In the 13 years I have been a practicing Catholic, I have been a traditionalist all but two of them. As a result, I have received communion on the tongue and kneeling for eleven years. I’ve also found that the way we traditionalists receive communion is something that many Catholics outside of the Extraordinary Form can and want to do as well, but many of them never hear the reasons why we do so. When they do hear something, it is a stock answer that it was the way done for centuries, the change to communion in the hand was of dubious legality, it promotes “reverence for the Eucharist”, etc.
I think these answers are true but unsatisfying. They normally serve only to appeal to the person already doing it. These defenses also only exist in a world where communion in the hand and communion on the tongue exist in opposition to each other. This really isn’t the experience most Catholics have. Instead of this, we need to offer them a reason why communion on the tongue and kneeling is appropriate on its own terms. When we examine the Sacred Scripture and the nature of this symbolism, such reasons are abundant.
When John Paul II gave his addresses that became the Catechesis on Human Love, one of the most salient points was that we can’t speak of things we do “in the body” or “in the spirit”, since the body and spirit together comprise the human person. When we sin, we sin through our bodies and through our spirit. Both are wounded by sin, and both must be redeemed (Romans 8:23), and eventually reunited. (1 Cor 15:41-54) This redemption is made possible through the Sacrifice of the Cross (CC601), and as the Catechism of St. Pius X teaches us (Article 4:19), the fruit of Christ’s sacrifice is applied to us in a very special way by the sacraments.
How This Impacts the Body
As a child I loved (and still love) The X-Men, especially their leader Professor Charles Xavier. He was an incredibly powerful mutant with telepathic abilities. He could communicate with people just by using his mind. We humans aren’t that lucky. We have to communicate by our words and our actions. We often hear the cliché actions speak louder than words, and this is especially true in regards to how we live out the Catholic faith. (James 2:24) St. Paul speaks about how we need to use our actions to control our bodies. (1 Cor 9:27) This lesson applies in a profound way to how we receive Holy Communion. When we approach Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Catholics today either bow or kneel. Bowing implies (at least in Western culture) reverence. For traditionalists, we try to take it one step further. Here kneeling implies subjection. You need to use your whole body to kneel at the communion rail. This is the way we bring our own bodies into subjection, since it is the nature of the flesh to seek its own pleasure and desires. (Matt 26:41)
We also kneel at the rail as a sign of our sinfulness. In the Catholic liturgy the sanctuary represents the heavenly liturgy, and the communion rail represents the line between heaven and earth. Another separation that is signified is the timelessness of the offering on the Cross being presented to the Father in heaven (in the sanctuary) and the fallible limitations of time here on earth. For God, all things are present (CCC 600), yet for man, we measure things through time.
Holy Communion becomes the meeting of all of these things. The infinite is given in the finite, the eternal given in the temporal, and heaven and earth are joined. For our part, we approach as close as we can to heaven seeking God’s grace, but we cannot enter into heaven yet due to our fallen nature. Instead, we must wait with humility and patience for Christ to come and transform us. Our reception of Holy Communion is a small participation of that transformation that will happen in the fullest at the end of time.
How This Impacts the Soul
While we might sin with the body, all sin begins in the interior, that is, in the soul. As Jesus points out, it isn’t what we take into us that will defile us spiritually, but what proceeds from our fallen natures that is defiled. (Matthew 15:10-20) Within each and every soul lie many disordered tendencies that only we know about, and some we don’t even know about. This is why salvation is a gift freely bestowed on God. Left to our own devices, even our faith will not be sufficiently pleasing to God to merit salvation. (Council of Trent, Session VI, Chapter VIII)
When we receive Holy Communion, the life of Christ is infused into our soul, and combined with great faith, the defilement of our fallen nature is cleansed, and we become less and less attached to those things. As a result, we who were predestined by God become slowly conformed to the image of His Son in time. (Romans 8:29-30) If we let the grace of God work within us through good works (Ephesians 2:8-10), we can truly say at the end of time it is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me (Galatians 2:20) and Christ can say well done faithful servant! (Matthew 25:23)
Once we have been purified by Christ in this heavenly experience, we can then bring His Gospel to the world. When we receive communion on the tongue, we are calling to mind not just the words of Christ above, but also the prophet Isaiah. While we all know his prophesy of the suffering servant, we seldom talk about how his prophetic ministry entered a new stage in the book of Isaiah Chapter 6.
When King Uzziah died, the young prophet had a vision of Heaven, specifically what heavenly worship looks like. He saw the Seraphim proclaiming the Sanctus and the altar of sacrifice. Isaiah’s reaction is one Peter would proclaim in front of Jesus centuries later: depart from me, I am a sinful man. (Luke 5:8) At this point something peculiar happens. One of the Seraphim go to the altar and take a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice and approach the prophet. The burning coal is then placed on Isaiah’s lips. (Another way of saying that is placing the burning coal on the tongue.) At this point the angel proclaims his sins forgiven, and God selects Isaiah as His chosen messenger of redemption and judgment to His people Israel.
When we receive communion, we kneel before the heavenly worship service going on in the sanctuary, and have the burning coal of Holy Communion placed on our tongue, which purifies not just our lips but our whole being, both soul and body. Once we have been purified, we hear the Ite Missa Est, or a command to go preach the Gospel. We become God’s chosen messengers not just to Israel, but to the entire world, making disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19)
The best part about all of this is you don’t need the Latin Mass to do this. You can do this in whatever liturgy you attend. It also serves as a powerful reminder of how we live our faith through the body.