In some denominations, communicants take Communion, or “take the Sacrament,” instead of receiving it — the latter the expression we Catholics use. And with that word choice, a whole difference of worldview emerges.
For Catholics, “taking” Communion is too active an expression. The emphasis is too much on what we do. This in turn points to a recurring problem in the history of doctrine and spirituality.
In the fifth century, a controversy emerged in the Church, associated with the English monk Pelagius (354-418), a spiritual director who exercised his ministry in Rome, Carthage, and Jerusalem. He was a well-educated man, fluent in both Latin and Greek, and he spoke and wrote persuasively. He believed that human beings were capable of avoiding sin by their willpower alone. He did not believe that the sin of Adam and Eve weakened the human will or affected humanity in any way other than setting a bad example.
He was a contemporary of the great St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine knew from his own personal experience of conversion that the teaching of Pelagius was not correct. He had experienced at first hand the enslaving power of sin, irrational as it was, and had also experienced the saving remedy of grace. For this reason, he criticized Pelagius vehemently, as did St. Jerome in the Holy Land. It is from St. Augustine that much of Catholic belief about original sin and sanctifying grace has its origin.
Augustine, and eventually the whole Church with him, taught that death is an effect of sin, not simply an element of nature; that infants must be baptized to be cleansed of original sin; that sanctifying grace remits past sin and helps avoid future sins; that the grace of Christ strengthens the will to act on God’s commandments; and that no good works can come without God’s grace. In all of this, Augustine taught, the initiative is God’s. This viewpoint became doctrine in the regional Council of Carthage in 418, and in the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
Salvation is something that is given to us, not something that we come up with on our own. We are not saved because we are good little boys or good little girls. We are saved because God graciously forgives our sins and gives us a new moral strength.
This whole issue was re-argued in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation. At that time, because of the abuses of the doctrine of indulgences and other confusions about doctrine, it became necessary for the Church to reassert the necessity of God’s initiative in the realm of grace and in the subsequent moral life of Christians. Catholics believe that thereafter we cooperate with God’s grace, but that the initiative is completely his. Everything begins with him.
The history of salvation is replete with stories of God’s initiative. With no advance notice, God made himself known to Abram and commanded him to leave his own land and people and go to a land that he (God) would show him. In the story of the Exodus, we clearly see that the attempt of Moses to save his people by his own power resulted his being sought as a murderer. Only God could save his people and did so through the signs and wonders of the Exodus.
In the wandering in the wilderness, the people grumbled against Moses and against God, but God gave them manna, quail, and water from the rock. God gave them victories over their enemies, and settled them in the land of the Promise. In the time of the prophets, he fed the prophet Elijah at the Wadi Cherith by sending ravens to bring him food, then by leading him to the widow of Zarephath, where he, she, and her household lived on a jar of flour for a long time.
In the only miracle described in all four Gospels, Jesus fed a multitude of thousands of people with only a few loaves and fish. He met them in their hunger and satisfied them—actually more than satisfied them, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers.
In John chapter six Jesus himself reflects on the meaning of this miracle and states simply, “I am the bread of life . . . the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:48-51). Jesus gives this bread. We do not simply take it. We receive it with gratitude, the pledge of eternal life.