The Eucharist – Holy Communion
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 6:53–6
What is Holy Communion?
During the Divine Liturgy, the people of God gather together and offer up bread and wine to God the Father in thanksgiving (the word Eucharistía literally means ‘thanksgiving’), asking that He send down His Holy Spirit in order to transform the Gifts offered into the Body and Blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. God, accepting our offering of earthly things, thus gives back to us heavenly things.
What we receive in the Eucharist, then, is not mere bread and wine, not just representations, but truly the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ, the Word of God made flesh. The Eucharist is our most direct and intimate encounter with Jesus Christ, who we receive ‘for forgiveness of sins and life everlasting’.
It represents the summit of Christian worship, and is the fulfilment and reference point for everything we do.
Who can receive Holy Communion?
Only Orthodox Christians in good standing, who have the blessing of their spiritual father and have prepared themselves for reception of the Holy Mysteries, may receive Holy Communion. Likewise, an Orthodox Christian may not receive Communion in a non-Orthodox church; doing so would imply that the person has left the Orthodox Church in order to join another.
When should I receive Holy Communion?
It is the duty of every Christian to partake of Holy Communion, since it is by this sacrament that we become one with Christ and with one another. We ought to partake regularly, if possible whenever the Divine Liturgy is served (and not simply two or four times per year), provided we are properly prepared. Regular reception of Holy Communion is especially beneficial — although this must not become a cause of disrespect or indifference towards the Body and Blood of Christ.
How do I prepare for Holy Communion?
St Paul tells us that, ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the Body and Blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup’ (1 Cor 11:27). So, what does it mean to receive in a ‘worthy manner’?
Just before the people receive the Mysteries, the deacon proclaims, ‘With fear of God, faith and love draw near!’ These, then, are the three requirements for reception of Holy Communion, and the three things we try to cultivate when we speak of preparation:
- Fear of God — that is, respect and reverence for the things of God, particularly for the Eucharist itself.
- Faith — In a general sense, this means communicants must be baptised Christians who have faith in God and accept the teachings of the Church. More specifically, it concerns our faith in relation to Holy Communion; faith that what we are receiving is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, with all that that entails.
- Love — when we speak of ‘Communion’, we refer not only to our communion with God, but also our communion with one another in God. As St John the Apostle tells us, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:20). It is impossible, then, to draw near to Christ in the Chalice while harbouring resentment or hatred for our fellow man. The Lord himself says, ‘If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift’ (Matthew 5:23–24).
On a more practical level, preparation for Communion normally entails that we fast from food and drink from midnight on the day we wish to Commune, that we read the Prayers of Preparation for Holy Communion (found in the Book of Hours and most prayer books), and more generally that we observe a daily rule of prayer, attend church services regularly, go to confession regularly, fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the four annual periods of fasting, etc.
Of course, the primary preparation for Communion is the Divine Liturgy itself. Those who wish to Commune should strive to be present for the entire Liturgy (at least from the Epistle and Gospel readings).
It is also important to note that Holy Communion is medicine for the sick, not a prize for the perfect. While it is important to receive in a worthy manner, we ourselves can never be worthy to receive Holy Communion (indeed, the purpose of the Prayers of Preparation is to help us understand precisely this). We draw near to Christ in our unworthiness, not because we deserve Him, but because we need Him.
Confession and Holy Communion
Regular confession is a prerequisite for partaking of Holy Communion. However, the regularity with which one needs to confess will depend on each person’s individual circumstances. In other words, there needn’t be a 1:1 ratio of confession to Communion — if you attend two Divine Liturgies in a given week, for example, it isn’t necessary to come for confession twice that same week.