One of my greatest stumbling blocks coming into the Orthodox Church was the closed communion table. Growing up Protestant, my experience was that the table was open to anyone who considered themselves to be a Christian. Attending an Orthodox Church and not being able to partake of the Eucharist was difficult for me. I believe in Jesus, isn’t that enough?
Perhaps the best place to start is with scripture and the questions:
– When did Christians begin partaking of the Eucharist?
– What is the Eucharist?
– Why do Christians partake of it?
– And finally, why is the table open only to Orthodox members in good standing?
The Initiation of Mystery
All four Gospels record the last supper of our Lord. With that being the case, it would be wise for us to pay close attention to what was done and said because it is important.
And 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.” (26:26-28)
Mark 14:22-24 and Luke 22:19-20 have nearly identical language to the Matthew passage above to describe that evening. As we can see from the above accounts, the initiation of this mystery (sacrament) was during the Last Supper of our Lord. Christians have been faithful to this life-giving command ever since that time.
What is the Eucharist and why do we partake?
As clearly outlined above, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself states that the bread and wine are His Body and Blood. He never states they are “like” or “similar to,” but that they are of Him. The Eucharist therefore is the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we take “for the remission of [our] sins and for life everlasting.” This has always been the understanding of Christians.
Not being satisfied with merely recording the event, the Apostle John unwraps its meaning through the teachings of Christ:
The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, 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. (6:52-56)
In the above passage, Christ gives as clear a teaching as possible: we are to partake of His Flesh and Blood if we wish to have any life in Him. Boldly, He states the consequence of disobedience of this command: those who disobey “have no life” in them. Many disciples were offended and walked away from Jesus at that point. Notice that he did not call them back saying, “Hey guys, I was just being metaphorical!”
A spiritual metaphor?
I grew up believing that all of the above passages were to be understood in a “spiritual sense,” which is a modern way of saying we are to understand it intellectually, but not think of it as having any real significance. With that being the case, I have attended several churches that serve communion only occasionally because it has lost most of its meaning.
But that thinking was foreign to Christianity and did not become “normal” until the last few hundred years. The Apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, verifies the Orthodox belief of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in the book of 1st Corinthians 11. He writes,
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
All of that should sound quite familiar from the Matthew passage above. But St Paul continues,
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood f 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.
In the above text, Paul makes it quite clear that those who were partaking of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner were getting sick and even dying (falling asleep). This was not some abstract or lofty theological opinion, this was understood to be a life and death matter.
Why a closed table?
As mentioned above, those who unworthily partake of the Eucharist could potentially suffer sickness or death. Additionally, the Apostle John shows us in 13:26-27 that Judas received the Bread with malice in his heart and “Satan entered him.” As one Akathist1 states, “What should have been for his salvation is turned into death and damnation for him.”
In other words, those that partook unworthily in the past and partake unworthily today open themselves to demonic oppression or possession, sickness, and death. It is nothing we should wish even upon our enemies.
The Eucharist is not some nice gesture of Christian unity and brotherhood, nor is it something we do while merely “remembering” Christ’s command as well as His death. We Orthodox Christians honestly believe that we are partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord, and that when we do so in an unprepared manner (either we have unconfessed sin in our lives or we lack proper faith in Christ) then we eat and drink damnation unto ourselves.
Immediately before communion, the priest holds up the cup and makes the following ancient Christian proclamation:
“With fear of God and with faith draw near.”
We Christians, since the time of the apostles, have always understood the partaking of the Eucharist to be a sign that we are one in faith…not just that we want to be one, or we love each other and have warm feelings of affection, but that we share an identical faith. It is a public proclamation that we adhere to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.
St Justin Martyr confirms this in the second century:
And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing hat is for the remission of sins [baptism], and unto regeneration, and who is
so living as Christ has enjoined.
so living as Christ has enjoined.
Anyone who teaches otherwise, if they were to be honest, must confess that they are teaching something new. Those who “believe that the things which we teach are true” are either already Orthodox or they are actively looking into the faith. Everyone else has a different faith than us, which I do not say to condemn them, but merely to state the obvious.
We live in a culture that has a very low view of truth and in which doctrine is not held very closely. For several years I honestly thought, “There are so many theological opinions out there, who knows what is really correct?”
It is difficult to overcome our cultural tendencies without much effort. We tend to interpret our faith through the cultural lens of “I’m ok, you’re ok.” But historically, true Christianity has never done that. And the Orthodox Church, which is a continuation of the ancient church of the apostles, never will cater to our culture’s whims.
This is not hostility
With all of that said, please don’t believe that Orthodox Christians are antagonistic toward others. Our Akathist for Holy Communion that many Orthodox Christians prayerfully read before communion reminds us of one our Lord’s teachings,
“I pray that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe”…
Jesus, grant that we all abide in oneness of mind, in faith and love for Thee! Jesus, who cannot abide enmity and division, destroy impious heresies and schisms! Jesus, who lovest and hast mercy upon all, gather all the lost sheep into one flock!
For those of us who read this Akathist, part of our preparation for the holy Eucharist is that we pray for those who are not one with us. It is true, we could technically open up the table to anyone in the name of brotherly unity and love regardless of the consequences I mentioned above, but it would require us to close our eyes to the real differences that do exist in our beliefs. And the end result with be nothing but a warm-fuzzy, feel-good, false unity. Two things that we Orthodox love are truth and genuineness. Anyone else who feels the same will agree that false unity is not sufficient.