The Communion rite of the Mass begins with the Lord’s Prayer and ends when the priest concludes with the prayer after Communion. The rite is made up of four basic gestures or expressions: the Lord’s Prayer, the peace greeting, the breaking of the bread, and the reception of Communion. One powerful moment that is often overlooked in this sequence of events is our manner of approaching the holy table to receive Communion.
But before we approach the altar we are invited. The invitation has often been overlooked or ignored. It would not be appropriate, even for special ministers of the eucharist, to approach the altar until the invitation is given. The invitation, in its new translation, is the announcement, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” Our response to the invitation comes with an unfortunate translation. Our “Lord I am not worthy” reflects none of the trustful confidence of the original Latin words. The clever Latin original is almost impossible to reproduce in English with the original’s overtones of confidence and hope. What the Latin really means is “Happy indeed are we, for though we are sinners, you call us to your table.”
We approach the altar in a liturgical procession. In other words, we are not just lining up to wait our turn, like people in line at a supermarket check-out stand. Rather we are a part of one of the four liturgical processions of the Mass: the entrance procession, the procession with the book of gospels, the procession with the gifts of bread and wine, and the Communion procession (note that the liturgical books do not really stress any liturgical procession out of the church at the end of the liturgy). In my own parish we begin the Communion procession with the people who are in the back of the church rather than with those in the front. This seems to make for a better appearance of a long, joyous procession, and also provides for a smoother flow of the procession towards the holy table.
A procession is a ritual way of getting from one place to another, and doing so with a particular mood. A funeral procession is rather somber, but the Communion procession is joyous (“Happy are those who are called...”), and its joyous nature is expressed particularly in song. Liturgical directives about music tell us that the Communion procession song is not supposed to foster a sense of adoration but rather a sense of unity - a sense that we are approaching the eucharistic table not as isolated individuals but as a united community. To further acknowledge this unity in Christ, we remain standing until all have received Communion and the priest returns to his seat. Those of us older Catholics are tempted to return to our places and launch into our private prayers of thanksgiving, as we were taught from early childhood. But we are all a part of the procession, and the procession is not finished until all have returned to their seats. Then when the priest has taken his seat, people may sit or kneel for a period of silent prayer. The Communion rite is not first of all about a personal encounter we are having with Christ in the eucharist, but rather it is about sharing the eucharistic presence of the risen Christ. The Communion rite is designed to convey a sense that sharing at the eucharistic table is an anticipation of sharing the eternal banquet in the kingdom of heaven.