Receiving the Eucharist
Orthopraxis 3 – Receiving the Eucharist
The Divine Liturgy has two high points: Word and Sacrament. These points are clearly delineated. The reading of the Gospel and its exposition in the sermon form the high point of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, while the reception of the Sacrament is the high point of the Liturgy of the Faithful. The Catechumens were dismissed, after the prayers for their continuing growth, from the assembly in the early church, in part because of fear for their lives in times of persecution and before they were fully committed to the Church, in part because the Mystery of the Sacrament was considered private, limited to the Faithful (those who had been baptized and chrismated).
The emphasis in most American Orthodox Churches in recent decades has been on frequent reception of the Sacrament. Fr Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) set the tone for this in his magisterial teaching on the Eucharist in the Seventies and Eighties. Indeed, many of us who study the liturgy historically believe that the practice of the early church was that everyone communed each time the community gathered around the table, in fact that communion was the point of it all. The horizontal community, so to speak, was constituted through the communion of members with God.
Schmemann’s understanding is that participation in the liturgy itself is the best preparation for receiving the sacrament under normal circumstances. By “normal circumstances” we mean that the minimal rules were observed in advance of receiving; namely, fasting from the preceding night, recent confession, reconciliation within the community of faith, and offering the prayers before reception. We have been doing the latter publicly in our regular celebrations of the Divine Liturgy for some months now.
There are exceptions to this approach. Parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Patriarchal Churches (those directly under the Patriarch of Moscow), e.g., still observe the rule of making your confession before communing, each time. There is a breadth of practice, admittedly, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, indeed from parish to parish within jurisdictions. Absent direct regulations, the priest usually determines the practice.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, of which we are a part, encourages confession as a seasonal practice – and as a virtual requirement during Great Lent – unless you are troubled by a particular transgression, in which case of course you would be in ongoing conversation and confession with your priest. We want to be observant and sensitive, but at the same time we do not want to appear legalistic, as if confession must always accompany reception.
Fr Schmemann began his wonderful little book FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD by agreeing with the German philosopher who said “we are what we eat.” Schmemann agreed with this and raised the idea a notch by suggesting that, of course, we are what we eat. We become that which we consume, and hence when we receive Christ in the sacrament we are becoming Christ.
The minimal rules were cited above; most of us are quite capable of keeping these without much trouble. If you sense that I want to encourage you to the frequent reception of Holy Communion, you are correct. We receive the Body of Christ in order to become the body of Christ, and in order to grow in faith and love and hope.
Thanks be for Michael Elliott, who pointed out that I did not mention that there are exceptions to the fasting rule. Small children, the infirm elderly, and people who for medical reasons are unable to fast (some hypoglycemia sufferers, for example) – these are exceptions to the rule. The Church is gentle in this regard, overall. So much for the fast before communing.
With regard to fasting in general, we are also gentle. Many teenagers learn how to observe the Lenten fast in bits and pieces, e.g., this year learning to go without meat, the next learning to go without milk, and so forth. As far as the whole fasting practice goes, you have heard me on this before: we are not legalists, we live in the light of the Gospel, and we ask one another to observe the fasts as best we can. If fasting makes you angry or bitter, or makes you feel superior to others, then it is not achieving its purpose and you start again on another foot. Already in the 4th century, St John Chrysostom in his Paschal homily knew what was going on and sent out the invitation: “You who have kept the fast and you who have not done so, come to the banquet!” But we are not excused from the attempt.