Preparing to receive Holy Communion
The most important element in the spiritual renewal of the Orthodox Christian is the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It is the one sacrament that transcends all other sacraments. When we receive Holy Communion we receive Jesus Himself into us. So great is this mystery that we are left without any possible response which would express what God has done. Therefore, we offer the only answer we can, ‘Thank you’.
The Greek word for Thanksgiving is “Eucharisto”. We refer to Holy Communion as “the Eucharist” and offer thanksgiving to God for this great mystery whereby God not only sanctifies the bread and wine, but also changes them into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The bread and wine do not change into the body and blood of Jesus Christ until the blessing and thanksgiving has been completed. This happens at every Divine Liturgy. “We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee, O Lord, and we pray to Thee, O our God”. While the choir sings the above hymn, the priest prays for the descent of the Holy Sprit, who transforms the elements on the altar into the body and blood of Christ.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you… For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed” (John 6:53, 55).
Therefore, if receiving the Eucharist is receiving Jesus, we must take care to approach the Eucharist in a proper manner. The way we approach this awesome mystery determines whether our participation will be a blessing in our lives, or whether we are condemning ourselves.
- Fasting is a spiritual discipline which was and is intended to enhance our participation in the Eucharist – it is not to be seen as an excuse to keep away from the Chalice. Fasting is a discipline which is not restricted only to food. It is more than simply not eating. It is also not lying, stealing, cheating, committing adultery, gossiping, quarrelling etc. We must abstain from all forms of evil. To think that by only setting a few days aside to omit certain foods from our diet makes us worthy to receive the Eucharist is to be spiritually naive.
- It is not uncommon to hear Orthodox Christians say they are fasting on Wednesday and Friday because they plan to take Communion at Sunday Liturgy. In reality, the practice of Wednesday and Friday fasting has never been purposefully linked to participation in the Eucharist. Orthodox Christians are required to fast on those two days of the week regardless if they are going to take Holy Communion or not. [The Holy Apostles Sixty-Ninth Canon of the Church]. This same Canon requires that fasting be maintained throughout Great Lent also. No mention is made of the Eucharist. In other words, regular fasting must be a way of life.
- Many Orthodox Christians extend the Wednesday and Friday fast to Saturday. They reason that if they fast on Wednesday and Friday in preparation for the Eucharist on Sunday, it does not seem right not to fast on Saturday, the day prior to receiving Communion. However, in so doing, they violate the sixty fourth Canon of the Holy Apostles which specifically forbids ever fasting on Saturday, the day God rested after creation. Exceptions to this Canon – Holy Saturday and a few other major feast days should they fall on a Saturday.
- The Eucharistic Fast involves total abstinence from any food or drink in the morning prior to receiving the Eucharist. If therefore, you keep the Eucharistic Fast, and there exists no moral reason for you to stay away from Chalice, you become obligated to come forward and receive Christ as He is offered at the liturgy.
- To assert that one has not fasted on the previous Wednesday and Friday and therefore cannot come forward for Communion, is, by itself, an insufficient cause to abstain from the Eucharist.
- So strongly did the Church feel about this that we find in the ninth Apostolic Canon of the Holy Apostle, the following: “All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated, on the grounds that they are causing the Church a breach of Order”. The early Orthodox Church attended liturgy for one reason – the Eucharist.
- St John Cassion, writes, “We must not avoid Communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul but with much humility and faith considering ourselves unworthy. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do such people manifest more pride than humility for when they receive, they think of themselves as worthy”.
- Fasting was never intended to be a barrier to keep us from Christ, but a bridge to lead us to fuller participation in the life of Christ.
- In general, two views emerge concerning Confession and the Eucharist. The first sees Confession as necessary before each participation in the Eucharist. The second sees Confession as a periodic practice not required before every participation in the Eucharist.
- The result of viewing Confession as a pre-requisite to every participation in the Eucharist is that it does not enhance one’s spiritual life but hinders it. It hinders it because Confession becomes an excuse not to take Holy Communion, much like fasting becomes an excuse to stay away from the Chalice.
- Confession itself, of course, is not a hindrance, but people make it a hindrance. It is not uncommon to hear from individuals that they are not regular participants in the Eucharist because they have not been to Confession.
- The Church, does not require a Confession from her people every time they wish to partake of the Eucharist. However, if it is your practice to receive the Eucharist only a few times per year at certain times, your Priest may rightfully insist that you go to Confession. If it is your practice to partake of the Eucharist rarely, it is probable that your whole approach to the Eucharist could, and should, be questioned.
- If you resolve to be a regular participant in the Eucharist, as every Orthodox should be, you should plan on periodic Confession. This is defined by your Priest and usually it means anywhere from once a month to once every six months.
- It is not acceptable in the tradition of the Church to keep away from the Eucharist using Confession as an excuse. The Sacrament of Confession exists to enhance our approach to the Eucharist, not to impede it.
Frequency of Participation
- Did you know that the first Orthodox Christians took Holy Communion every day? That’s right, they could not think of going through a day without taking the Eucharist. So strongly did the early Orthodox Christians feel about this that they introduced the 9th Apostolic Canon that anyone who did not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated. This shows how seriously the Eucharist should be taken when offered on Sundays.
- Christians sin constantly. Sin is part of our life. Therefore forgiveness must also be a part of our life. Constant sin requires constant forgiveness. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (John 1:8).
- The Eucharist, approached in the correct manner, takes away our sin and gives us the strength to draw closer to God. What is the correct manner? The answer is found in the liturgy itself when the Priest presents the Chalice and intones, “With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near”. Therefore, if you do not have a valid reason for not partaking, you are obliged to receive the Eucharist.
- If you have kept the Eucharistic Fast (ie not eaten or drunk anything after waking up in the morning), and if you approach with “fear of God, faith and love”, and there is no moral or canonical reason to impede you – you must go forward when you hear the call.
- To live a life of infrequent participation in the Eucharist means spiritual sickness. It may be you fail to be regular in your partaking of the Eucharist because you feel unworthy. In this case, the question must be asked; when will you be worthy? Of course, if you wait until you are worthy, forget it, you will never be able to approach the Chalice. One of the reasons we must constantly go forward is precisely because we are unworthy.
- Should you still not be able to accept the fact that you should be a regular participant in the Eucharist, you must question yourself. Why do you feel this way? Are you aware that there does exist someone who stands to gain by your staying away from the Chalice? That person is the devil. The longer you stay away from the Eucharist, the stronger the devil’s influence in your life. Do you want to overcome the devil? Them receive Jesus Christ. The Body of God both deifies and nourishes. It deifies the spirit and nourishes the mind. It heals, purifies, enlightens and sanctifies the body and soul. It helps us to turn away from every fantasy, evil practice and diabolical activity which work subconsciously in our members. It increases virtue and perfection for Communion with the Holy Spirit as a provision of salvation and eternal life.
- If you know that you will receive the body and blood of Christ on Sunday then during the week you will begin to discipline yourself and make a determined effort to overcome your passions. You will make every effort not to sin. You will pray and fast with relative ease for you are preparing your body and soul to receive Christ. You clean and tidy your house (your heart) to receive the King to whom no other King can be compared. And once you receive the Eucharist, Christ gives you the spiritual gifts to ward off the temptations of the devil which war continuously against you and assist you to climb the ladder of divine ascent.