Preparation for Receiving Holy Communion
Then Jesus said to them,
"Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and
drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My
blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh
is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks
My blood abides in Me, and I in him "(St. John
There can be no doubt that the
central act of Orthodox worship and the center of Orthodox spiritual life is
the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
Through our participation in
the Eucharist we unite ourselves to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In this
Mystery, we become participants in His Death and Resurrection; through it we
have the fulfillment of the promise of His Coming Again.
The prayer of the early Christians, Maranatha, was
essentially a Eucharistic prayer. In the Divine Liturgy we remember the Death
and Resurrection of Christ and we ask the Father to send Him again. And so He
does, revealing the Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic gifts of Bread and
Wine, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Apostle Paul writes in
his First Letter to the Corinthians: "For
as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's
death till He comes" (I Corinthians 11:
the outset, then, Christians who gathered for what was known in Apostolic times
as the "Lord's Supper" were aware that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were
not simply ordinary food, but rather, were the medium of God's grace. In the
early Church, strange as it may seem to us, the Eucharist was combined with an
ordinary meal called the Agape or "Love
supper." During the course of this meal,
the bread and wine were brought to the bishop for the Eucharistic Prayer. In I
Corinthians, St Paul
refers to this meal, and the necessity to distinguish the Eucharistic Gifts
from ordinary food:
For first of all, when you
come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in
part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that
those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore when
you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper. For
in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and
another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?
Or do you despise the church
of God and shame those
who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not
(I Cor. 10:18-22).
Agape meal was possible because the early Christian "house churches" were very small by modern standards. It has been
estimated that they consisted of only twenty to thirty members. The oldest
known church building, that from Dura Europos in Syria, dating to the year 200
A.D., was nothing more than a private Roman style house that had been converted
to a church. Though it had a separate baptistery, the church portion only held about sixty people. It was only in the
fourth century, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent
growth of Christianity, that large church buildings and congregations came into
many members of the Corinthian
Church were apparently
treating the Eucharist as simple food, the Apostle Paul goes on to admonish
Therefore whoever eats this
bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of
the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and
so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats
and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not
discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick
among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would
not be judged (I Cor. 11:27-31).
the teaching of the Apostle Paul, self-examination of one's heart and the realization
that it was truly the Lord's Body and Blood of Christ that was presented, and
not simple food, was necessary for the reception of the Eucharist.
self-examination was also mentioned in the first century document called the
"Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" or "The Didache." Concerning the reception
of the Eucharist, which was still joined to the Agape Supper, we read:
On the Lord's Day come
together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions
that your offering may be pure; but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow
join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. For this is that which was spoken by the
Lord, "In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great
king," saith the Lord, "and my name is wonderful among the
heathen" (Didache 14:1-3)
The confession mentioned here
was not what we think of as the Sacrament of Confession. Rather, it was a
confession of those sins that he or she felt prevented them from receiving Holy
Communion to a spiritual member of the congregation. It was a continuation of
the practice mentioned in the Letter of St. James: "Confess your sins to one
another and pray for one another that you may be healed" (James 5:18).
This practice is also reflected
some 200 years later. Origen, the noted ecclesiastical writer, speaks of the
necessity of Confession for the Christian. He then goes on to speak, not of any
sort of public confession, but of confession to a spiritual father:
Only be careful and
circumspect in regards to whom you would confess your sins. Test first the
physician to whom you would expose the cause of your illness... when he has shown
himself to be a physician learned and merciful, do whatever he might tell you,
and follow whatever counsel he may give. If after much deliberation he has
understood the nature of your illness and judges that to be cured it must be
exposed to the whole church follow the advice of that expert physician (Hom. 2:6 on Psalm 37).
Again, the confession that
Origen refers to here is not the Sacrament of Confession as we know it. It was
a confession made privately to a spiritual father who may or may not have been
a member of the clergy. Based on this ancient usage, the practice of confessing
to unordained monks continued for centuries. If the confessor deemed it
necessary, he would advice the person to make a confession to the bishop and be
enrolled as a penitent for a period of time. During this time the penitent
could not receive Holy Communion and had to leave the Liturgy after the Gospel
and sermon with the catechumens since he was not permitted to pray with the
After the appointed time, he or
she would be restored to sacramental communion by the bishop. Only then was the
person permitted to receive the Holy Eucharist again. This formal penance was
normally reserved for adultery, apostasy or murder and could only be done once
in a person's life. Common, "everyday" sins were held to be constantly
remitted through prayer, confession, good deeds and the reception of the
Eucharist itself. Again to quote Origen:
In regards to grave crimes a
place for repentance is conceded only once. Those, however, which are common,
and into which we frequently fall, always admit of repentance and are forgiven
without cease (Hom. 15, On
From this early act of confession
and penance would later develop the formal Sacrament of Confession as we know
it. But we must not infer that this simple confession was a sine qua non
for receiving Holy Communion in the early Church.
The essential requirement was
not Confession but Baptism. (This is why baptized infants receive Holy
Communion even today.) The Didache, commanded, "Let no one eat or
drink of the Eucharist with you except those who have been baptized in the Name
of the Lord..."
In the fourth and fifth
centuries, there was a shift in piety surrounding the Eucharist. This happened
for several reasons the chief being the fact that the majority of those seeking
Church membership were doing so for social and/or political reasons. In fact,
many people simply were enrolled as catechumens and never baptized until they
were on their deathbed! Those who manifested such a weak faith were barred from
ordination if they recovered from their illness.
The reception of the Holy
Eucharist went from being a weekly necessity in the third century, to being a
once-a-year, or even a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As a result, Confession (a
return to the grace of baptism) became a necessity for the once-a-year
The Apostle Paul's call for
"self-examination" means that those who would receive Holy Communion frequently
must live in a state of repentance and humility before the Lord and those
Any time we speak of
preparation for the reception of Holy Communion, we must realize that we can
never make ourselves worthy of receiving Holy Communion. This is made
abundantly clear in the Divine Liturgy itself. The priest elevates the Holy
Eucharist saying: "Holy Things and for the Holy (i.e. Holy People)." The
faithful respond, "Only one is Holy, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the
It is because we have been
baptized into the holiness of Christ, the only One Who is holy, that we are able to receive Holy Communion.
There is nothing we can do to make ourselves holy apart from the grace of God.
The act of preparing for Holy Communion must center on seeking forgiveness from
the Lord and those whom we may have offended.
The person who communes often, must confess often! The basis of our
confession must be the examination of our own lives in the light of the
holiness of the Lord to which we have been called. The Saviour has already
redeemed us through the Cross; it remains for us to live as redeemed in the
light of the Lord's Resurrection!
St. John Cassian, the disciple
of St. John Chrysostom, wrote that those who considered themselves to be worthy
of the Eucharist because they had "prepared" for it manifested more pride than
humility. He says:
It is much better if, in
humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we
would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than,
blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them. (Third Conference Ch. 21).
The Divine Liturgy itself is a
preparation for the reception of the Eucharist and those who would receive must
be prayerfully attentive during its celebration. All of the prayers point to
the reception of the Mystery of the Eucharist as the culmination of the Divine
Many Orthodox prayer books
contain "Prayers at the Reception of Holy Communion." Unfortunately, these
prayers can range from the simple to the complex, some requiring multitudes of
Canons to be recited. Like fasting, the individual must decide, with the help
of his or her pastor, how much they can do in this regard. A few short prayers
with attention and devotion are better than reciting pages simply for the sake
of getting through a "rule."
In the Philokalia, St. Mark the
Ascetic reminds us that "God is not a dealer bound by contract." God does not give us "worthiness" because of
something we do. He has done the work of salvation; it remains for us to accept
it and co-operate with His grace.
There are those "spiritual
fathers" who regard themselves as arbiters and judges of those who come to
them. Not only is this not a part of the Orthodox Tradition, but it is essentially
"guruism." So called "spiritual guides"
set rules that are unknown in the Church for those who wish receive the
Eucharist. One popular one is that those who wish to receive Communion must
come to Vespers on Saturday night. While there is nothing wrong with
encouraging piety, the Church Tradition knows no such rule.
Others insist on "absolutions,"
either given to a group or to individuals, without personal, private
confession. "General Confession" is a modern invention based on Protestantism. Despite
the assertions of some modern writers, there is no convincing evidence that
Confession, even for those who were submitting to the Sacrament of Penance, was
ever performed on a congregation-wide basis. The granting of absolutions
without any sins being confessed is an exercise in magic, not in faith.
This great Mystery of God's love for each of us has
gone from neglect in centuries past to rediscovery today. But the rediscovery
must not be on the outside, but within our hearts to the end that we may truly "In the fear of God, with faith and with love, come forward!"