Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
So, faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13
Good morning Prayer Team!
With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near. (The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Holy Cross Seminary Press, 2016 Translation)
The long journey of the Divine Liturgy has now reached its climax. The people are invited to receive Holy Communion with the words “With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near.” A hierarch of the church told me at the beginning of my ministry, that when I intone this line of invitation to the people, that I should hold the chalice in front of my face, so people hear the words without seeing me. Why? Because this invitation, to draw near and partake, is to be heard as an invitation from God Himself, coming only through the mouth of the priest. It is not the invitation of the priest to the people, but the invitation from Christ.
Have you ever paused to consider the meaning of these words of invitation? “With the fear of God.” What does that mean? In Greek the word is “Fovo” which means “fear” in most instances. It can also mean “sense of awe”, “reverence” or “respect”. In approaching for Holy Communion, we must come first with a sense of fear, awe, reverence and respect. This is why I always correct people when they say they are going to “take” Communion, as opposed to “receiving” Communion. We receive as a gift. We take with entitlement. No one is ever “worthy” to receive Communion. Certainly no one should come into church with the idea that they are going to “take” it. One must approach the Chalice with a great sense of reverence and humility. It is only by God’s grace that we can touch God.
Think about this for a moment. In approaching Holy Communion, we are going to touch God and God is going to touch us. As one of my seminary professors used to say, “We are going to have an intimate encounter with the living God.” This is so profound it is hard to wrap our minds around. How can I, entangled in my sins, dare to approach to touch the living God? How can I open the same mouth that opens to gossip or use foul language, or argue with people, how can I open that same mouth to have Christ placed in it? These questions are very profound, and actually scary. If you think about these questions, it is going to cause some fear.
This is why the invitation doesn’t only tell us to come with fear. Because an invitation to come in fear will probably go unanswered. We are invited also to come in faith. It is faith in God’s mercies that allows us to open our filthy mouths and have them filled with Christ. We believe in the mercies of God to allow us to partake of Him, the mercies and grace that have the power to save our souls for eternal life, and to grant them strength in this life. Fear is counterbalanced with faith.
Receiving Communion is also an act of love. In encountering Christ in the Eucharist, we affirm His love for us and our love for Him. Going back to I Corinthians 11:26, Saint Paul tells us “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” In approaching Communion, we affirm the love of Christ for us, which led Him to die on the cross for our sins. In approaching Holy Communion, we again recommit our love for Him.
Saint Paul does issue a warning about our approach for Holy Communion, in I Corinthians 11:27-30:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. This is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Saint Paul tells us that Holy Communion is a very serious matter indeed. Which leads many to wonder, how can I accept this invitation to partake? Saint Paul provides the answer, which is that one must undergo an examination of his life and his conscience. And since Christ recognized that this is a difficult proposition for most people, because an examination of conscience can still leave one paralyzed in fear, the Church offers to us the sacrament of confession as a way to cleanse our souls and prepare them to accept this invitation of Christ.
Remember that Christ wants us to approach often to receive Him. When I was a child, we didn’t receive Communion often. We received on Christmas, Pascha, the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and our namedays. Remember that the invitation is not without qualification—“With the fear of God, with faith and love draw near, if it is your nameday.” Or on Pascha, “With the fear of God, with faith and love draw near everyone because it’s Pascha.” The invitation to receive is a personal invitation to YOU each time it is offered.
Should people receive every time they hear the invitation? That is a matter of your conscience, which should be discussed with your spiritual father. My thought is that one should approach as often as one is prepared, as often as one is making an effort to grow in their faith. If this effort is constant, then one should receive often. If one gives absolutely no effort, then perhaps they should abstain. There are some who argue that the faithful should receive Communion every time it is offered, and some who still argue that we should only approach a few times a year. The answer lies somewhere in between, though I believe that intention of Christ was for us to receive “often”, as St. Paul confirms in his letter to the Corinthians.
One way to think of this that we can relate to is when you get invited to go somewhere by a friend. When it is someone you really like, you want to say yes to every invitation. You are not only going to accept 2 out of 50 invitations. But you probably are not going to be able to accept 50 out of 50 invitations. The invitation to receive Communion is made to YOU at every Divine Liturgy—not only the ones you attend but every time the Liturgy is offered. So, if we only accept the invitation a few times a year, what does that say about the strength of our relationship with Christ?
Knowing then, that the invitation is coming, ask yourself, “How can I accept this invitation?” And then ask yourself “How can I NOT accept this invitation?” It is so important, how can I stay away? And if you are staying away habitually from Holy Communion, ask yourself “Why am I not accepting this invitation?”
Direct my steps according to Your word and may no wickedness conquer me. Free me from the slanders of men that I might keep Your commandments. Let Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes. Let my mouth be filled with Your praise, O Lord, that I may sing Your glory and honor Your magnificence all day long. Amen. (From the 1st Hour, Holy Cross, Press, Holy Week Book)
Prepare to answer God’s invitation the next time it is offered!
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Photo credit: The Salt Lake Tribune
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