Article XXIX: Of the wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XXIX: Of the wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper
The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.

I’m not going to lie: this Article is nearly inscrutable. It seems so short and obvious, and yet there is an entire controversy lurking just behind the text. For my understanding of a long-passed crisis, I’m grateful to Gerald Bray’s book on the Articles, to which I have referred repeatedly. Since the controversy at hand has passed, I’ll let it be. If you are curious, go do some reading on Gnesio-Lutherans. Back in the day (and by this I mean the 16th century), this particular Article was all the rage.

For our purpose, the Article is basically clarifying that those who receive consecrated bread and wine unworthily receive none of the benefits and all of the penalties. Since you aren’t worthy, you can’t receive grace at the altar rail. For your audacity in approaching the rail, you receive condemnation.

It’s easy to go to one extreme or the other on this issue. Today, we’ve gone pretty far toward the “sinners need the grace of Communion” end of the spectrum, so we’d encourage everyone to receive Communion. After all, who needs Christ’s healing Presence more than one who feels estranged from God and humanity?

On the other end of the spectrum, there are still plenty of folks running around who would say that you need to be properly and fully prepared (penitent) to approach the Altar Rail. To do otherwise is to reject the divine majesty of Christ’s presence in the bread.

You can see the potential problems, right? On one hand, we might not take seriously what we’re doing. On the other hand, we might get ourselves back into a works-righteousness mess, thinking that we need to do something to ourselves even to be worthy of grace.

It seems to me that we might ensure we have done what our catechism teaches.

Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.

Of course, we will never be 100% “in love and charity” with 100% of people. But if our hearts are full of anger, how can there be room for God? (Poetry, people!) Our pastoral impulse these days is to urge all the baptized (or even everyone, but that’s another story) to receive Holy Communion. Perhaps we might temper that, realizing that sometimes it is better for us to absent ourselves from the Altar Rail. If you want some food for thought, have a look at the Exhortation in our prayer book.

In the end, it seems to me that there aren’t any carved-into-stone rules about when one should or should not receive Communion. It should be left to the conscience of the one who approaches the Holy Table, but that conscience should have the benefit of some Christian formation. If we take St. Paul seriously, there is risk in receiving the bread and the wine. Perhaps a bit of fear is just what we need to have an awe-filled experience.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • Are there certain baptized Christians who should be excluded from receiving Communion?
  • Do certain sins make us unworthy of receiving Holy Communion?
  • St. Paul was clear that our salvation is at risk if we receive Communion unworthily. How is his teaching relevant to the Church today?
  • Do you suppose that the Eucharist has power, even when the mind or the heart of the recipient is not prepared?
  • Where does infant communion fit into this Article?

Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great High Priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be know to us in the breaking of bread; who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

Image courtesy of flickr user Meneer De Braker (Akbar2).

Previous: Article XXVIII: Of the Lord’s Supper
Next: Article XXX: Of both kinds

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2 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    There was a time I absented myself from receiving communion, there being a division within a congregation of which I was a part. It was a parish in “the search process,” and some things weren’t going well.

    The priest at the neighboring parish tried to reason with me that I was trying to live in love and charity with my neighbors in the parish, and that is what counted. My thought is that the division still existed, no matter what I wanted.

    I only returned to communion after there was a parish meeting scheduled with a conflict counselor assigned by the Diocese. That, and the other side chose not to show up at the meeting. At that point, I decided that my spiritual life could not be held hostage by those who chose to not participate.

    There was a break in the Body of Christ, and it needed to be acknowledged just as much as acknowledging Christ in the Sacrament on the Altar. You can’t work on a problem you don’t acknowledge.

    (I won’t go into further details here.)

  2. Derek Michaud says:

    It would seem that a good part of the intent of this article is to deny that the material elements have power in their own right. They are not “magical” objects that can be manipulated. They are sacramental elements that must be received properly in order to communicate grace.