Some Lutherans probably snicker because there is a great debate in Rome about receiving the Host on the hand or on the tongue. After all, this is exactly the kind of legalist ceremonial that Lutherans objected to already in the Augustana, right? In the same way, Lutherans delight in smugness over the issue of restoring the cup to the laity only they don't use the cup -- too messy -- and so they have replaced the cup with many cups. How foolish Rome is to make an issue of such things, right?
Those in Rome are not promoting a different preference but actually targeting the way the real presence has been treated casually and they believe that the method of distribution actually has contributed to the irreverence regarding the presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Their complaint has less to do with some idea of priestly authority than it does with fact the more Roman Catholics than ever do not believe that Christ is really present in the elements of the Sacrament or, if they do, do not seem to be concerned about the reverence due that presence.
These Roman curmudgeons who have the nerve to complain about communion in the hand are routinely dismissed by the so-called ancient evidence of the practice (St. Cyril of Jerusalem described communion in the e hand and St. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and St. Ambrose seem to suggest that it was the norm at that time). Antiquity is enough to have justified the change, they insist. Of course, there is no question that at some point the practice was re-evaluated and changed so that by the 7th or 8th century, communion on the tongue was the norm. Antiquity is important but not everything that was done in the ancient church has survived nor should it. In this case, I wonder if there is not something to their complaint.
When I was a child no one would have presumed to offer their hand for the Sacrament and Pastors Oesch, Guebert, and Durdell would never have placed the host in the hand. It would have been unthinkable. The reverence for the Sacrament would have prevented the laity from extending the hand and the pastors from placing the host into the hand. For most of that time the Sacrament was offered quarterly and only to those who prepared by the confessional service offered days prior to the reception of the Sacrament. No one would have presumed to have offered a shot glass (sorry, could not resist) as their personal communion cup. The sterling silver chalice purchased in 1914 was the only means of receiving the Sacrament and reverence for the Sacrament would have prevented any suggestion of anything else. Now, 50-60 years later, people routinely extend their hands and individual cups are offered in that same place. Can it be said that the reverence for the sacramental presence has remained the same? I wish.
In both parishes I have served, individual cups were the only forms offered and everyone expected to receive in the hand. I reintroduced the chalice to parishes who had long before given it up. They saw my own family receive on the tongue and some began to follow. Now about half those communing receive from the chalice and about a third receive on the tongue. When I came to both places, the consecrated hosts were mixed with the unconsecrated and the consecrated wine in the cruet poured back into the bottle -- something Luther would have found horrifying. Reverence for the Sacrament had declined. It had to be taught again. It is every Sunday. Not only in words but in example. When a spill has occurred and the people see their pastor in vestments on his knees carefully cleaning up the spill, it is clear that this bread and this cup are worthy of the reverence due Christ Himself since they are His flesh and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.
Can we blame individual cups or communion on the hand for this disrespect of the Sacrament? Probably not. Do the ordinary use of individual cups and communion on the hand contribute to such disrespect of the Sacrament? Probably so. When I was a child, there were things in my home and in the home of my grandparents that were off limits. They were not to be touched or played with -- at least not by me and my cousins. There was respect expected and respect given to the value of these things -- even though such value was not automatically seen or understood by me at the time. Out of respect for my parents and grandparents, these things were untouchable.
By the time history got to St. Thomas Aquinas, communion on the tongue was normative for the Latin Church, and he gave a clear theological reason:
Out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency. (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3)In the end, this is not about rules that need to be laid down but about teaching. It is not about priestly superiority but about humility and respect. It comes not from fear but from faith. Some of you will probably snicker at me and suggest that if I think so much like Rome I should start swimming. Those of you who think this way should read the accounts of Luther's own adamant respect for the Body and Blood of Christ, his sanction of those who treated the consecrated and unconsecrated elements the same, and who never gave the Sacrament on the tongue or via an individual glass and never would. It was for him as it is for us, a matter of faith, respect for the Sacrament, and humility before the awesome gift of the Lord in the Eucharist. Can you honestly say that communion in the hand and the introduction of individual cups has had no effect upon reverence for the Sacrament or has not been part of the irreverence and disrespect for the Sacrament that has become the norm?
Practice accompanies doctrine and doctrine shapes practice. At least that is how it ought to be. Lutherans once used hand patens and houseling cloths to prevent crumbs from falling to the ground. Now they are as foreign to Lutheranism as monstrances or humeral veils. I certainly don't advocate for introducing the monstrance or humeral veil but I wonder if a hand paten or houseling cloth just might shock us into respect for the presence of Christ given us in bread and wine. Something ought to! At least when the majority of Protestants use these practices it is because they believe you receive nothing but a snack in the Eucharist. If we believe something different from them, should not our practice also be different?