“Take” or “Receive”? Communion in the hand

Detail of Institution of the Eucharist by Barroci in S.M. sopra Minerva, RomeWhen the suggestion arises that Communion in the hand ought to be rethought, with a view of eliminating the practice, many people immediately make statements like, "What’s wrong?  Aren’t I worthy?"  or "Why is my tongue any better than my hand?" or "Jesus said ‘take and eat!".  Eventually, all these positions boil down to one thing: "It’s all about me… the focus in Communion is on me."  Sure, people can and do receive Communion in a reverent way via the hand.  However, the practice itself undermines an important distinction between what is sacred and what is "profane" (properly understood).  These concepts need to be reclaimed and reintegrated into our fundamental world view as Catholics.   This is one of the reasons why I started the WDTPRS series in the first place: to bring people into closer contact with the actual content of the prayers, to take them beyond the banal translations and fairly empty phrases of the translations now in use.  The same can be said for some other contemporary liturgical practices.  With these few things in mind, let’s go ahead.

The following is an excerpt from an article originally printed in 2004 in The Wanderer. 

This was part of an article on the consecration formula in the Roman Canon.

This brings us to the verb accipio which is of signal importance.  Accipio connotes in its basic meaning “to accept”.   With that fundamental content, it can signify “to take a person or thing to one’s self”.  Thus, it is “to take possession of”.  It will also mean “to take by hearing” and “to comprehend, understand” as in when in English “if I take you right”, or “I get you”.   There are some other meanings also.  Because the source of the text of the consecration is the words of Jesus, we must take account of the Biblical accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, in Greek.  Accipio translates into Latin the Greek verb lambanô which also has the two-fold meaning of both “take” and “receive”.  In Biblical contexts, such as in the version in Matthew of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, lambanô also carries the two-fold meaning.  Which must we choose?

Accipio/lamban­ô is twice used in our passage from the consecration of the Mass just as it is more than once in Gospel account of the Last Supper in  Matthew 26 and in 1 Cor 11.   When you consult dictionaries for the Greek New Testament prepared by Protestants the first meaning given to lamban­ô is usually “to take”.  When you check those prepared by Catholics usually in the first place you find “to receive”.  To cut through the middle men of modern languages I went to a New Testament dictionary moving from Greek to Latin, prepared by a Jesuit, Francis Zorell, during the reign of the Pius XI of blessed memory and then redone in 1961.  This dictionary would represent the fruits of much of the first stages of modern biblical scholarship, but would have been published and then updated just before the major controversies spurred by the Second Vatican Council.   In the entry for the lemma form lamban­ô the first meaning is accipio in the “almost passive… fere passive” sense of receiving a thing which is given.  It is in this meaning that the dictionary cites the verses concerning the Last Supper account, Paul’s account in 1 Cor, and the Gospel of John 6:11 when Jesus took the loaves of bread that were given for Him before He miraculously multiplied them as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic Last Supper and the celestial Banquet of the life to come. 

Applying some common sense to this vocabulary, and the two-fold use of the same verb, I think it is not without merit to argue that the first use, accepit, indicates Christ simply taking bread into His hands: He reached out and picked it up with His hands.  In the second use, the imperative accipite, is the command to take the bread He is extending in an “almost passive” sense, the sense of receiving – which still remains an act of physically taking it in some way.   Let us think about who is doing what.  Who is involved?  In the first instance of the verb accipio, the subject is Jesus Christ, Son of God made flesh, Creator and Redeemer.   In the second use the subject is the group of gathered Apostles.   The first use of accipio is conditioned by how the God Man, the Creator, takes things from creation. The second use echoes the way we creatures take things from God.   While we have an active component on both sides of the accipio coin, certainly we can lend to God a greater sense of the active and to us more of a passive dimension.   At the Last Supper and in the Mass Jesus takes/takes and we receive/take.   Read accipio (applied to us) in light of the Greek of Paul’s observation: “What do you have that you did not receive  (tí éxeis, hò ouk élabes from lamban­ô of course)  And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7 – RSV)

Why is this important?  How often today do we hear the Communion in the hand debate?   The Greek of the Gospel and Paul’s letter, and the Latin of the consecration in the Mass cannot, I believe, justify Communion in the hand simply because in English we can translate both occurances of accipio in the formula of consecration as “took…take”.  There is, as I demonstrate above, “take/take” and “receive/take”.   At the same time, lest you get all excited, this passage does not absolutely confirm only Communion directly on the tongue.  The manner of taking/receiving is not specific in the verb though some will argue that lambanô can mean “take with the hand” (and it can!).  I would note in passing that when at the Last Supper Jesus gave food to Judas, it had been dipped in liquid and thus would have been placed directly into Judas’ mouth, certainly not his hand.  However, without question the narrative/consecration of the Host at Mass coveys a sense of “direction”: from God and to us.   God takes.  We receive, whether by taking it or by having it imposed in some way. 

We are living in very difficult times.  In wealthy countries there is a pervasive undercurrent of selfishness and self-centeredness.  We live in a time when “I… me… my… mine…” permeates the common worldview.  Have we come to the point also in which we as comfortable Catholics are saying, “Gimme!” in reference to the Eucharist?    Of course, you say, “I now take!” need not be “Gimme!”  But observe.  If anything were needed today, it seems to me, is a way of underscoring even to the extent of using even dramatic physical gestures, what we believe taking/reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord really is for us.   In a time when to kneel is considered lowly, then kneeling is a dramatic gesture.  It is counter-cultural.  It is a “sign of contradiction” in the face of  “I… me… my… mine….”  By kneeling my body cries out: “You…. You… Your… Your….” 

In about A.D. 413 St. Augustine of Hippo preached on Easter morning to the neophytes baptized during the night.  They are about to receive Communion for the second time.  Listen to Augustine!  He has long been battling the Donatists, rigorists who insist upon a Church of the pure only.  Donatists have set up their schismatic altars against legitimate Catholics altars, which the new Catholics are now able to participate in:

You must know what you have received (accepistis), what you ought to receive (accipere) daily!  That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God is the Body of Christ.  That chalice, or rather what the chalice contains, sanctified through the Word of God is the Blood of Christ.  By means of these the Lord Christ wanted to entrust (to us) His own Body and Blood, which for us He poured out for the remission of sins.  Si bene accepistis, vos estis quod accepistis … If you have received this well, then you are what you have received!  For the Apostle said: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body…” (cf. 1 Cor 10:17 – RSV).  In this bread, the way in which you ought to love unity is being entrusted to you!” (s. 227).

I offer with urgency this ancient morsel, full of meaning, savory even now, to the mouth of any who resists unity in the Catholic Church.  If you will avoid brethren and shepherds, or set altar against altar, or (quod Deus avertat!) leave Catholics altars of Sacrifice where unity is most perfectly made manifest, the stay or leave, but what you will chose to do, do quickly.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Charles R. Williams says:

    To be fed like a baby emphasizes our dependence.

    The older practice can be gradually restored through good catechesis.

    It should be taught that the normal way to receive is on the tongue. Also, it is permitted to receive in the hand in the US and some other places in the world but that when they leave this country they may be expected to follow the normal practice. Children should be taught how to receive on the tongue as well.

    In good parishes the universal practice is gradually coming back.

    The practice of intinction also requires receiving on the tongue and this can be encouraged especially at daily mass.

  2. Kathy says:

    Father, I don’t understand the connection between the last paragraph of this post and the earlier parts of it. You seem to be arguing for one possible reading of this word. But in the end you seem to be insisting that anyone who disagrees with your reading is schismatic. I truly do not understand why you would say that!!

  3. Henry Edwards says:

    The practice of intinction also requires receiving on the tongue and this can be encouraged especially at daily mass.

    Early last month I attended a Latin Novus Ordo Mass at our local Catholic high school. Shortly before it, the priest came out to announce that he had acquired a new intinction set that would be used that day for the first time. Hence communion would be by intinction, on the tongue only, as “a fuller sign of the Blessed Sacrament in the Roman rite” (as he put it). I think it not merely my imagination that at that moment the atmosphere in the room changed palpably; the kids — most of whom likely had never received on the tongue — had previously seemed perhaps a bit restive on their first day back in school after the Christmas break.

    This “fuller sign” really came home to me when I heard the words “The Body and Blood of Christ” as I approached; receiving the two species together seemed somehow very special.

    Afterwards, several teachers and adult visitors tarried to discuss the fact that intinction and reception on the tongue by all present had seemed to create a very positive dynamic and a new sense of reverence among the gathered students.

  4. Henry, that paragraph you are puzzled about was merely PART of a larger article. Also, Augustine was talking to Donatists in that citation. I was using that to take hard core traditionalists to task.

  5. Henry Edwards says:

    Father Z, it was Kathy (rather than me) who was puzzled about that paragraph, which I knew to be originally the words of St. Augstine (rather than you).

  6. Then it was good we were available to explain it to her! >VBG< You would hope that those who aspire to degrees would read the texts more carefully.

  7. Kathy says:

    Why was the text color changed before the end of the quotation? And why was the citation given before the end of the quotation? In my degree program, we are taught to be much more careful than this when we write to avoid misunderstandings.

  8. David says:

    I am always disheartened by the apparent assumption that the actions I choose
    reveal my heart. To assume that because I receive in my hand I have succumbed
    selfishness of the age, even when receiving the Eucharist, is not fair. To assume
    that my heart is somehow not properly disposed when I approach the Sacrament
    to receivve with an open hand makes a judgement that only god can make. for how can a man know another man’s heart?

  9. Kathy: This is a piece on a blog, not YOUR research paper given at YOUR Stateside school. Furthermore, this is an extract from a newspaper column, posted on a blog. Morever, I did not submit this for your grade. You might however, approach this from another point of view and say, “Gee, thanks, Father! I didn’t know those things! I had never heard about them before! Thanks for having spent years of hard work to learn those things so that you could write them and then share them so that I, a beginning theology student, could read them for free and at my leisure!”

    Moreover, again I must add that this is not really all about you. You are no doubt sniping at me because of my comment to HENRY, which I aimed at myself, not at you. Why? I did not at first notice that you had brought up the issue rather than Henry.

    At any rate, Kathy, giving the small time I am permitted to allow to this service, I would prefer to spend it on more substantive issues. Perhaps we can return now to the substance of the discussion?

    Thanks for continuing to look in here, even though it might be not quite up to your school’s stylesheet! >VBG

  10. David: As I said to Kathy, the posts in this blog are not all about you. They are food for thought, probably offering a point of view you haven’t considered. I think people should be informed and that they, in good will toward the Most Holy Mysteries, give them due reflection.

  11. Kathy says:

    Fr. Zuhlsdorg, I do appreciate the work you are doing, especially with the translations.

    However, I won’t be spending very much time here in the future because of the strained tone of discussion. Thanks for the good information, though.

  12. Kathy: The tone is what you made of it, frankly. I sure hope after my comments on my style errors you didn’t purposely misspell my name! >VBG!!

  13. Kathy says:

    Sorry, no, it wasn’t on purpose, Fr. Zuhlsdorf. Just a misstroke.

    No, tone is more than what one makes of it. I’ve been told “it’s not all about you” three times so far on your blog. That’s an unusual degree of defensiveness.

    Keep up the good work, Father!

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