Jesus, and the effects of mortal sin make us closed off to the possibility of future union with Jesus. Thus, how can one be in a state of mortal sin truly benefit from the fruits of the Eucharist?

 

The Code of Canon Law speaks similarly. Canon 842 §1 notes: “A person who has not received baptism cannot be admitted validly to the other sacraments.” The Eucharist is a sign of fellowship with Christ and the rest of the Church. Hence, an unbaptized person – who does not have fellowship with Christ’s Church and who has never received the grace of God, and therefore remains in their sin (both original and personal) – cannot receive Holy Eucharist. Canon 912 says, “Any baptized person not prohibited by canon law can and must be admitted to Holy Communion.” Yet, it goes on to say, in Canon 913 §1 that the administration of the Blessed Sacrament (particularly in the case of children, which is what the canon is speaking of in its original context) requires that the person receiving the Sacrament “have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they may understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity…” We must understand what we are receiving in order to be properly disposed to its reception. In order to assent to the truths of the Eucharist in faith and receive it with a sense of devotion, we must first have understanding. The only exception is young children who are at or near the point of death. Canon 915 says, “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” That is, all the Baptized faithful have a right to receive the Eucharist; yet, the priest has both a right and a duty to withhold the Blessed Sacrament from those who are under excommunication or interdict, or those who the priest knows for sure are in a state of mortal sin. Canon 916 says, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess…” [3]

 

It is not that the Church is attempting to prevent us from receiving the Eucharist. The Church has long recognized the significance of receiving the Holy Eucharist. Paragraph 11 of Lumen Gentium, one of the documents published during the Second Vatican Council, stated that the sacraments are the means by which we live out the Christian life. The Eucharist in particular offers us a means by which to do so, since, to use the famous term, it is the “fount and apex of the Christian life.” And the Catechism itself says, “[T]he Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive [the Eucharist] on Sundays and feast days [throughout the year], or still more often, even daily.” (CCC #1389) Yet, when one understands the great gift which Christ bestowed onto us in the Eucharist, no one would dare say that us, lowly, sinful man, can ever presume to be good enough to approach it.

 

Man must, with God’s grace, be receptive to the graces of the Eucharist. Man must be a part of the Church, and must be on good terms with the Church, since the Eucharist is a sign of fellowship between us and God, and between us and the other members of the Church. In receiving the Eucharist, one attains a state of union with Christ, and thus one is obligated to have removed all obstacles to the attainment of said union, or have the firm desire to do so if it was impossible to do so beforehand. And, in order to be fully open to the graces of the Eucharist, one must first have an understanding of what is occurring through participating in the Eucharist.

 

If one wants to interpret the concept of “the bread of life,” or “the table of plenty,” in a broader sense as a reference to ALL of God’s gifts, God’s gifts either presuppose or lead to a receptiveness of God’s plan of salvation. And this leads to an overarching problem: speaking of God’s mercy without corresponding talk of human moral responsibility or the need for responsiveness to God’s mercy. American conservatives often complain that contemporary American social, moral and political discourse over-emphasizes rights without emphasizing responsibilities enough. A similar thing has been occurring in the Church for the past few generations.

 

To sing “The Table of Plenty,” or similar songs, is incomplete. When Christ tells us to “Do this in memory of Me,” and when the Church invites us to discipleship, it is not a feel-good sort of thing (“Hey guys, lets all gather around and bask in the glory of God’s gifts! Ain’t that groovy?!?”). To live a life of Christian discipleship, to be partakers of the fruits of God’s salvific plan, requires, with the assistance of God’s grace, a receptivity to these gifts. Again, without getting into larger issues surrounding grace and free will, we can see this in a more general sense. The initial realization that we are sinners in need of grace is the result of prevenient grace, which itself is given to us prior to any free choice or turning towards God on our part. Nonetheless, prevenient grace does not wipe away sin or bring about conversion. This comes about through sanctifying grace, which, although unmerited, presupposes a receptiveness of this grace. It requires that we recognize we are sinners in need of God’s grace. It is for this reason that we need God’s prevenient grace: it brings about that receptivity to God’s grace. To receive God’s further gifts requires us to be in this state of grace.

 

All of God’s gifts either presuppose an openness or a proper disposition towards these gifts, or are ordered towards the end of bringing about such an openness (such as in the case of prevenient grace, the reception of which does not presuppose an openness to grace, but which brings it about). The greatness of God’s mercy and love, the vastness of His gits, should inspire within us a sense of awe and thankfulness. Yet, how do we know if we are filled with authentic awe and thankfulness, or simply pleasant emotions? The answer lies in whether or not what we feel moved us to act in a corresponding manner. Thus, Hebrews 9:14 says that “the blood of Christ…cleanse[s] our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

 

In all of the readings, talk of God’s merciful and gratuitous act of providing is always coupled with talk of moral responsibility and receptiveness to God’s gifts. In last weeks readings, we see the story of the God miraculously bringing forth large amounts of food from small amounts. This story is found in the first reading (taken from 2 Kings 4:42-44), and is paralleled and fulfilled in John 6:1-15. Yet, sandwiched in between there is St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:1-6, in which he teaches the Christians at Ephesus to strive to persevere in God’s gifts, saying that we should “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience…”

 

We see this in the readings for this past Sunday as well: the first reading is taken from Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, which speaks of the story of God feeding the Israelites with manna. The Gospel reading is taken from John 6:24-35, in which Jesus says that HE is the true bread of life, giving us the gifts that lead to eternal life. Yet again, sandwiched right in between here is an excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, more specifically chapter 4, verses 17, 20-24. He claims that by being called to be disciples of Christ,  by receiving the gifts of Christ, we are set apart from the rest of the world. We thus need to act accordingly.

 

In the end, the gifts of God are, by their nature, transformative. One must first be properly disposed to the reception of these gifts; and, if one is truly open to these gifts, then these gifts will morally and spiritually transform us, elevating us to be all that God is calling us to be.

 

 

Sources:

[1] To see the readings for last week and this week, see these links: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072918.cfm; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080518.cfm

 

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P., and Daniel Keating. Accessed at: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/SS1Cor.htm

 

[3] To see all the Church’s regulations on the reception of the Eucharist, you can access these canons on the Vatican website. See: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P2T.HTM and http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P39.HTM

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