The most important element in the spiritual renewal of the Orthodox Christian is Holy Communion. It is the sacrament of sacraments, in which we receive Jesus Christ Himself. So great is this mystery that we are left without any possible response that would express what God has done for us. Therefore, 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.
It can be difficult, especially for those who are new to the Orthodox Faith, to avoid getting too legalistic about preparing for Communion. They feel so unworthy that they almost feel dejected and despondent, to the point that they deprive themselves of spiritual renewal when they need it most. At the same time, it can be quite easy to start taking the Eucharist and the other Sacraments for granted, receiving them flippantly. So where is the balance here and how do we find it?
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Being worthy of the Eucharist
A little boy sat on the porch steps. His mother told him not to get into trouble while she was gone. But while the boy waited, his brother came and they got into a fight. Both boys ended up in the dirt, their clothes torn and sullied. A couple minutes later, the boys heard an ice cream truck. Their fight forgotten, they rushed back into the house to ask their mother for some coins. “Just look at yourselves,” the mother chastised when she saw them. “You’re in no condition to ask for anything.”
Many Orthodox Christians often say the same to themselves when they think about receiving Holy Communion. I’m not worthy of Holy Communion today. I didn’t fast. Or I didn’t finish all the pre-Communion prayers. Or I didn’t go to confession. We should feel unworthy, but not for any of those reasons.
If we come to Communion thinking we’ve earned it or deserve it because we did x, y, and z, the sin of pride has poisoned us; we do not deserve Communion at all, nor can we ever earn it. The Eucharist is a blessed gift from God, the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that cleanses our sins and infuses us with the divine grace of God. No matter what we do, we will never be worthy of such a gift. Especially if we think not eating certain foods or saying a certain number of prayers is enough to make us worthy of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Remember: it is Christ who makes us worthy not ourselves. As He says, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).
No Confession, No Communion…?
Within Orthodoxy, two main views prevail concerning Confession and the Eucharist:
- Confession is necessary before every participation in the Eucharist
- Confession is a periodic practice that can happen anywhere from once a month to a couple times a year
The issue with the first is it has the tendency to degrade Confession into a glorified excuse laypeople use to justify not partaking of Communion. Unfortunately, this excuse is not uncommon among many Orthodox. The same often happens with respect to pre-Communion prayers and fasting. However, we must understand that the Sacraments exist to deepen our communion with God, not distance ourselves further from Him.
Nowhere does the Church explicitly require Confession every time someone wishes to partake of the Eucharist. However, if you receive only a few times a year, your spiritual father may rightfully insist you go to Confession. If you resolve to be a regular participant in the Eucharist, as every Orthodox should, speak with your spiritual father and establish times for periodic Confession.
Did you know…?
As frequent reception of Communion became more common, the understanding of Confession and Communion as two separate sacraments became clearer. In the early 1970s, the Holy Synod of Bishops declared it unnecessary to observe Confession every time you receive the Eucharist, as long as you are communing regularly, are attentive to the guidance of your Spiritual Father, and are properly prepared through prayer and fasting to receive the Eucharist.
Fasting before Communion
The Holy Orthodox Church prescribes fasting as a spiritual discipline to enhance our participation in the Eucharist. Unfortunately, much like Confession, laity use their lack of fasting from food as an excuse to keep away from the Chalice. However, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what fasting is meant to accomplish. It is more than simply not eating certain things (or not eating at all). It is a way for us to grow closer to God by focusing less on the things of this world. The Church did not institute fasting as a barrier to keep us from Christ, but as a bridge to lead us into full participation in His Life.
The prescribed Eucharistic fast involves total abstinence from food or drink in the morning prior to receiving the Eucharist. But there are some misunderstandings out there, and many Orthodox Christians mistakenly perpetuate these mistakes. Let’s take a look at a couple of these here.
Mistakes regarding fasting and the Eucharist
Fasting Wednesday and Friday to prepare
Many Orthodox say they fast on Wednesdays and Fridays because they plan to take Communion that Sunday during the Divine Liturgy. However, the Church has never linked the practice of Wednesday and Friday fasting to participation in the Eucharist. Orthodox Christians should fast on those two days of the week regardless (Canon 69 of the Holy Apostles), as well as during the prescribed fasting seasons, like Great Lent, for example. Therefore, to assert that one has not fasted on the previous Wednesday and Friday and therefore cannot come forward for Communion, is not adequate cause to abstain from the Eucharist.
Read More: Fasting In The Orthodox Church
Extending the Wednesday/Friday fast into Saturday
Another common error some Orthodox make regarding the Eucharistic fast is “extending” the fast into Saturday. This somewhat builds off of the first myth. They reason that if they fast on Wednesday and Friday in preparation for the Eucharist on Sunday, it does not seem right to them not to fast on Saturday, the day prior to receiving Communion. However, in so doing, they violate the 64th Canon of the Holy Apostles, which specifically forbids ever fasting on Saturday, the day God rested after creation. There are only a few exceptions to this Canon: Holy Saturday and any other major Feast that should fall on a Saturday.
How often we should receive Communion
As often as possible! In the early Church, Orthodox Christians partook of the Eucharist every day. The Church felt so strongly about the spiritual power and necessity of Holy Communion that she introduced the 9th Apostolic Canon which states:
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 Christians attended liturgy for one reason – the Eucharist. They took it seriously, and so should we. However, we must take care not to deprive ourselves of the Eucharist out of misguided legalism. If you have kept the fast after waking up in the morning, you approach in the correct manner – with “fear of God, faith and love” – and there is no moral or canonical reason not to, you must go forward to receive the Eucharist.
The Eucharist, approached in the correct manner, takes away our sin and gives us the strength to draw closer to God. So when we deprive ourselves of this gift and only receive it a few times a year, we voluntarily expose ourselves to spiritual sickness. Are you stopping yourself from receiving the Eucharist? Then question yourself. Why do you feel that you should not receive? Is it because you did not finish the pre-communion prayers? Or perhaps you did not receive Confession?
All of these excuses stem from a feeling of unworthiness, because we failed and missed the mark. But we must remember that we will never truly be worthy, and that is precisely the reason we must constantly go forward to receive the Eucharist.
There is one person who stands to gain by your staying away from the Chalice, and it isn’t you. That person is Satan. The longer you stay away from the Eucharist, the stronger the devil’s influence in your life. Do you want to overcome the devil? Then receive Jesus Christ. The Body of God both deifies the spirit and nourishes the mind. It heals, purifies, enlightens and sanctifies the body and soul. And it helps us to turn away from every wicked activity. It is precisely when you feel most unworthy that you need the Eucharist the most. Do not let Satan turn your piety against you, to the point where it becomes legalism and deprives you of the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ Himself.
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 to pray and fast, and will struggle to avoid sin so you can prepare your body and soul to receive Christ. 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.
In humility, we must acknowledge that without Christ we can do nothing. It is through His forgiveness and His Grace that we become worthy, though unworthy, of receiving Holy Communion.
Keep Reading: Who Can Receive Communion In An Orthodox Church?