I grew up, like most Catholics of my generation, receiving communion in the hand like there was no other option. It wasn’t until college that I began to see people receiving on the tongue. To be quite honest, it didn’t immediately strike me one way or the other. I’d seen it in movies and figured the people with their tongues out at dorm Mass were traddy types who were welcome to their own pious observances. I’ve never been one to be more drawn to something simply because it’s traditional, though the testimony of centuries of Christians does often call me to examine a practice more closely. But something about this was nagging at me. I felt as though receiving on the tongue was something I should try. And I did NOT want to.
That got my attention really quickly. Why didn’t I want to? Was it just the awkwardness of sticking my tongue out at a priest? The fear of licking someone’s finger? Nothing I could think of was a reason not to try receiving the way so many Saints had, the way I was feeling led to. So I tried it and I never went back. It’s not because I have unconsecrated hands or because I’m worried about sacred crumbs. It’s not because receiving on the tongue is the norm and receiving in the hand is a concession, though that’s compelling too.1 It’s actually a little odd–but so is eating the flesh of God.
1. I need more awkward helplessness in my life. Until I started hoboing (or maybe just until I gave away my car and had to depend on others for rides for 3 years) I was about the most self-sufficient person you could find. I was intelligent and independent and privileged and my life was totally under control.
The trouble with that is that my life wasn’t under my control at all. Nobody’s is. I lived with the illusion of control and it made me into my own God. When he asked me to receive on the tongue, he was asking me to be helpless before him, to be a passive recipient instead of the master of my own destiny. The reluctance to receive on the tongue was largely a fear of presenting myself helpless before another person, helpless before my God. Every time I receive with my hands folded in prayer, there’s a slight feeling of weakness and surrender. It reminds me that in eating the flesh and blood of Christ I’m surrendering myself to death for him who gave himself for me. It’s yet another way that I try to let him be Lord of my life. For me, receiving in the hands just doesn’t have that symbolism.
2. I’m kissing my bridegroom. This is really what pulled me to change my approach to communion in the first place. I’d been praying about how Jesus was the bridegroom and I was his bride, meditating on the fact that I walk down to the aisle to receive my bridegroom in the most intimate way possible. Communion felt like an embrace to me and receiving in the hand was too sterile. I needed the intimacy of the kiss to remind me just what was happening. I’m not saying that receiving in the hand is a handshake in comparison to the kiss of receiving on the tongue, but it began to feel that way to me. At the risk of sharing too much, I needed to approach my lover with my eyes closed and my lips parted. The Eucharist is that intimate whether I notice it or not but I prefer to notice it.
3.The tongue is extremely sensitive. In ten years of receiving in the hand, I don’t think I once had a meditation prompted by the way the priest handed me the host. He put it in my hands, I walked away. Simple enough. But if you receive on the tongue, you know there are a thousand ways it can feel different and the Holy Spirit speaks to me through that.
In the first few months after I switched over, it always felt as though Jesus was being pressed firmly onto my tongue. Then one day I was at Mass struggling with how hard everything in my life seemed to be. When I went to communion, the host was placed so gently on my tongue that it was like the softest kiss, my Jesus telling me that life wasn’t all hard if I was so sweetly loved by Love. Another time the EM barely touched my tongue and I had to grab at Jesus with my teeth and pull him into my mouth lest he drop. He reminded me that sometimes I have to run after him and cling to him. Sometimes a deacon will see my hands folded over my heart and think I want a blessing. Even that awkwardness reminds me how much I want Jesus, enough that my heart sinks when I think I might be deprived. Call me a Pietist but I enjoy having feelings when I pray and if doing something that the Church recommends draws my heart deeper in o prayer, I’m all about it.
There are plenty of better reasons to receive on the tongue than these. I certainly think that when it’s parish practice it reduces sacrilege.2 And I think personal practice increases reverence, if only because it feels so odd that it’s hard to ignore the fact that you’re doing something remarkable.
Of course, none of this is to say that you must receive on the tongue. I’m not even saying that you ought to or that it’s inherently better. If the Church says we can receive in the hand then we can and that’s just fine.3 But I’ve experienced great grace through the awkwardness of sticking my tongue out at clerics. Maybe give it a shot?
- If you’re interested in the topic, click through. It’s a good read. [↩]
- Non-Catholics often go up and receive because they don’t know better. It makes sense to stand in line and then hold out your hand for something. But if everyone’s opening their mouth for something, they may think twice about that. Besides, people who are stealing the host for foul purposes would have to carry it in their mouths at least until they get out of church and then deal with a saliva-soaked host, which I would hope would be unappetizing enough to deter at least a few. [↩]
- And I still do on rare occasion, like when I think I’m about to sneeze. [↩]