The Eucharist, or Holy Communion
This is the Mystery where the bread and wine are changed by the Holy Spirit into the true Blood and Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. This gift is distributed to all Orthodox Christians who choose to partake for the most intimate union with our Lord. This is seen as the greatest of all the Mysteries. It is the climax of our main worship service the Divine Liturgy.
This was promised by the Christ on the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
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. 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. (John 6:53-56)
Since the Apostles did not believe this, he told them about His future Ascension:
Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:61-63)
Christ knew that these words were hard to understand.
The Eucharist was established as recorded in three of the Gospels:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt 26:26-28)
The same is said in Mark:
And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you." (Luke 22:19-20)
It is repeated by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians:
The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me. (1 Cor 11:23-25)
This wording is very clear and does not allow for any other interpretation. He does not say this is a symbol of my body, but that this is my body. It is not figurative, not by the abundance of grace, not by a simple descent of the Holy Spirit and not through a penetration of the bread. It is truly and actually changed, transubstantiated, converted, transformed into the true Body and Blood of Christ. This had been the understanding of the Church from the beginning of Christianity. There has never been any other interpretation in the Church. Changes to this view in many Protestant churches are due to the denial of the mystery that grows with it. This is the result of a scientific world view and creative reinterpretation of the Scripture.
Having given communion to His disciples, the Lord commanded, Do this in remembrance of Me. This must be performed until He comes (1Cor 11:25-26). We can see this act performed in Apostolic times in Acts (2:42, 46, 20:7) and in 1Cor (10,11). The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)
It is in the Eucharist that the believer is united with Christ. It also unites believers with each other. We being many, are one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread. (1Cor 10:17)
In the divine liturgy, the congregation kneels and the priest lifts up the paten and the cup praying, “Once again we offer you this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood, and we ask, pray and entreat You; send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered. And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ. And that which is in this Cup the precious blood of Your Christ. Changing them by Your Holy Spirit. Amen, Amen. Amen.”
The priest continues, “So that to those who partake of them they May bring vigilance of soul, forgiveness of sins, communion of Your Holy Spirit, fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven, confidence before You, not judgment or condemnation.”
This is called the Epiclesis, yet there is not considered to be any single moment that the change occurs.
Fathers at the First Ecumenical Council said:
“At the Divine Table we should not see simply the bread and the cup which have been offered, but raising our minds high, we should with faith understand that on the sacred Table lies the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, Who is offered as a Sacrifice by the priests; and truly receiving His Precious Body and Blood, we should believe that this is a sign of our Resurrection.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ is present in this Mystery with all His being. He is present totally even in the smallest particle. All who receive the Holy Communion receive the entire Christ. And even though there are many liturgies it is the same Christ in each one. After the transformation takes place the Body and Blood do not return to their former nature.
The bread which is used is wheat bread which has risen through the use of leaven. In the Scripture the word “artos” is used for bread which is a leavened bread. The Eastern Orthodox Church has always used leavened Bread. (In the Western Church they use unleavened bread. While the source of the difference is not clear, some believe that until the 10th century both used leavened bread.)
Preparation for Holy Communion
The general disciplines for preparing for holy communion are the disciplines of the Orthodox way of life. They are the practices which keep us alive to God, which open our minds, hearts and bodies to the presence of God s grace and power in our lives. They include:
- regular participation in the Church’s liturgical worship
- regular practice of a rule of personal prayer
- regular practice of fasting (Wednesdays and Fridays) and abstinence
- regular reading of the Bible and spiritual writings
- regular confession of sins (and thoughts, feelings, temptations and dreams) to our pastor, or to someone whom our pastor authorizes and blesses for this purpose
- regular giving and receiving of forgiveness of sins with all the people in our lives
- regular donations of money to the Church, and to those in need
- regular sharing of our time, energies, and possessions with others
- constant effort to do our daily work as well as we can, to Gods glory, for the good of people, and
- constant striving not to sin in the smallest way in the routine activities of our everyday life and personal relationships.
The words regular and constant are repeated and emphasized because our spiritual practices and activities must be done according to a rule. They must be done constantly and consistently with conscious attention and discipline. They cannot be left to whim, caprice or feeling.
What a person does in regard to liturgical worship, personal prayer, fasting, reading, contributing, working and serving will be shaped according to the conditions of his or her life. It will be different for each person according to age, strength, health, available time, and personal capabilities. The saints say that rules of prayer, reading and fasting should be brief but frequent, simple, pure, uncomplicated and keepable. They should be determined and established with spiritual advice and counsel in ways which permit them to be easily included within the real possibilities of ones actual life.
Specific Preparation for Holy Communion
As Orthodox, we recognize that none of us is worthy of the great Gifts God gives us, and above all other such Gifts are the Gifts of His Body and Blood in the Holy Communion. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church's Holy Tradition knows and keeps the necessity of preparation for Communion. While we are all unworthy, no one is prevented from communing because of unworthiness. Yet, anyone who is not prepared for the Holy Communion can and must be prevented from placing him or herself in great spiritual and bodily danger by communing. Our Holy Church traditionally considers preparation to be fervent prayer, especially on the eve and morning before Holy Communion; strict fasting, at least from midnight, but preferably from the early evening; taking positive and persistent steps towards reconciliation with all, especially with those with whom one has had a definite falling out.
People with disciplined spiritual lives who partake regularly and frequently of the sacraments will have less specific preparation for holy communion than those with undisciplined spiritual lives who seldom partake of the holy mysteries. The latter will surely have to make extraordinary efforts to read special prayers, keep special fasts, do special good deeds, give special contributions, and make special acts of sacramental confession when these practices are not a regular, constant and consistent part of their lives.
How Often Should One Receive the Holy Communion?
Father T. Avramis answers it this way. Did you know that the first Orthodox Christians took Holy Communion every day? So strongly did the early Orthodox Christians feel about this that they introduced the 9th Apostolic Canon that anyone who did not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated. This shows how seriously the Eucharist should be taken when offered on Sundays.
Christians sin constantly. Sin is part of our life. Therefore forgiveness must also be a part of our life. Constant sin requires constant forgiveness. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (John 1:8).
The Eucharist, approached in the correct manner, takes away our sin and gives us the strength to draw closer to God. What is the correct manner? The answer is found in the liturgy itself when the Priest presents the Chalice and intones, "With the fear of God, faith and love, draw near". Therefore, if you do not have a valid reason for not partaking, you are obliged to receive the Eucharist. If you have kept the Eucharistic Fast (i.e. not eaten or drunk anything after waking up in the morning), and if you approach with "fear of God, faith and love", and there is no moral or canonical reason to impede you - you must go forward when you hear the call.
You May fail to be regular in your partaking of the Eucharist because you feel unworthy. In this case, ask yourself, when will you be worthy? One of the reasons we must constantly go forward is precisely because we are unworthy.
If you are not able to accept the fact that you should be a regular participant in the Eucharist, you ask, Why do you feel this way? Only the devil stands to gain by your staying away from the Chalice. The longer you stay away from the Eucharist, the stronger the devil's influence in your life. The Body of God both deifies and nourishes. It heals, purifies, enlightens and sanctifies the body and soul. It helps us to turn away from every fantasy, evil practice and diabolical activity which work subconsciously in our members. It increases virtue and perfection for Communion with the Holy Spirit as a provision of salvation and eternal life.
If you know that you will receive the body and blood of Christ on Sunday then during the week you will begin to discipline yourself and make a determined effort to overcome your passions and make every effort not to sin. You will pray and fast with relative ease for you are preparing your body and soul to receive Christ. You will be able to approach the chalice with a contrite heart, knowing you are unworthy and seeking the help from our God, accepting His most valuable gift given freely by Him for your assistance.
Saint John Chrysostom:
Dearly beloved and most cherished brethren, who are gathered in this holy temple to adore the living God in piety and justice and partake of the holy, immortal, spotless, and awesome mysteries of Christ: hear me, humble and unworthy as I am, for it is not I who speak and teach you, but the grace of the all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit. I speak, not on my own, but as I was taught by the Holy Canons, the God-bearing Fathers, and the ways of our Holy Church as received by the holy apostles, instructed by God. I am the humblest and smallest of men: I do not know your actions nor do I know your needs, but I do know the fear of God which commands each and every one of us, both men and women, small and great: Let none of you who is guilty of sin and who is gnawed by his or her conscience dare to draw near this sacred Fire before repenting and confessing or to come in ridicule, because God is a consuming Fire.
To those who draw near in faith and fear of Him who is our God and King and the judge of all mankind, He will completely burn away your sins and will fill your souls with light and sanctification.
But to the faithless who draw near without shame, He burns and sears both soul and body. “For this reason there are many among you who are sick and, being sick, sleep”; that is, many die without having repented or been forgiven.
Therefore, my brethren, I implore you and say: let no blasphemer, perjurer or liar, no fornicator, adulterer or sodomite, no magician or fortune teller, no thief or heretic draw near to the awesome mysteries of Christ or touch them without having confessed and prepared himself, for “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”