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 6:53-56).
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: 26).
From 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 praise you (I Cor. 10:18-22).
The 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 existence.
Because many members of the Corinthian Church were apparently treating the Eucharist as simple food, the Apostle Paul goes on to admonish them:
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).
In 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.
This 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 faithful.
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 Leviticus).
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 communicant.
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 around them.
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 Father. Amen."
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 Liturgy.
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!"