Frequent Communion: Tradition or Innovation?

Recently an article was published which stated that the frequent reception of Holy Communion and the practice of receiving Communion without going to Confession each time was unknown in Eastern Europe and was, in fact, "an American innovation."

It is, indeed, unfortunate that very often as Orthodox Christians we tend to regard the practices of some other Orthodox jurisdiction or national church as being "correct."

The rational for this seems to be "Well, they have been Orthodox for centuries; they must know the correct way..." Or "Our ancestors brought the faith from (fill in the blank); therefore, what they do there now must be the correct way."

This trend is not new by any means. One thinks of the famous case of Patriarch Nikon and the Old Believers in 17th century Russia. In brief, at this time many Greek Patriarchs and bishops, under the crushing heel of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, came to Orthodox Russia seeking alms. Nikon and others noticed that these hierarchs served the Liturgy differently and even made the sign of the Cross somewhat differently than the Russian Orthodox did. Nikon decided (with the agreement of these Greek hierarchs) that since the faith came to Russia from the Greeks, the Greek way must be correct and the Russians somewhere had introduced "innovations." Nikon then proceeded to introduce certain "liturgical reforms" to the Russian Church based on the practices of the 17th century Greek Church. (For more on this, see Paul Meyendorff's excellent work "Russia, Ritual and Reform", St. Vladimir Seminary Press. 1991). Those who rejected the reforms were labeled

"Old Believers" and were violently persecuted.

In point of fact, Nikon and company had it backwards. The Russian Church, because it was geographically and politically isolated from the Greek Church, had preserved many ancient liturgical forms that the Greek Church had changed over the centuries (for the same reasons the Carpatho-Russian liturgical tradition preserves, especially in the Presanctified Liturgy, many forms that have vanished in other traditions). Nikon and the Greek hierarchs assisting him mistakenly viewed these ancient practices as recent "innovations." 

In order to avoid the thinking of Nikon we must seek the truth in the Tradition of the Church, that is, in the witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church in all of Her aspects: Scripture, worship, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the canons and theology. This is the only acceptable standard to measure ourselves and our practices by.  

It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the practice of the early Church was not only to receive Holy Communion at every Sunday Liturgy, but to receive it every day in some locales. Just to mention one famous case, St. Basil the Great (d. 379 A.D.) mentions that he communed four times a week. Other Fathers of the early centuries of the Church tell us of the faithful bringing Communion home with them from the Sunday Liturgy in order to receive during the week.

A careful reading of the prayers of the various Divine Liturgies reveals that it is expected that all present would receive Holy Communion. For instance, before the elevation of the "Lamb," the priest prays, "... Deem it proper to impart to us with Your mighty hand, Your most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to ALL YOUR PEOPLE."

Indeed, the Synod of Antioch in 341 A.D. ordered excommunicated those who came to Church and failed to receive Holy Communion (Canon 2 of Antioch).

This Canon was an attempt to check what was becoming a growing abuse in the Church at the end of the fourth century: Christians attending Liturgy without receiving Holy Communion. St. John Chrysostom lamented this practice: "In vain do we stand at the altar, there is no one to partake" (Eph.3, 4).

This practice, which began in Syria in the fourth century, was prompted by two primary factors. First, the church in the fourth century was flooded with converts from paganism as Christianity became the socially correct religion of the Roman Empire. Many of these people were very casual about their faith. Some would leave the Liturgy with the catechumens (those who were preparing for Baptism) when they were dismissed after the Gospel reading, since catechumens were not allowed to receive Holy Communion.

The other reason was the new language that the clergy of the Church began using to describe the sacraments. Words like "awesome," "fearful" and even "hair-raising" were used in speaking about the sacraments of the Church in order to instill reverence for them among these casual Orthodox. The end result, though, became a justification for staying away from the Eucharist on the grounds of "unworthiness."

St. John Cassian at the beginning of the fifth century was compelled to write against this new attitude:

"We must not avoid communion because we think that we are sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit... 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 them."

It is unfortunate that the Orthodox Church, so careful to preserve the faith of the Apostles, succumbed to infrequent Communion as the general practice of the Church, putting forward the issue of "unworthiness" as the reason.     

This was compounded in the 17th and 18th centuries by exposure, especially in the Slavic Orthodox Churches, to Western influences, principally in regards to the practice of Confession. Instead of the priest being a "witness" and minister of reconciliation in the Mystery of Confession, he now was seen as a judge with the "power" of absolution. A juridical absolution granted by a priest now became the necessary "ticket" to receive Holy Communion. (In fact, the prayer of absolution, "....I forgive and absolve you..." was introduced at this time from Latin sources.) In the ancient Church, the Sacrament of Penance was seen as being a "return" to the grace of Baptism. People received Holy Communion by virtue of their Baptism and not because they had received an "absolution."  The order of the sacraments still printed in Orthodox books today is Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist and then Penance.

Very often "absolutions" were, and sometimes still are, given without even confession of sins, a practice totally at odds with the Tradition of the Church.

Those who abstain from receiving Holy Communion, in fact, "excommunicate" themselves from the Church and must, indeed, come to Confession to be reconciled with the Church after their willful absence from the Sacrament.

However, according to the teaching of St. Nicholas Cabasilas,

"There are sins which are not mortal according to the teaching of St. John. And this is why nothing prevents those Christians, who have not committed sins separating them from Christ and leading them to death, from communion to Divine Mysteries and the participation to sanctification, not only externally, but in reality, for they continue to be living members united to the Head..." (Pg. 150:449 B).

The Church calls us to Confession frequently to renew our Baptismal commitment to Christ, to receive the forgiveness of our sins, to grow in our spiritual life, because She has learned through the Holy Spirit that "If we confess our sins He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). The Church calls us to Holy Communion frequently because the Holy Spirit has taught Her that "Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in You" (John 6:53). At each Liturgy the words of the Saviour are spoken: "Take and eat... this is my body... ALL OF YOU Drink of this, this is my blood..." Is this an "American innovation?" Rather, the "innovators" are those who perpetuate the "original sin" of "Orthodox" spirituality... that by fasting enough, saying enough prayers, abstaining enough, and receiving an "absolution" one can at last be "worthy" of Holy Communion one time.

There are times when one might feel it necessary to abstain from Holy Communion, but these should be the exception rather than the rule. In reality, the path that less honors God is the once-a-year formal observance of the Sacrament. It is much more difficult to keep oneself on the road of repentance before God, confessing often to the Lord through our spiritual father, aware each day of our "unworthiness" and with thanksgiving for the Saviour's love for us, even in our sinfulness, allowing us to approach the Lord's table frequently. St. John of Cronstadt, writing at the beginning of this century, perhaps was thinking of this:

"If your heart is right in your bosom; if, by God's mercy, it is ready to meet the Bridegroom, then, thank God, it is well with you, even though you may not have succeeded in reading all the appointed prayers (before Communion). For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power...."