Five Questions about Holy Communion

1. “Frequent Communion is bad for you.”

This statement must be qualified. While the point of our lives as Christians is to enter into and grow in our common union—“communion”—with God and with His People, the reception of Holy Communion should not be approached casually. St. John Chrysostom tells us that, while the Eucharist is indeed the fountain of new life, it can also be for those who receive it casually or without proper preparation a fire which can condemn us. Hence, such a statement must be understood in light of the spirit in which the statement is made: that the reception of Holy Communion without proper preparation—without repentance, without a genuine desire to turn our lives around, without seeking God’s forgiveness, without prayer and reflection on the course of our lives—canindeed be spiritually harmful and can, as St. John Chrysostom asserts, ultimately condemn us. It is not “frequent Communion” per se that is “bad” for us but, rather, receiving Communion without appropriate preparation and repentance that is “bad” for us. There are many instances in which people receive Communion frequently without proper preparation simply because, in many places especially in North America, everyone is expected to commune at every Liturgy. While St. John Chrysostom once complained “that the sacrifice is offered, yet no one approaches the Lord’s table,” one must approach the chalice “in faith and love,” with humility, in a spirit of repentance, and without holding grudges or anger against others. Scripture itself reminds us that, if we have something against our brother, we should leave our gift at the altar, seek reconciliation with our brother, and then return to offer our gift (see Mt 5:23). Here we are clearly reminded of the importance of proper preparation for the reception of Communion.

2. “There is no one here that can hear your Confession in English and you do not speak enough of our language to confess your sins. No Confession—No Communion.”

On the one hand, one does not have to speak the same language as the confessor in order to “qualify” to have their Confession heard. Ultimately, it is to God that we confess our sins; the priest is His witness, as one of the prayers before Confession clearly states. And, while the Confessor may be limited in his knowledge of other languages, surely God is not bound by such limitations. On the other hand, the confessor who would refuse to witness a Confession based on his inability to understand the penitent errs, inasmuch as he is somehow defining the quality of one’s repentance by his personal ability to understand what the penitent is saying. Such is not the case.
What is more essential here is the understanding held in many places that one may not receive Holy Communion unless one has made an individual Confession prior to every reception of Communion. For many years, this was somewhat “standard” practice, primarily during the centuries when frequent reception of the Eucharist was unheard of. [There are many reasons, too many to recount in an email, that led to the infrequent reception of Communion—and as you have perhaps noted above, already in the time of St. John Chrysostom one finds that frequent reception of the Eucharist was not necessarily observed.] Until quite recently—I would say prior to the 1960s—it was common to find the faithful receiving the Eucharist only once every year, usually during Great Lent. Certainly, if one receives the Eucharist only once or twice every year, one should indeed observe individual Confession before receiving Holy Communion. As the frequent reception of Communion became more commonplace, especially in the Orthodox Church in America, the understanding of Confession and Communion as two separate sacraments began to become clearer, to the point that the Holy Synod of Bishops noted, in a lengthy report issued in the early 1970s, that it is not necessary to observe individual Confession every time one receives the Eucharist, provided one is communing regularly, is attentive to the guidance of his or her Spiritual Father, and is properly prepared through prayer and fasting to receive the Eucharist.
While this is generally the understanding in most OCA parishes today, it is not necessarily the understanding in Orthodox Churches abroad, where the practice of frequent reception of the Eucharist has yet to become a reality. Painful as what you have experienced here in terms of language and the like, one must humbly acknowledge that the level of Church life found in many parishes in North America is somewhat different than that found elsewhere—again for a wide variety of reasons—and that one should humbly respect the “wheres” and “whys” of the Church which one is visiting.

3. “You ate meat with us last night so you can not receive the Mysteries today.”

I have encountered this before, even from priests who have eaten with laypersons on the eve of the Liturgy, yet who themselves commune while chastizing the laity with whom they ate and drank the night before for doing likewise. The spirit of this regulation is, again, found in appropriate preparation for the Eucharist: One should not “party” the night before the reception of the Eucharist. Of course, if one has “partied hard” on the eve of the Liturgy, one should refrain from receiving the Eucharist; however, if one simply shared a normal Saturday evening meal, this should be no obstacle. Everyone does not understand the “spirit” of the regulation, which also must be humbly acknowledged without passing judgment, which can lead some individuals to feel that eating, even for the purpose of sustainence, is not permitted. Also, there are bound to be those to take the regulation which states that nothing should be taken by mouth from midnight the night before one receives the Eucharist to the N-th degree as well, thereby barring anything from being taken by mouth, not just from midnight, but for a longer period. It is only my opinion, but if one is given to associating with individuals who believe that eating on the eve of the Eucharist—without partying and drinking and carrousing in any way—is an obstacle to the reception of the Eucharist, one should avoid eating with such individuals, opting to eat alone or to eat with those who do not take the spirit out of the law, so to speak.

4. “You have not been fasting for the past three days.”

In many places, there is a custom of fasting for three days or even a full week prior to the reception of the Eucharist. This is not a universal custom among all Orthodox Christians, and there seems to be a variety of explanations as to why this custom has taken hold in some places. While this is not the custom among perhaps the majority of faithful within the OCA, it is a long-time, ingrained custom elsewhere. What is unfortunate is that generally the focus here is neither on repentance, nor on changing our lives, nor on seeking forgiveness or reconciliation or a common union with God or His People but, rather, on fulfilling a regulation or “obligation” to fast for three days—period. It is my opinion, however, that if this is the custom in the place where one is, one should again humbly and quietly follow it, rather than create further discomfort or scandal.
I, like you, have traveled to traditionally Orthodoxy countries on many occasions, and I, like you, have also witnessed such attitudes. I would say, however, that the return to the Lord’s Table will occur in God’s good time, rather than in ours.
In Russia, for example, one is likely to find the precise attitudes you have encountered above, even though one of the most revered saints at the present time, Saint John of Kronstadt, was an advocate of frequent Communion—with proper preparation, however. Icons of Saint John invariably acknowledge this, as he is generally depicted holding a chalice in his left hand while pointing to its opening with his right, in a gesture of invitation to commune. But one must keep in mind that, between the time Saint John passed away at the beginning of the 20th century and the time that the Church was free from communist persecution some 80 years later, a lot had happened that pushed back the process considerably. Hence, if you consider the attitudes you have encountered in light of the society and setting in which they are being held, you should come to a greater appreciation of why such attitudes have developed and continue to be perpetuated.
While you did not mention the country you visit often, and while I may be wrong to assume that it is a formerly communist country, I think that the same principles could be applied, even if you are speaking of traditionally Orthodox lands that did not have to endure persecution and repression under the communist regimes of the past.

5. “Why infants partake of the Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church?”

This is actually the most ancient practice for all the apostolic of East and West. It seems well established that infant baptism was an apostolic ordinance (as indicated by Origen). The mystery or sacrament of initiated included not only baptism (by triple immersion) but also chrismation and the reception of the Eucharist. Hence, one is either in the Church and in Christ or not – there is no partial or fragmentary participation in the Church.

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.

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