Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
“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).
All of us have been invited to some friend house for dinner. Imagine going, sitting down at the table, and not eating anything—just watching everyone else eat. Surely it would be strange, even an insult to the ones who invited you.
Do I do the same at the Divine Liturgy of the Lord?
In the history of Orthodoxy, there have been differing answers to the question, “How often should I receive Communion?”
The question would have ben foreign to the early Church. Answers have ranged from once a year, to every week, to as frequently as possible. St. Basil the Great took Communion at least four days every week. At the end of the first millennium, St. Symeon the New Theologian communed every day with tears in his eyes.
With regard to frequency of Communion, there is little argument that Christians received It more frequently in the early centuries of Christianity than in recent years. Weekly reception was the common practice of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles and beyond. This practice changed during subsequent years due to various theological arguments and interpretations, one of which was an extreme emphasis on the evil of human sin versus the holiness of the Eucharist.
Man, it was thought, was just too unworthy to receive! On the basis of this extreme position, reception was sadly reduced to once a year. In fact, the Holy Fathers taught that the reception of Communion can and does heal sin.
In the 5th century, St. John Cassian attempted to correct the practice of infrequent Communion when he wrote, “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.”
St. Theophan the Recluse in the 19th century taught, “There is no salvation without Communion, and no progress in life without frequent Communion.”
The Celebration of Preparation
Today, the Church fervently urges frequent reception of Holy Communion—one eats at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said “Take, eat, this is my body” He meant it. Take and eat. The Bread of Angels becomes the pilgrim’s food, and that food can make whole our frail and aching hearts and souls. All that the Divine Host asks is that we come to His Supper prepared to receive the Cup of Life and the Bread of Eternal Salvation. How do we do this?
1. Make ready. On Saturday evening, do we stop to reflect on what it is we will do Sunday morning, presuming that we are going to Divine Liturgy(!)? Our attention, our focus needs to turn to the Divine Liturgy on Saturday evening—what it is, the miracle given to us, how it fits into our human behavior and our spiritual life.
Reading Sunday’s Scripture passages and Gospel reflection in the Bulletin that is sent to us weekly helps us make ready, pauses our hectic life, and sets a new and different tone for “The Lord’s Day.” Just before we receive, the Priest chants: “In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!”
On Saturday evening we can begin that process. On Saturday evening, really? Yes—it’s another one of those “costs of discipleship”!
2. Fast and pray. Go to the hermitage of your heart. Spend time alone with God. Talk to Him and lay it all bare before Him. There are also many prayers of preparation for Holy Communion online or in the Orthodox Prayer Books. Find one for yourself and use it every week. The Canon of Preparation for Holy Communion is a popular one.
In addition, keep the fast that is appointed before Communion. It creates in the body a sense of the hunger of the soul for Christ. Remember, you are preparing your whole person and every facet of you to receive your Lord!
3. Come home. This will require some soul-searching. “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. (1 Corinthians 11:27,28)
St. Paul’s point was that we need to approach the Holy Mysteries with a clean and pure conscience—not a perfect one. We need to name our failings and sins, own them, and ask forgiveness. They are breaches of love. Confession is the chance to set things right with the Lord. We ought to go to Confession regularly to literally hear the words of Christ’s mercy and compassion. When is the last time you heard those words? Never be afraid! We need also to be reconciled with any in our life against whom we are angry, holding a grudge, resentful, or harbor evil thoughts—or who bear the same against us. (Matthew 5:23-24)
Another “cost” of discipleship! Adopting this new approach to receiving the Divine Mysteries requires askesis, a spiritual struggle. We are re-orienting our life—no easy task! It brings with it, however, untold rewards deep down in the soul of us.
Go in Peace
I leave you with the encouragement of St. John of Kronstadt: “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 your soul, even though you may not have succeeded in reading all the appointed prayers (before Communion). For the kingdom of God does not come in words, but in power….”
May God give each of you that mighty power! Please pray for me.
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