One year after I was ordained in 1998 the revised IGMR was approved by the Vatican. Within this document was a directive about our posture prior to and after receiving communion. The directive stated “The assembly is to stand from the prayer over the gifts, through the Sanctus. The assembly is to kneel after the Sanctus, stand after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer and then remain standing until the end of mass.” Our Bishop’s directive to every parish in the diocese was to remain standing from the sign of peace until the end of communion. Our parish implemented the changes as soon as the Bishop’s guidelines were published.
Needless to say, some of the parishes surrounding us were not so quick to change and some simply ignored the bishop’s directive. Today, you will find that this rule is being followed in some dioceses and is not in others. Since this directive came out from the Vatican, one would wonder why it was not universally adopted. However if you read the document it is clear that the Vatican left the decision to implement rule #21 up to the local Bishop. Let me quote one Vatican official who said this about the new rule “what is standard practice in one country is not standard in another. This rule was meant to be descriptive not proscriptive.” Therefore in the end there was not a universally prescribed posture during the distribution of communion.
I only bring this up to point out that we have over time placed a standard of spirituality on one’s posture in church. Holiness is somehow connected with silence, genuflecting, kneeling, hands joined in a certain position, etc. Yet none of those things can indicate what is in our hearts while we are doing them. Thérèse of Lisieux said she was in union with God while washing clothes. Kneeling by a stream, pounding clothes on a rock would not be considered a posture of reverence. Yet it was while doing just that where she was completely in the presence of God. Thérèse did speak about judging others when she said this about the saints, “we must see their real, and not their imagined lives.” She confirms that we cannot really judge someone’s inner self by looking only at what they are doing.
What is central to our spirituality is a total surrender of one’s life to God and how we do that can be as varied as we are as people. Yet it is not unusual within many of our churches that “an individual’s spirituality” is judged by their conformity to some perceived acceptable standard of what is holy. Many would state that kneeling is more reverent after receiving communion than is standing. Or that communion should be received on the tongue rather than in the hand. Let’s not even talk about music for example traditional vs worship. We judge a parish by how many candles are on the altar; or the use of bells vs no bells; or pews with kneelers versus no kneelers?
During his ministry Christ challenged these external issues. Remember the woman at the well? She wanted to discuss where Jew’s versus Samaritans worshiped. Jesus ignored this external focus and talked to her about her interior self and offered her living water. Remember the Pharisees who were appalled that his disciples ate bread without washing their hands (Mt. 15:2)? Jesus responded by chastising them for “transgressing the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition” (Mt. 15:3). He continued by saying that it is what comes from the inside that makes us unclean (Mt. 15:18). He constantly reminded us that it is the interior disposition that is important in the eyes of God.
In matters of faith there will always be those who examine every external nuance of faith. Then they will judge those who do not conform to their standard as acceptable or inferior. Today’s first reading and the gospel remind us not to look at externals when it comes to our faith. In matters of faith Christ showed us that there is no other way but to have our hearts centered on serving God. Our faith is to be centered on Jesus Christ; centered on the loving action of God who desires to be in a relationship with us and on the Holy Spirit who is given to us to lead us deeper and deeper into the heart of God.
This is exactly what we see in Joshua’s challenge to the Israelites to be faithful to God. He is reminding them that there will be external pressures to conform. But he reminds them that there is only one God and “as for me and my household I will follow the Lord.” It is this same commitment to follow the Lord that we see in the gospel today. In response to the crisis of faith that followed Jesus’ declaration about eating his body and drinking his blood many were upset. Those followers who left saw the miracles, heard his preaching and listened to his teaching were fixed on the externals. They were ok watching and observing but when it came to something that took an internal change of heart they would not change.
Peter and the others did not understand “eating flesh or drinking blood” either but they chose to believe. So what was it that made the difference in their response? I believe the difference is that those who left were looking at externals to motivate their faith in Jesus. Peter and the other disciples saw Jesus challenge the externals for a deeper reality. They decided to follow Jesus even though everything he did challenged their deeply held traditions and practices.
Paul tells us that days are coming when people will “make a pretense of religion but deny the power of it” (2Tim. 3:5). Our faith is in Jesus Christ restoring us as son’ and daughters of the living God. We are challenged today to abandon propriety to follow the Lord. As for me and my household I will follow the Lord. Will you stand today and tell the Lord “you have the words of eternal life, to whom shall we go.”