Monday, September 14, 2009
Thoughts on Communion
The issue of how often the people should partake of our Lord' body and blood is a hot button issue across not only the Orthodox Churches but of other Christian confessions as well. In some "high-church" Protestant bodies, the Liturgy with the Eucharist may only be offered two Sundays a month and on some other holy days. With Orthodox, it is not a question about when the Liturgy is offered since it is offered every Sunday and every Holy Day. But how often should people partake? Some will do so only once or twice a year. Others will do so only as they come near the end of their earthly life. Still others may not do so because of excommunication or inadequate preparation (through fasting, confession and prayer). There's no shortage of reasons as to why people should not present themselves at the Lord's table. But even if one is thoroughly prepared and in good (earthly) healthy, there may still be hesitation. There has been an effort over the past 25 years or so among the Orthodox to encourage frequent communion at all chances. Famous monastics and theologians on the Holy Mountain have come out on both sides of the issue. Here is what Fr. Philotheos Zervako, an Athonite monk and spiritual son of St. Nektarios of Aegina says:
Of this heavenly bread some people out of disbelief and impiety do not partake at all, while other out of ignorance, poverty of faith [Matt. 17:20], negligence and lack of true and pure love towards God, partake of it once, twice, or four times a year. Yet even during these few times, they commune out of habit, because most of them draw near without fear, fait and love ["With fear of God and with faith and love draw near," Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom]. It is sorrowful and worthy of many lamentations that the priest comes out to the beautiful gate, to invite the Christians to commune and no one comes to commune...Where have we ended up! At least a few of the God-fearing Christians ought to commune at each liturgy...May the all-good God enlighten, awaken and arouse everyone from the sleep of sloth and negligence. Then, when we have repented and been cleansed by repentance and confessions, let us draw near with fear, faith and love to our pure God and become worhty heirs of His eternal and unending life and kingdom. Let no one who is unrepentant like Judas dare to approach the mystical table so that he not be burnt up and handed over to the eternal fire...
Father Philotheos does appear to want Christians to frequently commune, but NOT at the expense of repentance and confession. We are exhorted by St. Paul to examine ourselves before partaking. In other words, there has to be some work involved. Too many people, and I know a few, partake at every Liturgy because they feel they are simply entitled. These are the Christians who arrive late, never stay for the entire Liturgy and usually behave in irreverent manner during the time that they are there. At the same time, there are some good, repentant Christians who are truly prepared but do not commune. They feel it is something so special that to partake of it multiple times will diminish its importance and its efficacy. That is a dangerous thought! God's grace is diminished because we partake of it often?
Clearly, both extremes need to be avoided and are dangerous. Fr. Philotheos, in true Orthodox fashion, is speaking holistically. The Eucharist simply does not stand alone. It is a gift of God but one that requires us to make some effort. Are we ever truly worthy? No. The priest cries out "Holy things are for the Holy" to which the congregation responds "One is Holy; one is Lord: Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father. Amen." We are never worthy, only Christ is, but he has made us worthy. And he has made us worthy to partake of the holy mysteries by participation in His other mysteries, namely baptism, chrismation and confession! No one who is not baptized and christmated receives communion! So, why should confession also not be a prerequisite especially when we are conscious of very grave sin. Can we enumerate all of our sins! No, but we try and that is why the priest at the end of our confession says that our sins, those we have said and those we have failed to confess whether through ignorance or forgetfulness or whateeve reason.
Communion is the greatest mystery of all. We are told Adam and Eve walked with (pre-incarnate) God in the Garden of Eden. We have the opportunity to "walk" with God in a very intimate way as he dwells in us and we in Him. We should never assume it as a given; we should prepare. We should do so frequently and always with fear and love of God.