How Can What Is Unclean Touch What is Clean?
We will now be including the daily reading of Epistle and Gospel with The Prayer Team.
The Journey to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ
Holy Communion—Part One
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” Isaiah 6:1-7
Good morning Prayer Team!
As we approach Holy Week, we’ve probably noticed that the Communion line in church each Sunday gets longer and longer. And come Palm Sunday or Holy Saturday, “people will come out of the woodwork” as the saying goes and flock to the church and to the chalice. Why do some people come every Sunday for Communion, and others only once or twice per year? Is everyone who goes actually prepared to go?
When I was a child, we were taught to go receive Communion four times a year—Pascha, Christmas, Dormition and on our nameday. The rest of the time we didn’t go. Very few people went. Now it seems that the pendulum has swung the other way. Virtually everyone goes every time Communion is offered. Do we know how to prepare? Do we even know why we go?
Today’s reflection and the next two will be talking about the sacrament of Holy Communion. These are not written to make anyone feel bad, but rather to help us understand a little bit more about Holy Communion, so please read these humble offerings with an open mind and an open heart.
In the Old Testament, when someone touched something unclean, they became unclean by association. Hence people with leprosy were quarantined and anyone who came in contact with a leper was quarantined as well. It was thought that sin led to misfortune. Hand out with a sinner and their misfortune was likely to come on you, that was the thought.
In Luke 17, Jesus tells ten lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. In this act, the process was reversed. Jesus, clean and sinless, came into contact with ten unclean lepers, and they became clean. Unclean became clean. What was clean touched what was unclean, and rather than become unclean, what was unclean became clean. At the Epiphany, Jesus touched the unclean waters and the unclean waters became clean.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision where he is in the temple. He sees the majesty of God, His throne and the angels praising God. And he says, basically, “woe is me, I am an unclean person, I do not belong here among the things of God, the things that are clean, I do not belong here.” Then one of the angels takes a coal from the altar using tongs and touches it to his lips. The coal, that should eviscerate someone who touches it, does not destroy him. Rather the angel tells him that his guilt is taken away and his sin is forgiven. What was clean touched he who was unclean, and he who was unclean became clean. A mortal man touched the fire of God and was not struck down. This action of angels touching the unclean prophet did not make either the angels or God unclean. It made Isaiah clean.
All of this, the lepers, Epiphany and the prophecy of Isaiah, prefigure Holy Communion. Communion is the means by which the unclean human being touches the Almighty God. And through Communion, we are made clean.
The Communion Prayers of the Divine Liturgy reference the verses from Isaiah:
Behold, I approach for Divine Communion. O Maker, burn me not as I partake, for You are fire consuming the unworthy. But cleanse me from every stain.
Tremble, O man, as you behold the divine Blood. It is a burning coal that sears the unworthy. The Body of God both deifies and nourishes me. It deifies the Spirit and wondrously nourishes the mind.
Now, we can talk about what to do when we receive and how to prepare to receive. We can talk about fasting, and whether everyone is really prepared, and in the next two reflections we will. But before the how of Communion, we have to start with why we receive.
There are many answers, but let’s first start with Isaiah. Because through Holy Communion, the unclean teaches the Lord and becomes clean, not by magic but through faith, works and grace. Each time I receive I can become clean again and this affect, or should affect what I’m doing for the rest of the week, and how I am doing it.
What will I do after I’ve been made clan by God? What words will my lips speak? Will I argue, or be sad, or get angry, or belittle someone? How will I stay clean this week? And how will I approach to receive next week? With the guilt of someone who was careless, or with the joy of someone who was not?
There are two other reasons why we receive Communion. First told us to. In John 6:56, He said “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” And secondly, Communion is one way that we remember what He did for us. In I Corinthians 11:26, St. Paul writes to us “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
Remembering the words of Isaiah, we, the unclean, become clean by partaking of Christ in Communion. We take on the experience of Isaiah, who stood in front of the altar of God, who had the fire of God touch his tongue and not only it did not consume him, it healed him, it made him clean. In the Liturgy, we are told that “The Holy Gifts (are) for the holy people of God.” That means that holiness should be at the forefront of our lives.
You have smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by your divine eros You have changed me. But burn up with spiritual fire my sins, and grant me to be filled with delight in You, so that , leaping for joy, I may magnify, O Good One, Your two comings. (From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Trans. by Holy Cross Seminar Press, 2015)
Keep holiness at the forefront of your mind today!
These readings are under copyright and is used by permission. All rights reserved. These works may not be further reproduced, in print or on other websites or in any other form, without the prior written authorization of the copyright holder: Reading © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA, Apolytikion of Abbot Marcellus © Narthex Press, Kontakion of Abbot Marcellus © Holy Transfiguration Monastery – Brookline, MA.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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