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Mystery of Holy Communion

The Importance of the Eucharist
The Sacrament of the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving), also known as Holy Communion, holds a central place in the Orthodox Church. While in other sacraments objects such as water or oil are only sanctified, in Holy Communion the objects of the Sacrament, bread and wine, are not only sanctified but actually transformed into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, when a Christian receives Holy Communion, he receives Jesus Himself and joins with Him. So great is this mystery that no possible explanation can be found of how this happens, and one can only say with gratitude: "Thank You, my Lord!"

It is only the Orthodox and some ancient churches preserving the Apostolic tradition which hold to the belief that Communion is the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Most contemporary Christian churches think of Communion only as an observance commemorating the Last Supper.

Every Orthodox Christian should be grateful to God for the privilege given to him in Holy Communion and should partake of it as often as possible unto the remission of his sins, unto the healing of soul and body and for eternal life.

The Establishment of Holy Communion
Some time before establishing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus Christ explained the necessity of it in His conversation concerning the Bread of Life. This conversation took place the day after feeding the crowd with five breads and seven fishes. The people came to Him expecting that He will continue to feed them on regular basis, but the Lord explained that the miracle with the five breads was just a prototype of a more important miracle in which they will partake of the Heavenly Bread. "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world" (John 6:51). The Jews evidently understood the words of Christ literally and began to ask each other, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" (John 6:52).

The Lord did not tell the Jews that they had misunderstood Him but with greater force and clarity reassured them: "Verily I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56).

His disciples also had difficulty accepting the words of Christ literally and said to each other: "This is a hard saying, who can understand it" (John 6:60). The Savior, so as to convince them of the possibility of such miraculous eating, indicated another miracle that would happen during His Ascension into Heaven, "Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:61-63).

The Savior knows that His teaching about the Bread of Life requires faith. Not wanting that His words about the Bread of Life be understood "metaphorically," He added, "there are some of you who do not believe" (John 6:64). His words are "spirit and life" because they do not speak of quenching the physical hunger but testify that he who partakes of His Body and Blood will have eternal life and will be resurrected for the Kingdom of glory on the last day. This will happen because those who partake of them enter into the most intimate communion with the Divinity of Jesus Christ.

The very establishment of the Sacrament of Eucharist took place during the Last Supper which is described by three Evangelists. In the Gospel of Matthew it is said: "As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, `Take, eat; this is My body.' Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, `Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28). In the Gospel of Luke we read: "Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me. Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you'" (Luke 22:19-20).

The words "This is My Body this is My Blood" are completely clear and definite, and do not allow any other interpretation apart from the most direct one. They are in complete accordance with the promise given by the Savior during His speach about the Bread of Life.

Having given Communion to the disciples, the Lord commanded: "This do in remembrance of Me." As the Apostle Paul instructs, the Mystery instituted at the Last Supper must be performed in remembrance of Jesus Christ until His Second Coming (1 Cor. 11:25-26). The necessity of the Sacrament of Eucharist for all subsequent generations of Christians follows also from the words of the Savior: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." Because of this, the Eucharist was received by the Church from the first days as the greatest mystery of salvation, and the institution of it is preserved with the greatest care and reverence.

The Eucharist in Apostolic Times
Concerning the performance of Holy Communion in Apostolic times in the Church of Christ, we may read in the Acts of the Apostles that Christians "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (2:42, 46; 20:6-7). The expression "breaking of bread" which is used repeadedly in the book of Acts and in other early Christian writings designates Communion.

In his epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul reminds Christians that in the Eucharist they partake of the great mystery of union with the Lord: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread" (1 Cor. 10:16-17). And a little further on he adds, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But 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. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world" (1 Cor. 11:26-30). In the quoted words the Apostle instructs us with what reverence and preparatory self-testing a Christian must approach this Sacrament because this is not simple food and drink but the reception of the true Body and Blood of Christ.

Since the time of the Apostles the "breaking of bread" took place on the "day of the Lord" (Kyriake) also called the "day of the Sun," i.e. Sunday. This was the first day of the week, which commemorated the Resurrection of Christ. Gradually the informal "breaking of the bread" became a more elaborate Christian service with reading of Scripture, prayers and thanksgiving songs arranged in a well defined order. It was called the Liturgy, which means communal service or public prayer. Christians gathered to participate in the Liturgy, and all partook of Holy Communion.

As in Apostolic times, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is composed of two moments: the changing or transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord, and the Communion of these Holy Gifts. During the consecration, the priest repeats the words that the Lord uttered at the first Eucharist, "Take, eat " After the priest has repeated these phrases, the choir sings, "We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we give thanks to Thee, O Lord, and we pray to Thee, O our God." The priest, invoking the Holy Spirit upon the offered Gifts, blesses them with the prayer to God the Father: "Make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ; and that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ; changing them by Thy Holy Spirit." Here the bread and wine actually are changed into the Body and Blood by the coming down of the Holy Spirit. After this moment, although our eyes see bread and wine on the Holy Table, in their very essence, invisibly for sensual eyes, this is the true Body and true Blood of the Lord Jesus.

Each time we participate in the Divine Liturgy we should realize that here the miracle of Incarnation is repeated before our very eyes. Just as during the Conception the Holy Spirit descended to the womb of the Virgin Mary and made of her flesh the body of Jesus, so the same Spirit descends upon the bread and wine on the altar and transforms them into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

The Communion with our Lord Jesus Christ takes place at the end of the Divine Liturgy. This is the time when we personally meet with Jesus Christ and invite Him into our soul. Here the Incarnate Son of God, so to speak, transfuses His own precious, sacred and life-giving blood into our blood stream to give us new strength and new life. Communion can be likened to the partaking of the fruits of the Tree of Life, planted by God in the garden of Eden. In Heaven there also will be a Tree of Life, whose "leaves are for the healing of the nations," as we are told by the book of Revelation (Gen. 2:9, Revelation 22:2). St. Isaac the Syrian thus writes about the mystery of Communion: "Blessed is he that has eaten of the Bread of love which is Jesus. While still in this world, he breathes the air of the resurrection, in which the righteous will delight after they rise from the dead."

Preparing for Holy Communion
When we think of the greatness of Communion, a natural question arises in our mind: are we worthy of receiving Christ in us? The early Church Fathers never suggested that a Christian should refrain from taking Communion because of his feeling of unworthiness. One of the most ancient Christian documents, the Didache, says, "If anyone is holy, let him come [to Communion]; if he is not, let him repent and come." We need to realize that we never will become worthy to receive Jesus Christ. Communion is not a matter of worthiness but of God's mercy. It is not a reward but a Divine gift! It is proper for us to sense unworthiness so that we will always remain humble and grateful to God.

However, some preparation for the partaking of the Eucharist is necessary, for it helps us to acquire the right attitude toward this great Sacrament. St. Paul writes, "Let a man examine himself and so eat of that Bread and drink of that Cup" (1 Cor. 11:28). Here are some specific suggestions for those wishing to take Communion.

1. Self-examination is something that should be practiced regularly by every Christian as he prays daily and reads God's word, and it becomes especially important before one aproaches the Chalice to receive Communion. The purpose of self-examination is to bring us to an awareness of our shortcomings. This awareness leads us to repentance and improvement.
2. On the morning before going to Liturgy to receive Communion we do not eat or drink anything. Prior to Communion there should be abstinence from meat, eggs and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays. During a fasting period one should observe abstinence from these products all the days. However, one thing we must remember is that there is no rigid connection between fasting and Communion. We must never allow an overemphasis on fasting to become a wall separating us from Christ Who wishes to renew us. We must never allow a self-righteous emphasis on so-called "rules of fasting" to destroy the all-important relationship with Jesus Christ. The Church Fathers emphasized that true fasting is to abstain from sin and evil.
3. The Orthodox Prayer Book contains some very moving prayers written by the Church Fathers that are designed to be read before and after Communion. All of these beautiful prayers contain the cry of humility, unworthiness, and penitence, as expressed by this sample: "... I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should enter under the roof of my soul. Yet inasmuch as You desire to live in me as the lover of men, I approach with boldness. You have commanded: let the doors be opened which You alone have made and You shall enter with Your love You shall enter and enlighten my darkened reasoning. I believe that You will do this " These prayers give us the proper attitude for the reception of Communion.
4. Repentance. One must approach Jesus with a plea for mercy and forgiveness. It is sincere faith and repentance, not perfection, that make us worthy of frequent Communion. Although it is not necessary to go to Confession before each Communion, if we receive Communion regularly it is still necessary to seek forgiveness through prayer. It is up the our father-confessor to decide how often we should go to Confession.
5. Forgiveness from those we have hurt should be sought before Communion. We must approach the Holy Table "with the fear of God, with faith and with LOVE." We are bound to share with others the forgiving love we receive from Jesus. Love is the one thing we must pray for before coming to the Holy Table. No hostilities or grudges or dissension must be brought there. There must be penitence for lack of love. Thus, we prepare for Communion with self-examination, fasting, prayer, repentance and forgiveness.

The most wonderful thing about man is that he was created to contain God. This is the miracle of miracles! Each one of us was made to be a temple of God, a golden chalice, a tabernacle of God's presence. The infinitely great God Who revealed Himself in Jesus as the great God of love waits to take up residence in us. He stands at the door of our soul and knocks until we hear His voice and His knock to open and let Him come in to sup with us in the heavenly banquet (Rev. 3:20). He will not rest until He has invaded our heart and made it His throne.

Thus the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist are not just signs or symbols reminding us of the Last Supper, as the Protestants think, but they are the actual Body and Blood of Christ, as the Savior said, "For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed," and, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him."

The Eucharistic sacrifice is not a repetition of the Savior's Sacrifice on the Cross, but it is an offering of the sacrificed Body and Blood once offered by our Redeemer on the Cross. The sacrifice on Golgotha and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are inseparable, comprising a single sacrifice. When a Christian receives Holy Communion, he assimilates the redeeming act that Jesus Christ performed at the Cross.

In Communion we unite in the most intimate fashion with the Lord. Holy Communion nourishes our soul and body and aids our strengthening and growth of spiritual life. It serves for us as a pledge of the future resurrection and the eternally blessed life. All of this reminds us of the necessity to approach Holy Communion with the fear of God, faith and love. Amen.

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