Many years ago an older man from a neighboring parish came to see me. He was distraught and troubled. He said, “Father, one of the priests at my parish told me I that my hands weren’t clean enough to receive communion, and that I should come back after I had washed them. Father, I’m a mechanic, and I work with my hands. I did wash them, but apparently they weren’t clean enough.” He then showed me his hands. He concluded by saying: “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Did I do something wrong?” His hands were indeed gnarled, and displayed the signs of years of manual labor. They also bore the telltale traces of grease and grime.
As I looked at the man’s hands, I thought of St. Joseph. As a carpenter his hands must also have been gnarled, and most likely callused and stained from working with wood. And yet they were the same hands that carried and caressed the infant Jesus. They were the same hands that held and hugged Jesus as a child. They were the same hands that guided Jesus’ hands as he learned to use the plane and chisel. And I suspect Jesus held Joseph’s hands as Joseph was dying. With this image in my mind, I talked with the man about St. Joseph’s hands. I told him that Jesus knew that calloused and stained hands were not the measure of a person’s piety or what was in their heart.
I am continually surprised that there are there are many good and well intentioned people who think it is their responsibility and role to publicly determine who can receive communion and/or how they should receive it. Many years ago when I was in the seminary I attended a lecture on Ecumenism. The priest who spoke was not someone who would have been identified as being “liberal.” He was very kind person, though and quite articulate about our Church’s dogmas, doctrines, and teachings. As importantly, he was able to represent our Catholic beliefs well in an Ecumenical dialogue. During the question and answer period following his talk an individual asked when it was appropriate to deny someone communion. The priest’s answer surprised me. He said: “You don’t know what has happened in that person’s life in the last ten minutes. If you have a concern, you mention it privately.” He was clear that publicly refusing to give someone communion is seldom, if ever, appropriate.
We are told that in his life and ministry Jesus associated with tax collectors and sinners. He was also known to spent time with foreigners and other outcasts from society. Jesus also touched lepers and others who had been marginalized or ostracized because of an illness or other physical malady. Jesus was indiscriminate in regard to whom he touched and with whom he spent time. He accepted people as they were, whoever they were.
In addition to hanging around with some questionable people during his life on earth, Jesus continued this practice when he gave us the gift of himself in the Eucharist. It is in and through the Eucharist that Jesus continues to abide with us as individuals and with our Church. None of us is worthy of this great gift. No one earns the right to receive the Eucharist. And no one has the right to determine the worthiness of someone else to receive the Eucharist.
On the Feast of Christmas, I can’t help but think of St. Joseph holding the infant Jesus immediately after Jesus’ birth. In his callused and stained hands he held the savior of the world. I suspect that Joseph intuitively knew that Jesus wouldn’t object to anyone who held and received him with love and devotion. Like Joseph, may we who hold and receive Jesus today never forget this fundamental and abiding truth.