Post date: Aug 8, 2018 8:55:00 PM
We are in Great Lent: a time of intense spiritual ascesis, of focus on the ultimate purpose of life: union with Christ. In our religious education class this winter, as we looked through the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion, we found repeated references to this union. In a prayer of St. Basil the Great, we saw the following passage:
Teach me to attain perfect holiness in the fear of you, that with the clear witness of my conscience I may receive a portion of You holy Things and be united with Your holy Body and Blood, and have You dwelling and remaining in me with the Father and Your Holy Spirit.
St. Symeon the New Theologian sets these words before us:
[Y]ou, my Lord, have said: “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him”; wholly true is the word of my Lord and God. For whoever partakes of your divine and deifying Gifts certainly is not alone, but is with you, my Christ, the Light of the Triune Sun Which illumines the world. That I may not remain alone without You, the Giver of Life, my Breath, my Life, my Joy, the Salvation of the world, I have therefore drawn near to You, as You see, with tears and with a contrite spirit. Ransom of my offenses, I beseech You to receive me, that I may partake without condemnation of Your life-giving and perfect Mysteries, and that You may remain, as You have said, with me, thrice-wretched as I am, lest the tempter find me without Your grace and craftily seize me and, having deceived me, seduce me from Your deifying words.
We see in the words of these two great saints of the Church the importance of the Eucharist in our ever-growing union with God. In particular, the words of St. Symeon are striking in several ways. First, there is the description of the attitude with which we approach the Eucharist—with tears and a contrite spirit, in no way trusting our own righteousness to make us worthy of receiving. Instead, with fear and trembling, we approach because we have been invited to the banquet. And we approach —and here is the second striking part of St. Symeon’s words—because, without God’s grace, we are prone to deception, to believing as good things those which are not, to being seduced by the temporary pleasures of the world over against the eternal joy of the kingdom. In other words, we need the Eucharist for the illumination of our minds, hearts, and souls.
St. Symeon has already given us a glimpse into the proper attitude for approaching the Eucharist. The call of the priest for us to approach with “fear of God, faith, and love” gives us more guidance for approaching the Eucharist. An interesting thing to note is that an especially strict fast is not specifically mentioned in these prayers. This is by no means to say that fasting is not important—Great Lent, with its strict fasting practices is an extremely important part of Christian spiritual life—but the connection of fasting and Eucharist is not an absolute one. Certainly, outside of fasting periods, there is no requirement from the Church that one fast for an entire week before receiving the Eucharist. Additionally, health issues can require dietary changes that make fasting according to the practice of the Church impossible. So, to prepare for the Eucharist, we fast according to the Church calendar and the guidance of our priest, according to our strength.
The things said thus far show how important the reception of the Eucharist is. Does that mean that we should receive at every Liturgy? Ideally, the answer would be yes. However, we live in a world where circumstances are often less than ideal. So when should we refrain from receiving the Eucharist? A good practice is to prepare to come to the Liturgy early. The epistle and gospel readings are part of our preparation for the Eucharist. If we find ourselves coming after the readings (outside of emergencies), it would be prudent to refrain from receiving at that particular Liturgy: the Eucharist deserves our respect and our time. The offering of our time in order to arrive early is part of our drawing near with fear of God.
The other circumstance where we must not receive the Eucharist is if we have fallen into certain sins such as taking a life (by a voluntary or involuntary action, inside or outside the womb), sexual activity outside of the sacrament of marriage, or wishing someone ill. In these cases, the sacrament of confession and following the guidance of the priest hearing the confession are necessary before returning to Communion. The guidance may include abstention from communion for a period of time as a spiritual treatment, but the goal of confession is the restoration of a person to full communion with the Church, the full cleansing and healing of a soul so that it may receive the Holy Sacrament safely, for the Eucharist is fire, as the prayers in preparation for communion remind us. So confession works here together with the Eucharist and in this way sin never need have the last word in the life of the faithful. This is part of the unspeakable beauty of God that St. Symeon also speaks about in his writings.
And so, being in Lent, let us do the work of preparation for the Eucharist. Let us partake of the sacrament of confession, and let us prepare to receive at every Liturgy, and, if we are unable, let us get up and try again and again, by the grace of God. Thus, being guarded and guided by the presence of God within us, having received
the pure, immortal, life-giving and fearful Mysteries, unto forgiveness of sins and for eternal life; for sanctification, and enlightenment, and strength, and healing, and health of soul and body; and for the blotting out and complete destruction of my evil reasonings, and intentions, and prejudices, and the nocturnal fantasies of dark evil spirits (St. John Chrysostom)
may we reach the greatest of feasts with the greatest of joys.
With love in Christ,