Great is the Mystery of the Church, for itself it is an all-encompassing, sacred all-mystery of the Godman. A Mystery, which can be comprehended only from inside, by living through her Holy Mysteries and Virtues of the Holy Spirit, and this within the frames of what is revealed to us in this graceful life and struggle. Therefore, knowledge of the dogmas and canons of the Church is needed, to be acquainted with her history is commendable, yet, to acquire a pure heart is most virtuous. It is only in the purified heart that man's mind can abide in prayer and, illumined there by Divine grace, free of delusion it can discern the mysteries of faith and life. Such heart and mind had the Holy Fathers, who have left us as well in written heritage all that, in the long-lasting and full of hardship experience of the graceful union with the living God, they had seen and gone through. Walking in their footsteps, especially when growing in the spiritual life, which is a little known to us, we shall never go astray.
The issue on the need for more or less frequent communicating of the Body and Blood of Christ for its relevance is strongly imposed nowadays and seeks an answer in the life of our local Holy Orthodox Church. As her Episcope, obliged before God and before the people of God rightly to proclaim the word of Christ's truth, I am called to clarify this problem in the light of Orthodox Tradition. However, the previously mentioned needs to be taken only within the frames of the effort for renewal of the entire spiritual life and struggle in our country: fasting, prayer, confession, spiritual guidance, etc.
While discussing this issue, for us as pastors of God's Church, two things are important: first, what the canons of the Church and the Holy Fathers say as regards partaking of the Holy Mysteries, i.e. what Holy Tradition says; and second, what the actual situation here is like.
We ought to thank God, Who in His providence devises our salvation and acts faster than demonic slyness, so that our Holy Orthodox Church has already given an answer to the question about the more or less frequent communicating at her Council in Constantinople, held in 1819.
In response to the disputes that took place towards the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th centuries on the Holy Mountain, the Holy Council decides: "As regards the Divine and Holy Communion, have no doubts and know that all devout Christians are obliged, at every sacred Mystagogy (Holy Liturgy) to approach and partake of the life-creating Body, for which cause they are summoned by the priest with these words: "With fear of God, with faith and love, draw near." As for the one who is hesitant and incapable of communicating every day, to him the Church sends word and orders to approach the Holy Communion when he has confessed to his spiritual father, when he feels worthy for the Holy Communion and has received blessing from his spiritual father. If he commits offence and is subdued to penance
(), he ought to undergo it in repentance and tears. Then going back to his spiritual father, to receive absolution and thus become worthy of the Divine and Holy Communion, for which there are no time limits. Forty days from the last approach to the Divine Mysteries do not have to pass either, for it is free and the one who wishes to get permission from his spiritual father (as one with no offence committed), is allowed to communicate even every Sunday, for which there is neither limitation, nor an Apostolic canon1 .
This resolution of the 1819 Constantinople Council is in unison with and explains the already existing canons of the Orthodox Church, the Eighth and the Ninth Apostolic Canons2 , the Sixty-sixth and the Eighty-eighth Canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Second Canon of the Holy Local Council in Antioch, and is in accordance with Patristic Tradition, too. And the entire Holy Tradition is briefly summed up in the words of Saint John Chrysostom: "Whom are we to praise, them who communicate once or them who do that often or rather those communicating seldom? Neither of them, but the ones who communicate with clean conscience and whose life is immaculate. Let such ones always draw near, and the others not even once."
So, from the previously said we may conclude that the Holy canons, Holy Fathers, Holy Councils do not restrict the approach to the Holy Mysteries, but on the contrary, with their strictness and threat for excommunication from the Church, they encourage the communion to be regular.
Regular communion, according to the Holy Fathers, means all those who approach the Holy Mysteries, whether laity or clergy, to prepare for the act and to have blessing from their spiritual father. The preparation required for the Holy Communion also includes keeping the fast set up by the Church (no more, no less), maintenance of the daily prayer rule with prostrations, everyday reading from the Holy Script and if possible from Patristic works, as well as regular confession and counselling with one's spiritual father. Briefly, our entire life in the Church, as practice of love for God and for all people, to be our preparation for the Holy Communion. This practice of love is a sign of life and a sign that the Holy Communion vivifies and transforms us. Without this practice may no one dare to communicate, whoever that one may be.
Being aware of the spiritual struggle and growth of each of his spiritual children, and the situation within the Church, the spiritual father decides on the time and even the place of the approach to the Holy Mysteries. Will this approach be four times a year or once a week or even more frequently, as it is the case in the living cenobitic monasteries, depends exclusively on the blessing of the spiritual father.
Taking into consideration the current situation in our entire local Church, where the largest part of the faithful very rarely or never approach the Holy Mysteries (and when they do this on certain major feasts, it is without having confessed), we must try, not at once, but gradually to change this custom, inconsistent with the Holy Tradition.
I add a possible direction:
Days like Pascha, the Feast of St. Peter (the Holy, Glorious and All-Praised Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul), the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, Christmas, must not pass without us taking Communion. Without Communion there is no godly life. Likewise, it is good for us to prepare ourselves for Communion by fasting, by prayer, and by confession also on the other feasts of Christ and of the Most Holy Mother of God, for the feasts of our great Macedonian and all-Slavic Saints Clement, Nahum, as well as for the feast of the church where we attend divine services. For only when having partaken, we most truly and most fully participate in the event we are celebrating, which is of special importance to our salvation. This I do not say alone, but also the Holy Fathers and the canons of the Church.3
We need to become aware that our fallen nature and darkened mind tend to explain and enclose the Godman Christ, the faith and life in Him, within certain limits and measures of their own. For instance, the Church canons call us to communicate at every Holy Liturgy, and we reduce this to four times a year, to once or not even once. The canons present us the perfect thing and for us in the Church they have eternal meaning. Our duty is to make an effort to reach the perfect thing and humble ourselves because of our imperfections, and not change the Church canons according to our abilities and desires. For the Holy Apostle Paul said: "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8).
Let us take a look at what the Holy Fathers say about Communion. Saint Seraphim of Sarov says:
"Extremely important and essential for the salvation of the souls of all Christians is the communion of Christ's Holy Mysteries. The more often, the better. To be distressed by our unworthiness, distancing ourselves from communion of the Holy Mysteries, is a sin.
Even if we filled an ocean with our tears, we could not render anything in return to our Lord for the gifts poured on us for free.
The grace given to us through the Holy Communion is so great that a man, be he twice as unworthy and sinful, would be cleansed and made new, if only with humility and awareness of his sinfulness he approached the Lord.
He who communicates will be saved everywhere, whereas one who does not - I doubt it.
Even if I had to crawl on my knees to church, I would do so - lest I was left without the Holy Communion."4
Great and irrepressible is the yearning of the holy men for the Communion of Christ's Body and Blood. And it is no wonder. As the Holy Elder Sophrony of Essex puts it: "When our life is entirely built on the corner-stone of our faith, Jesus Christ, then naturally arises the need of our spirit for as frequent communion as possible."5
The Holy Elders and ascetics of the Church, while passing the three stages of spiritual growth - purification of the heart, illumination of the mind and deification - are very well aware that the process of perfection is not complete without participation in the liturgical life. The labour of the struggle is ours, but it does not lead us to perfection, since the true forgiveness of the sin, the purification, illumination, and deification are works of the grace of the union with Christ, which in its fullness occurs only in the community of the Holy Eucharist (Liturgy) and never outside it. Hence, in the light of man's spiritual growth and the changes that take place at the same time, we pray at the Holy Liturgy: "Distribute, then, Master the offered Holy Gifts to all of us for our good, according to the need of each." Here is what on this issue also says the divine Nicholas Cabasilas: "This Mystery is light to all who have already been purified from sin, it is purification to those still being cleansed, and fortification to all who are fighting against the evil one and against the passions. There is nothing left for the former but to receive the light of the world, as well as the eye cleansed from specks. Whereas, for the ones who still need to be purified, what else could there be to cleanse them? "The Blood of the Son of God cleanses us from all sin" (1John 1:7), says John the much beloved by Christ. And who does not know about the victory over the evil one, that Christ alone has gained, Whose Body has risen as a unique victory over sin! With it (the Body) He can help all who struggle in what He Himself has suffered and, being tempted, has won (Heb. 2:18).6 From what has been said so far we can conclude that at each stage of spiritual perfection the believer should be allowed approach to the Holy Mysteries. The believer should not distance himself from the Holy Communion, waiting for a certain spiritual maturity which, for its part, without the Holy Mysteries could never be reached.
On the other hand, about the danger of indifference and carelessness in approaching the Holy Mysteries, Saint Theodore the Studite writes : "Great power lies in tears and contrition, and first of all in the Communion of the Holy Mysteries, to which seeing how - I do not know why neglectfully - you behave, I am utterly puzzled. There are still people who approach the Mysteries on Sundays; and when Liturgy is performed on other days, no one approaches. There used to be practice, in the monasteries, the ones who wanted that sometimes even everyday to communicate; and now this happens very rarely, it can even not occur at all."
"If today no one deprives oneself from common food daily and in case not to taste it gets utterly upset, then what sense does it make when the Bread of life—not some ordinary bread, and the Cup of immortality—not an ordinary Cup, are offered to all, and yet there are no interested. Has any of them ever tasted it? Did he consider it to be indispensable? What foolishness and nonsense! If this has been the practice so far, I beg you, from now on let us strive not to allow it happen again, knowing the power of this gift of God; but always, with all our strength, purifying ourselves, let us approach and communicate of the Holy and sanctifying Mysteries. I think, our endeavour will greatly help us keep ourselves pure, inspiring us to this (communion) through the preparation of the very anticipation (of the communicating). Whereas, being indifferent to the communion, we leave the passions greater freedom and room to catch us."7
Saint Nicholas Cabasilas explains this state thus: "From these reasons, we always are in need of this Flesh and are partaking regularly at the holy Table, in order for the law of the spirit to remain in us actively, and there to be no room left for the flesh to live, nor to give it an opportunity to fall on the ground as the heavy things do when their support is taken away."
"Because of all this, the Mystery is perfect and there is nothing the ones participating in it may need, that this Mystery does not give them in abundance. Yet, since it does not wipe out the infirmity of the material, for we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2Cor. 4:7), we take this remedy not once, but continuously. And it is necessary the Maker always to be near the clay and to renew and build up the image when He is disfigured; and we constantly to be supported by the succour from the Physician, Who restores the matter when it decays and He to amend the cognition when it goes astray, lest death stealthily creeps into. The Holy Apostle Paul says about this: …even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). And: …the Blood of Christ shall cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the Living God (Heb. 9:14 )."
There are other important things about communicating of the Holy Mysteries that need to be mentioned: - Whose icon does the priest represent when celebrating the Holy Liturgy? - What is the relationship between the celebrant and Christ?
In that sense, as well as by the very movements the priest makes during the Holy Liturgy, it is clear whether he understands the central Mystery of the Church. - What is the significance of the fact that Christ is the Offerer and the Offered; that it is He who accepts and He Who is distributed? - How do the unity of the faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit come about before we communicate and what does that mean? - In which way only can we entrust ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God, which at the same time is the aim of the Holy Liturgy? Yet, for the time being it is especially important for us to know the following:
In the Holy Liturgy, the Church manifests herself as an icon of the Kingdom to come in the people gathered around their Episcope. In the Holy Liturgy we overcome all the divisions imposed on us by nature and the community in which we live. We are all one in Christ, we are all Body of Christ and members individually and of that Body at the same time. Our life, spiritual growth, and salvation in the Church are catholic. Whereas, the world in which we live is an icon of hell in the sense of fall, sin, discord, inequality. We must not introduce elements of this world in the Holy Liturgy. For instance, there cannot be a Liturgy at which only the sick would partake, or only students or only soldiers and so forth, as it is the case with one of the sibling Orthodox Churches. Nor can there be a Liturgy served for the priest or priests alone, at which only they are allowed to communicate. Is not our liturgical prayer, too, such: "And make us worthy to grant us with Your mighty hand communion in Your most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to all the people!" The approach to the Holy Mysteries is equal for all, because there takes place a personal, not a magical, by the rank preconditioned approach to them. Here is what on this issue the compiler of the service of Liturgy, Saint Chrysostom says: "There are moments when a priest does not differ from a layman, especially when they are approaching the Holy Mysteries. These are equally offered to all of us. Not as in the Old Covenant, where there was one food for the priests and another for the people, and where the latter were not allowed to participate in what was appointed for the former. This does not happen any longer, but we are all offered the same Body and the same Cup."8
What makes us worthy of partaking is not our ministry, whichever it may be, even if it were a clerical one, but our love and personal relationship with God and with our fellowman. The more we entrust ourselves as an offering and sacrifice to God for the salvation of the whole world, the more we become Christ-like and the more prepared for a community with and Communion of Him. Moreover, from the priest, as a bearer of a greater gift, greater preparation is demanded, too.
"…as there must be someone in the centre of the community who, just like Christ, has nothing of his own, but in whom and through whom everyone can find his own road. The essence of priesthood, in the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, is to become all things to all men (1Cor. 9:22 ), to be Christ to everybody. Christ did not have a private, individual life. Christ did not have time for Himself. He gave His whole Self to man and by that self-offering He saved us and became our Lord, Teacher, and Master. And we, needless to say, are not prepared to do that. Nevertheless, that is the idea which makes man a priest. A man who enjoys talking about services and vestments is not yet a priest. A true priest is the one who at least once in his life has sensed the meaning of Christ's words: I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Lk. 12:49). The priest, who is ordained in the centre of the Church, at the Holy Eucharist is the one who makes Christ present, the one who represents Christ's care, Christ's love, Christ's teaching, but in a very real sense."9
Facing the Church Tradition that the Holy Liturgy and the communion of Christ's Body and Blood are realisation and fullness and meaning of our life in the Church as Body of Christ, as well as the custom or the tradition existing here, when the approach to the Holy Mysteries is viewed as an especially important part of the life of the Church, but yet merely a part, and that most often not the most important one, we must most earnestly ask ourselves how we shall continue! Shall we follow the Holy Fathers and grow together with them in the graceful community of salvation and deification or else, will the blood they have shed for the purity of Orthodox faith and life be on us and on our children? For without Me you can do nothing , says the Godman Christ.
1 According to a facsimile of the original document, among those who adopted and signed this resolution of the Holy Council was also the Metropolitan Antim of Skopje.
2 CANON 8.
If any episcope, presbyter, deacon or any one on the sacerdotal list, when the offering is made, does not partake of it, let him declare the cause; and if it be a reasonable one, let him be excused; but if, he does not declare it, let him be excommunicated as being a cause of offence to the people, and occasioning a suspicion against the offerer, as if he had not made the offering properly.
Explanation ( )
The existing Canon says, all and especially the clerics to be prepared and worthy of partaking of the Holy Mysteries when the offering or the sacred activity of the Lord's Body is performed. If, anyhow, some of them is present at the Divine Liturgy and does not partake, he must state the reason out of which he did not partake and if it is just and reasonable, he is excused; if, however, he does not want to reveal it, he is to be excommunicated. For he may confuse the people, giving a pretext for the majority to doubt that the priest who served the Liturgy is unworthy, and that is why he does not want to receive Communion from this same priest.
(The existing Canon resolves the seeming contradiction, which arises between this one and the following, ninth canon of the holy apostles and the standpoint of Saint John Chrysostom and in the remaining patristic Canons and Councils, as this Apostolic Canon imposes excommunication of all the Christians who attend the Liturgy and hear the Scriptures, but do not communicate. Chrysostom also says that those who are not ready to communicate are to leave the church and not pray together with the faithful. It says ( the third homily to the ephesians ): "You are not worthy to communicate? Then you are neither worthy to pray together with them who are worthy of partaking. You hear the deacon say, 'As many as are Catechumens depart.' They who do not partake are Catechumens (in repentance). Why, when hearing the deacon say 'You who cannot pray, depart', you stand shamelessly and do not leave?" The Holy Canons of the Councils and of the Fathers, though, at many points impose the opposite: they who are in repentance (the Catechumens) to stand with the faithful and pray together with them at the Liturgy, only not to communicate. This seeming contradiction is resolved and reconciled by this eighth canon , which orders the one who prays together with the faithful and does not communicate, to declare the cause that prevents him from Communion, as thus he prays together until the end and does not communicate, and yet he is not excommunicated, since it is possible something human to have happened to him, i.e. either he to have drunk some water, or to have vomited, or something else to have happened to him.)
All the faithful who come in and hear the Scriptures, but do not stay for the prayers and the Holy Communion, are to be excommunicated, as causing disorder in the Church.
Explanation ( )
The two interpreters of the Holy Canons, Zonaras and Balsamon, explaining this Apostolic Canon, both say that those Christians who enter the church during the Divine Liturgy and hear the Divine Scriptures, but do not stay till the end, nor partake, are to be excommunicated as causing disorder in the Church. Zonaras too says literary: "This Canon demands when the sacrifice is offered to stay for the prayers and the Holy Communion until the end". As at those times the laity were to partake constantly. And Balsamon, for his part, says: "What this Canon determines is very strict, since it excommunicates them who are becoming members of the Church, and do not stay until the end nor partake".
(This Canon recommends regular communicating, although regarding the eighth apostolic canon Balsamon says that it is not possible for the Christians to partake constantly: this is where this canon silences him, due to which Balsamon unwillingly confesses that the same is too severe, since it excommunicates those who leave and do not partake. Could the Holy Apostles wish to legalise an impossible thing? That is why this canon does not say every day, but the same is applicable to those who do not stay for the Holy Communion when the Divine Liturgy is being performed. They who do not understand this canon and say that it excommunicates them, they who do not stay at the Liturgy until the worthy ones have partaken, are silenced by Matthew Vlastaris (Section 1, Chapter 25), who says: "I think that the ancient Christians just as trying to believe properly, were in the same way trying to live properly. Hence, many other customs stated in the Divine canons, usual at that time, in our time have changed and are different. This defiled and careless life we lead has made us such, so that we cannot even believe that at one point Christians reached such a virtue as to partake at every Liturgy celebrated."
In unison with this canon, the second canon of the antioch council determines the following: "All those who enter the church during the Divine Liturgy and hear the Scriptures, yet distance themselves from the Holy Communion, contrary to the order (under the excuse of ostensible godliness and humble-mindedness, according to the interpretation of the excellent interpreter Zonaras), those, I say, are to be excommunicated." Regular partaking is recommended by the sixty-sixth canon of the sixth ecumenical council , too, ordering the Christians to spend the whole Bright Week chanting psalms and hymns and to satiate with the Holy Mysteries. Anyhow, the continuity of communicating can be concluded from the third canon of saint timothy , too. When he absolves the possessed one to partake, yet not every day but on Sundays only, (in other manuscripts it stands, 'only from time to time'), follows that they who are not possessed are allowed to partake even more often. Some say that because of this in the third canon Timothy orders on Saturdays and Sundays married couples not to come together, in mutual understanding, so as to partake, since at that time it was only on these days that Divine Liturgy was performed. The Divine Justin, too, confirms their opinion saying in the second apology that: "On the day of the sun, which is Sunday, all the Christians used to gather in the churches (owing to it these were called the Lord's days) and receive the Divine Mysteries." That at all times Christians ought to partake frequently, from the West asserts the Divine Ambrose, saying: "We see many brothers how negligently they assemble in the church and how, especially on Sundays, they are not present at the Mysteries". And he once again accuses them who do not partake regularly and says about the mystical bread: "God gave us this bread to be daily, and we make it annual". From Asia , yet, particularly the Divine Chrysostom demands frequent communicating from the Christians. See the preface to the interpretation of the eighth homily on the epistle to the romans , in the interpretation of the acts , the fifth sermon on the first epistle to timothy , the seventeenth sermon from the interpretation of the epistle to the ephesians , homily to those who deviate from the holy assemblies , sermon twenty-eighth on the interpretation of the first epistle to the corinthians , homily on the blessed philogonion , homily on fasting, and so forth. From these see how greatly his godly-speaking tongue struggles and speaks so as to exhort the Christians of that time to partake worthily and regularly. See also the epistle of the Great Basil to Caesarea Patricia and the first homily on baptism . But does not the one who pays attention to the prayers throughout the Divine Liturgy, also see clearly that they all incline towards partaking of the Christians gathered at the Liturgy, of the worthy ones.
3 Excerpt from the epistle The Mystery of the Church , Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica.
4 Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, "Radosti moja, Hristos vaskrese! (My Joy, Christ Has Risen!)", Belgrade, Monastery Kelia Piperska, 1991.
5 "Svetli lik Starca Sofronija (The Shining Countenance of Elder Sophrony)", Banatski Vesnik №2 April - June, 1988.
6 On Life in Christ , seven homilies by Saint Nicholas Cabasilas (in Greek), Souroti, 1990.
7 The Philocalia , Moscow , 1901.
8 Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent , (in Greek), fifth edition, Athens 1991.
9 Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, "Liturgija i život ( Liturgy and Life)", Skopje, 1994.
(Epistle from the book Homily from Eleusa)