Preparation Prior to Holy Communion
Most Orthodox people limit their preparation for receiving the awesome mystery of Holy Communion to fasting. By only fasting they are deceived into thinking that, having fasted completely and mechanically, they have followed the proper preparation and, thus, are communing worthily.
Prior to Holy Communion there is no obligatory fasting. In order to approach the Cup of Life it is not necessary for one to fast more than the fast established by the Church (Wednesdays, Fridays, Lent and other fasting periods and days). Because one is not obligated, this does not mean that one can proceed to Holy Communion casually without preparing. "O woe, if one approaches unprepared!" One ought to prepare by doing the difficult and essential spiritual preparation.
What is this preparation?
1. Longing for Holy Communion
Faith in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, faith that in the holy chalice Christ Himself is present physically, faith, more specifically, that Holy Communion is a most necessary nourishment for the spiritual life, makes the believer long for and strongly desire to come into direct contact, to become one with Christ. The first Christians were "every day keeping watch all together in the temple" (Acts 2:46). This watching, this burning longing, must exist in the believer's heart.
We long to meet close friends, beloved and related people. More importantly we should long to meet Jesus. Who is the Beloved of the beloved. And in Holy Communion not only do we simply meet, but we become one with Jesus. We become one body and one blood with Christ. We become Christ-bearers.
This longing for frequent Holy Communion grows with the thought that Holy Communion in the present life is the betrothal for the complete communion with God in the future life. Holy Communion, in other words is a basic presupposition for us to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. It should be noted that the longing for frequent Holy Communion is the result of our fervent love for Christ, of divine eros. For this reason, a little prior to the great moment of Holy Communion, we say, "You burn me with longing, O Christ, and changed me by Your divine love."
2. Self examination and testing.
In order for us to commune, we ought to examine ourselves. This is specifically commanded by the Apostle Paul: "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body" (I Cor. 11:28-29).
An investigation of ourselves, in a quiet time and following prayer, will show us whether we are able to approach Holy Communion. But be careful! In this self examination we must be neither supersensitive or senseless. We said elsewhere also that no one is completely worthy to commune, and that Holy Communion is not a reward for the saint, but a strengthening for sinners, who are struggling for holiness.
The self examination and self censure of a spiritual person never has an ] exonerating result. The faithful Christian always declares himself guilty. But one declaration of guilt varies from another declaration of guilt. If from this self examination one catches himself guilty of grave sins, such as: sins of the flesh, explosions of anger, a serious dispute with another person, etc., then he considers that he cannot commune without confession. lf, however, he catches himself guilty of "easily forgivable" sins, which even the greatest saint, bearing flesh and dwelling in the world, commits, then he decides, with feeling, of course, of his sinfulness, to commune. In the book "Concerning Frequent Holy Communion" of Saints Makarios and Nikodemos the Haghiorite, the opinion of Saint Anastasios of Antioch is presented, according to whom sins are separated into "easily forgivable sins'' and "grave sins."
The believer who has his or her spiritual father's blessing to commune frequently, every Sunday examines his conscience, see any "grave" sins, he proceeds to the remaining steps of preparation for Holy Communion. And this is because he will never have an absolutely clear conscience. In this case Holy Communion is received for the remission of sins. As a recent theologian says, ''the believer doesn't commune of the Eucharist because he is worthy for this -- because all people are unworthy of Holy Communion -- but he communes taking courage in the infinite mercy and grace of the Lord, who calls him to receive remission of his sins, communion of the Holy Spirit, and sanctification and strength to continue his journey in the world toward the Kingdom of Heaven."
If the self examination results in a relative unworthiness, then the believer prepares to commune, even if he didn't visit his spiritual father. While approaching Holy Communion he prays along with the People "Make me worthy to receive Your Heavenly and Immaculate Mysteries of this holy and spiritual Table with a pure conscience, for remission of sins, for forgiveness of transgressions..."
If, however, the self examination reveals the believer guilty of sins which prevent him from Holy Communion, then the Sacrament of confession a very basic presupposition. If, in order to participate in a common meal, you feel the need to first wash your hands, how much more must you feel the need to first wash your soul in the bath of sacred confession in order to participate in the sacred and spiritual Table of heavenly food? In the confession before a spiritual father, the Blood of Christ, "which was poured out for the life and salvation of the world," is united with fervent tears of the person who is sincerely repenting, and the cleansing and brightening of the soul comes about.
Every believer feels the need for confession before Holy Communion. Before the spiritual father he repeats the confessional words of the prodigal, "Father, I have sinned before heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21). With contrition of heart he confesses his sins. With tears he manifests his repentance. And he hears the consoling phrase from the spiritual father, "Child, your sins are forgiven" (Mark 2:5). His joy after confession is great, both because his sins were forgiven, and because he will be able to commune of the Immaculate Mysteries, as long as the spiritual father allows it.
Unfortunately, most of the people approaching Holy Communion during the great feasts have not confessed. One is appalled to think that people burdened with dreadful sins, approaching the limits of unbelief and crime, approach to commune without having confessed. Pious priests, fearing God and trembling that they not impart "the holy things to the dogs" and cast "the pearls before the swine," question as to whether or not those who are approaching have confessed. This questioning is wrongly misunderstood. Doesn't a doctor before giving a strong medicine, ask the patient whether he did the necessary preparation? Why should the priest, in imparting the Body and Blood of the Lord, not ask whether the person approaching has prepared properly? "But," some people say, "the other person is insulted when the priest asks if he confessed." We answer: It is preferable that he be insulted temporally than be damned eternally.
Furthermore, the priest ought to address this question with great discernment, propriety and love, and only to those who are approaching at the great feasts that he knows are living a scandalous life in unrepentance. For those who regularly approach the Cup of Life, following the permission of their spiritual father, such a question, of course, does not apply. For the rest, however, the priest must keep what St. Basil the Great commands:
"Don't forget the Master's commandment and that of the holy Apostles. For
He says, 'Do not give the holy things to the dogs, and do not cast the pearls
before the swine.' See that you do not hand over the Son of God into the
hands of unworthy ones. Do not be afraid to stand up to the glorious of the
earth, not even him who wears the royal crown at that time. To whom the
divine Canons do not allow, do not impart."
During the days of huge crowds, with mostly unconscientious people approaching Holy Communion, the priest ought to make the fervent suggestion: "My brothers and sisters, those of you who have not confessed lately, don't commune today. Prepare yourselves spiritually, mainly through confession, and approach after the feasts. When you commune having prepared yourselves, you have a feast and celebration in your heart. You have a true Nativity and a true Pascha whenever you commune worthily. Communing unprepared, however, and furthermore unconfessed, you place fire within you, because Holy Communion is 'fire burning the unworthy.' Please prepare yourselves first, and then approach."
Holy Communion is a work of love, out of love, out of great love, God, in the second person of the Trinity, communed with his creation, that is, He came to earth, became incarnate and "dwelt among men." Out of great love He gave Himself as a sacrifice for us. Out of great love He poured out His precious blood. And out of great love He offered His body and His blood to be consumed by the faithful in the mystery of Holy Communion. "But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive with Christ" (Eph. 2:4.5). Through Holy Communion we are made alive.
Out of great love He communed with us, became one with us. And we should out of love become one with Him, to commune of His Body and His Blood. Our approach to Holy Communion depends on the love we have for Christ. Whoever strongly loves Christ, whoever above every other love has his love for Christ, he it is who longs to converse with the beloved Jesus in prayer, to diligently hear the voice of his Beloved in the study of Holy Scripture will frequently unite with his Beloved in Holy Communion. Divine eros, fervent love for Christ, urges one toward frequent Holy Communion. If the love grows cold, then the longing for Holy Communion diminishes, and the receiving of Holy Communion becomes mechanical and, thus, unto judgment and condemnation.
Now for preparation of the soul for Holy Communion, love for people is also absolutely necessary, which furthermore is the proof of one's love for God. The disciple of love, the evangelist John, in his first Epistle combines three loves: God's love for us, our love for God, and our love for others. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: "that he who loves God must love his brother also" (1 John 4:19-21).
Christ in His Sermon on the Mount stresses that reconciliation or making up with the people with whom we do not have a good relationship must precede our offering and worship in the temple. "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Math. 5:23-24). For this reason, also, in the beginning of the service of Holy Communion, as a basic presupposition for approaching Holy Communion, reconciliation and making up with others is stressed:
"As thou approachest, O mortal, to receive the Body of the Master,
Draw near with awe lest thou be seared; It is fire.
And when thou drinkest the Holy Blood unto Communion,
First reconcile with those who grieve thee,
Then with courage receive the Mystic Food."
The sacred Chrysostom also protests and says that no one having enemies and hating them can approach the sacred Table.
"Do you want to take Holy Communion? Don't feel hate and antipathy for anyone; have love for everyone. Unfortunately, there are Christians who, even when they are about to commune, do not seek forgiveness of others. This is how they think: "Why should I ask for forgiveness? And what if the other one took this as my weakness and wanted to misuse me? Then I would not be at fault. He would be at fault and he ought to ask me for forgiveness"...Oh, harshness, which is the daughter of egotism!...
So a basic presupposition for Holy Communion is love for others. It is a good idea prior to Holy Communion, from the evening before, to seek forgiveness from the people in our family or in our surroundings. And let children kiss the hands of their parents and ask for their forgiveness and their blessing.
5. Prayer and contrition
In order for the believer to commune, for example, next Sunday, all week he should be careful with himself. He prepares a welcome for the Lord of glory. He adorns his soul to receive the divine Pearl. He pays attention so that nothing happens to him which might deprive him of the joy of Holy Communion. And he prays daily with contrition to be granted the great gift. More especially on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning he actually reads the Service Before Holy Communion.
Unfortunately, most of our Christians are ignorant of the Service Before Holy Communion, while many people know of it but don't read it. Spiritual fathers ought to especially stress to those who confess to them the need to prepare spiritually with the Service Before Holy Communion. This service exists in Orthodox Prayer Books and also separately in small volumes of various publications. We can say that it is divided into four parts.
1st Part: The Canon, which to Greek has the 24 letters of the alphabet as an acrostic [in other words each hymn begins with one, letter of the Greek alphabet], and which is said the night preceding Holy Communion, in the evening, as part of the service of the Small Compline.
2nd Part: The psalms and the prayers prior to Holy Communion, which are said by the believer in the morning at home or in the Church. These are Psalms 22, 13, and 115, and about ten wonderful prayers (two by Basil the Great, four by the sacred Chrysostom, two by John of Damascus, one by Symeon the New Theologian and one by Symeon Metaphrastes). In the beginning of the prayers the need for special prayer before Holy Communion is stressed: "Before participating in the sublime sacrifice of the life-giving Body of the Master, pray with trembling in this way."
3rd Part: The troparions and the verses, which are said in the Church when the solemn time of Holy Communion approaches and while the believer is walking towards the Holy Chalice. At that time the soul of the believer is at the height of sacred contrition. His soul is prepared to receive the Master of all. His lips are whispering the last words of the prayer:
"Receive me today, O Son of God, as a partaker of Thy mystical Supper; for I will not speak to Thine enemies of Thy Mystery, nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas. But as the thief I confess to Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom."
4th Part: The thanksgiving after Holy Communion, which is said in the Church after the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy. Unfortunately, very few people read the thanksgiving prayers. Most receive the divine Pearl, the highest gift, and go without thanking the giver, God. They resemble the nine lepers who were cleansed by Christ, yet did not feel the need to return to thank Him. Imagine a man who receives a gift and doesn't even whisper a "thank you," but, on the contrary; abruptly turns, his back and leaves hastily. Did you commune? You were granted an invaluable gift. So why are you leaving thus? Why do you show yourself to be ungrateful? This stance of yours shows that you did not feel what gift you received. The believer who feels how great a gift Holy Communion is stands and with rejoicing says the thanksgiving prayers, which begin with these verses:
"And after the divine Communion Of the life-giving and mystic Gifts, at once give praise and great thanksgiving, and fervently and heartily sing to God; Glory to Thee, O God Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee, O God."
6. Piety and fear
A final stage of preparation for Holy Communion is fear and awe, which must exist in the believer's soul at the time he is going towards Holy Communion. The priest, holding the Holy Chalice, invites the believers: "With fear of God, faith, and love, draw near." We already spoke about faith and love as basic presuppositions for approaching Holy Communion. We need to say a few things also about the fear of God, which must exist in the believer's soul, that is, about holy fear, which comes from the feeling of sinfulness, of the sacredness of the moment and of the majesty of God, which the believer is approaching.
Unfortunately, on days of crowds many believers, approaching out of habit, not only do not have this sacred fear, but they also show an unheard of impiety. The unruliness, the noise and the impiety which are observed on the days of Christmas Eve, Holy Thursday, the Dormition of the Theotokos, et. al., cause grief and frustration to every believer. It should be noted that this was also observed in the age of Saint John Chrysostom.
We must stress the manner in which the faithful must come to the Holy Chalice: with silence; no disorder whatsoever in the line; deep attention of soul and mind to the divine Mystery. The sign of the Cross is done piously. Any lipstick first has been removed. The believer takes the holy covering with both hands and puts it beneath his chin. He opens his mouth wide; and receives the divine Pearl. He diligently wipes his mouth with the holy napkin. He again piously makes the sign of the Cross. And the faithful return to their seats, awaiting the end of the Divine Liturgy, when they read the Thanksgiving Prayers. (see note)
Taken from the Greek: "When and How to Take Holy Communion" by Archimandrite Daniel Aerakis, Translated by Fr. Nicholas Palls and edited by Irene Maginas and Fr. Andrew Harrison