By Fr. Tom Avramis
Light & Life Publishing Co. 1986
(Written with the approval of Bishop Anthony of San Francisco)
To the Orthodox mind, to limit spiritual renewal to the exercise of one or two disciplines is to take a narrow view of what renewal is ultimately about—a deeper relationship with God. A holistic approach is necessary, one that encompasses the entire person, body and soul, into this endeavor to come closer to God. It is not enough to just believe in Christ. What was important to early Christians was to believe in Jesus Christ in the correct way. They knew that “the demons also believe” (James 2:19). Jesus Christ is God. Not “a god,” not “created” by God, not an “idea,” but God Himself in the flesh. In 325 AD, the Council in Nicea dealt with this issue. The council overwhelmingly denounced those who would see Jesus Christ as anything other than God. Upon asking God what to tell the people if they asked who sent him, God told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. (Exodus 3:14) This title became sacred to the Jews. In John 8:58, Jesus uses the same title! He calls Himself “I AM.”
The Eucharist: What is it?
During the Divine Liturgy we pray and ask God to change what the bread and wine are by nature, into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. So great is this mystery that we are left without any possible response which would express what God has done. Therefore we offer the only answer we can: Thank you! The Bible tells us, in Matthew 26:26-28, that Jesus, at the Last Supper, took bread, blessed it, distributed it, and then said, “Take eat; this is My Body.” Our Lord went on to the Cup saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My Blood…” This is not mere symbolism even though Jesus equates Himself with other things (Door in John 10:9; Vine in John 10:14, and so on). Only in the Eucharist do we see a material element as being referred to as something other than it appears to be. Prior to the blessing and the giving of thanks the elements were ordinary bread and wine. It was only after Jesus consecrated them that the two elements became in reality the body and blood of our Lord. To this day, at every Divine Liturgy, the wine and bread are not considered to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ until the blessing and thanksgiving have been completed. Jesus tells that He is the bread (manna) from Heaven (John 6:35, 38). He also said to eat of this “new bread” meant never seeing death (vv.49-50). He says “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (v.53) And, as if to settle completely the issue, Jesus adds, “for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (v.55). Those who heard these words understood completely what Jesus meant. “Many of his disciples, when they heard it said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” Furthermore, so much did this teaching shock the hearers that we are told that from that time many of Jesus’ disciples no longer followed Him (v.66). The fact of the matter is that to this day there are still many who find this a difficult teaching to comprehend and refuse to accept it. Is our criterion for acceptance of Jesus’ teaching based on our ability to comprehend what He tells us or on our faith in His authority as God? In this age of rationalism it is not popular to exhibit a belief in anything that cannot be comprehended by the mind. What so many Christians have forgotten is that our criterion for believing anything as true followers of Christ is the authority of our Lord—not our capability to comprehend what He has done or said. In fact, St. Paul refers to the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ and goes so far to suggest that an improper understanding of the Eucharist can harm our health and could even lead to death (1Corinthians 11:27-30). Therefore, if receiving the Eucharist is receiving Jesus, we must take care to approach the Eucharist in proper fashion. And, as St. Paul reminds us (1Co. 11:27-30), a proper approach is necessary in receiving the Eucharist. The way we approach this awesome mystery determines whether our participation will be a blessing in our lives, or whether we are condemning ourselves.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline intended to enhance our participation in the Eucharist. It is not to be seen as an excuse to keep away from the Chalice. Fasting is not a discipline restricted only to food. “Why have we fasted, and you do not see it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you take no knowledge of it? Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:3-4) Fasting is more than simply not eating. It is also not lying, stealing, cheating, committing adultery, and on and on. To think that by only setting a few days aside to omit certain foods from our diet makes us worthy to receive the Eucharist is to be spiritually naïve. The practice of fasting on Wednesday and Friday has never been purposefully linked to the Eucharist. Orthodox are required to fast on those two days of the week regardless if they are going to participate in the Eucharist or not. The 69th Canon of the Holy Apostles clearly reveals that the routine of Wednesday and Friday fasting is obligatory upon all in the Church, except of course, in the case of physical illness. This same Canon requires that fasting be maintained throughout Great Lent also. No mention is made of the Eucharist. In other words, regular fasting must be a regular way of life. Many Orthodox, who restrict their view of fasting to the bstention of foods, got to the point of extending this Wednesday and Friday fast to Saturday. They reason that if they fast on Wednesday and Friday in preparation for the Eucharist on Sunday, it does not seem right not to fast on the day prior to receiving. However, in doing so, they violate the 64th Canon of the Holy Apostles which specifically forbids ever fasting on Saturday, the day God rested after creation. Exceptions to this Canon are Holy Saturday and a few other major feast days, should they fall on a Saturday. Much of the confusion concerning fasting and the Eucharist is caused by a basic misunderstanding in the two types of fasting in the Church. We find the Eucharistic Fast and fasting not directly linked to the Eucharist. Both are necessary along with a morally upright life in the spiritual life of the Orthodox person. In The Orthodox Church, Orthodox theologian Timothy (Kallistos) Ware states (p.294): “Orthodoxy insists on a strict fast before communion and nothing can be eaten or drunk after waking in the morning.” If therefore, you keep the Eucharistic Fast, and there exists no moral reason for you to stay away from the Chalice, you become obligated to come forward and received Christ as He is offered at the Liturgy. To assert that one has not fasted on the previous Wednesday and Friday and therefore cannot come forward for Communion is, by itself, an insufficient cause to abstain from the Eucharist. So strongly did the early church feel about this that we find in the 9th Apostolic Canon of the Holy Apostles the following: “All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated, on the grounds that they are causing the Church a breach of order.” It is in fact that the early Orthodox attended liturgy for only one reason: The Eucharist. The liturgy contains a host of worthy elements aside from the Eucharist, such as the petitions, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc. But all these elements are but a means to an end, the end being the Eucharist. Your priest is your spiritual father. He is responsible for your spiritual walk in Christ. The burden of your spiritual welfare is on his shoulders. He is there to guide you into a greater awareness of Jesus Christ. There are situations where your priest may require you to fast, from food or otherwise, beyond the usual Eucharistic Fast. If he does this, he is entirely within his right to do so. If your priest believes that because of a certain sin in your life additional spiritual preparation is in order, listen to him. This is for your own good. A word of caution! If your priest has you observing a discipline beyond the Eucharistic Fast, this was meant for you and only you. It would be improper to tell others that they also are obligated to follow whatever routine your priest has given you. Even if your priest has not advised you to fast beyond the Eucharistic Fast, but you yourself wish to do so, this is your business. Once you follow a certain regimen that goes beyond the Eucharistic Fast, whether that regimen is dietary fasting or moral fasting, and they proceed to compare yourself to others, you have then completely lost any benefit which could have been possible. St. John Cassian writes: “We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul…but with much humility and faith…considering ourselves unworthy. Otherwise, it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do…such people manifest more pride than humility…for when they received, they think of themselves as worthy.” Once fasting becomes our impediment to a fuller spiritual life, we have then perverted it. Fasting was never intended to be a barrier to keep us from Christ but a bridge to lead us to fuller participation in the life of Christ.
Every indication seems to suggest that the Orthodox Christian know the following: that Confession is a Sacrament; that it is necessary; that he or she should go regularly. What is also evident is that, with the above points in mind, the average Orthodox Christian is not a regular participant in the Mystery of Confession. There are two views of Confession and the Eucharist. The first sees confession as necessary before each participation in the Eucharist. The second sees Confession as a periodic practice not required before every participation in the Eucharist. The result of viewing Confession as a prerequisite to every participation in the Eucharist is that it does not enhance one’s spiritual life but hinders it. It hinders it because Confession becomes an excuse not to take Holy Communion; much like fasting becomes an excuse to stay away from the Chalice. Confession itself, of course, is not a hindrance, but people make it a hindrance. The Church however, does not require a Confession from her people every time they wish to partake of the Eucharist. This teaching is not in the mainstream of the tradition of the Church. What is in the tradition of the Church though, is the teaching that the priest is entrusted with using his discretion with his people. This means that in certain cases the priest may require Confession from persons who received the Eucharist only periodically. If you resolve to be a regular participant in the Eucharist, as every Orthodox should be, you should plan on periodic Confession. Periodic is a term that should be defined by your priest in consultation with you. Usually it means anywhere from once a month to once every six months. The Sacrament of Confession exists to enhance our approach to the Eucharist, not to impede it. As in the case of Fasting, once a sacrament (in this instance Confession) keeps us away from the Eucharist, we have perverted its meaning in our lives.
Frequency of Participation
The Divine Liturgy is centered around the partaking of the Eucharist. This is the main purpose of the Liturgy. The 9th Apostolic Canon says, “All the faithful who enter and listen to the scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated on the grounds that they are causing the Church a breach of order.” How often do you sin? If you are honest with yourself as a Christian, you will acknowledge that you sin constantly. Sin is a part of your life. For the Christian, if sin is a part of our life, so too, must forgiveness be a part of our life. Constant sin requires constant orgiveness. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1John 1:8) The Eucharist, approached in the correct manner, takes away our sin and gives us the strength to draw closer to our 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, with faith and with love, draw near!” If you do not have a valid reason for not partaking, you are obligated to receive the Eucharist. The problem with many Orthodox today is that they have reversed the concept. Today, many feel as if they cannot participate unless they have a good enough reason. This is contrary to what the Church teaches. You must participate unless you have a valid reason not to. To live a spiritual life of infrequent participation in the Eucharist means spiritual sickness. Are you spiritually sick? If you are, the Eucharist can help you (along with prayer, fasting, and confession). Maybe you fail to be regular in your partaking of the Eucharist because you feel unworthy. In this case, the question may be asked; when will you be worthy? Of course, if you wait until you are worthy, forget it, you will never be able to approach the Chalice. One of the reasons we must constantly go forward is precisely because we are unworthy. Are you aware that there does exist someone who stands to gain by your staying away from the Chalice? That person is the devil. The longer you stay away from the Eucharist, the stronger the devil’s influence in your life. Do you want to destroy the devil? Then receive Jesus Christ! The more you consume Him, the more He will consume you. Consume Jesus Christ before the devil consumes you.
Prayers Before Holy Communion
I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Therefore, I pray to You, have mercy upon me, and forgive my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and for life eternal. Amen.
How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Your saints? If I dare to enter into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment; and being bound up, I shall be cast out by the angels. In Your love, Lord, cleanse my soul and save me.
Loving Master, Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let not these holy Gifts be to my condemnation because of my unworthiness, but for the cleansing and sanctification of soul and body and the pledge of the future life and kingdom. It is good for me to cling to God and to place in Him the hope of my salvation. Receive me today, Son of God, as a partaker of Your mystical Supper. I will not reveal Your mystery to Your adversaries. Nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to You: Lord, remember me in Your kingdom.
Prayers After Holy Communion
Glory to you, our Lord, glory to you. Glory to you, our Lord, glory to you. Glory to you, our Lord, glory to you.
Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let Your sacred Body be unto me for eternal life and Your precious Blood for forgiveness of sins. Let this Eucharist be unto me for joy, health, and gladness. And in Your awesome Second Coming make me, a sinner, worthy to stand at the right hand of Your glory; through the intercessions of Your pure Mother and of all Your Saints. Amen.
I thank You, Christ and Master our God, King of the ages and Creator of all things, for all the good gifts You have given me, and especially for the participation in Your pure and life-giving mysteries. I pray You, therefore, good and loving Lord, keep me under Your protection and under the shadow of Your wings. Grant that to my last breath I may, with a pure conscience, partake worthily of Your gifts for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. For You are the bread of life, the source of holiness, the giver of all good things, and to You we give glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
I thank You, Lord my God, that You have not rejected me, a sinner, but have made me worthy to partake of Your holy mysteries. I thank You that You have permitted me, although I am unworthy, to receive Your pure and heavenly gifts. O loving Master, who died and rose for our sake and granted to us these awesome and life-giving mysteries for the well being and sanctification of our souls and bodies, let these gifts be for healing of my own soul and body, the averting of every evil, the illumination of the eyes of my heart, the peace of my spiritual powers, a faith unashamed, a love unfeigned, the fulfilling of wisdom, the observing of Your commandments, the receiving of Your divine grace, and the inheritance of Your kingdom. Preserved by them in Your holiness, may I always be mindful of Your grace and no longer live for myself, but for You, our Master and Benefactor. May I pass from this life in the hope of eternal life, and attain to the everlasting rest, where the voices of Your Saints who feast are unceasing, and their joy, beholding the ineffable beauty of Your countenance, is unending. For You, Christ our God, are the true joy and gladness of those who love You, and all creation praises You forever. Amen.
Saint John Chrysostomos
I thank You, loving Master, benefactor of my soul, that on this day You have made me worthy once again of Your heavenly and immortal mysteries. Direct my ways on the right path, establish me firmly in Your fear, guard my life, and make my endeavors safe, through the prayers and supplications of the glorious Theotokos and ever virgin Mary and of all Your Saints. Amen.