One of the joys of ministry is bringing communion to people who are sick, old, or otherwise frail or unable to come to church. I bring communion to people in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, and their houses. There are two main purposes of a communion visit, and which of these purposes is more prominent varies depending on the person and the situation.
The first purpose is, of course, to bring the Holy Sacrament to people who cannot come to church on Sunday to receive it at the altar rail. I could spend pages and pages (many Christian writers and saints have) discussing the inherent benefits of receiving the Body and Blood. It confers blessing, grace and healing. To partake of it is to partake of God, of Heaven, and to be transformed within by its power. In the Episcopal Church, we do believe this is “real,” and for many of the people to whom I bring communion in homes, beds and hospital rooms, this real power matters. They consider themselves to be changed by communion, to be better off after receiving it than before. Receiving the Sacrament of the Body and Blood is very important to these people because of what the Sacrament itself actually is and actually does.
There are other people for whom the Sacrament itself is not as important. For these folks, receiving communion is a good reason to have a visit. They enjoy seeing another person, chatting for awhile, feeling connected with the community, feeling cared about and included, and receiving the latest news from church. It’s not that the Body and Blood don’t matter to them (it does). It’s more that the Body and Blood is a secondary benefit to the thing they actually crave which is company and companionship. After all, sick and old people are often quite lonely. For some, the grace and blessing is found in fellowship, and it is the community that they miss most when they can’t come to Church.
For most people to whom I bring communion, their reasons for wanting a communion visit include a little of both of these things. Whatever someone is longing to receive, whether it be the sacramental blessing of the Body and Blood or simply companionship and relationship, the benefit is real and is healing. Either way, the visit and its “purpose” is Sacramental. Either way, the person is receiving love, blessing and succor (to use one of my favorite old-fashioned words) from the Body of Christ, from Christ’s flesh and blood. For the flesh and blood of Christ comes to the person in two forms on communion visits. One is, of course, in the consecrated bread and wine. But the other is in the physical presence of the person who is visiting, who is there as a flesh-and-blood representative of the Body of Christ which is the Church. A visitor literally brings the presence of the Body of Christ to the home-bound or hospital-bound in the form of his or her own body, his or her own flesh and blood. (This, by the way, is true whether or not the visitor is a priest.) And the sacrament of fellowship, of relationship, the sacrament of being part of a community, is no less holy, mysterious, and profound than the sacrament of consecrated bread and wine. They both transform a person. They both heal. They both bring blessing and succor. They are both about the reality of love. They are both a foretaste of what Heaven is like.