There was a certain crisis of the Eucharistic life in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Synodal era. People received communion only sporadically, on the day of their birthday and once in the Lent, and it was considered quite godly. The communion on every great Church feast and in the major fasts was thought to be ultimate godliness and piety. However, the rules of the Church and countless Holy Fathers have always called for a full-fledged, regular, and frequent communion of the Holy Eucharist. Here are some examples of the patristic arguments of the authors of the Philokalia against infrequent communion.
Some Claim That Frequent Communion Is the Privilege of Priests
St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite and St. Macarius of Corinth, the compilers of the Philokalia, respond that the work of priests is the offering of the Holy Gifts, so that sanctification could take place through them, as through some organs of the Holy Spirit. They must also perform other priestly duties and pray for the people of God. When the moment of the communion of the Holy Mysteries comes, priests are no different from the faithful, except that they dispense the Mysteries, and the lay people accept them. Clerics also partake of the Sacrament in the sanctuary and directly, while laypersons do it in the nave and with the Holy Spoon. The fact that there is no difference between clergy and lay people when it comes to communion is also stated by St. John Chrysostom: “One Father gave birth to us. We all had the same birth (of the Holy Font)” “…In some things the priest is no different from a layman… We all enjoy the same things, unlike in the Old Testament: the priest ate one thing and the uninitiated ate another thing. The Law did not allow the people to eat that which the priest ate. This is not the case today, but one Body is offered to all, and the Chalice is also the same.” (Commentary on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Homily 18).
Some Argue That Infrequent Communion Is a Sign of Reverence for the Sacrament
Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite responds to this by saying that such fear is not from God, as the Psalmist says: “There were they in great fear, where no fear was” (Psalm 53:5). Fear can be a matter of wrongdoing rather than obedience. St. Cyril of Alexandria points out that under the guise of “exaggerated reverence” the devil himself casts his nets, so that the faithful would not communicate with Christ for a long time. “If you are always afraid of your smallest sins, then you should know that as a human being, you will never stop doing them – Who can understand his errors? (Psalm 19:12), – and so you will remain completely untouched by the saving Sacrament” (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 3, Chapter 6). The Communion purifies us of our smallest transgressions and brings life to the one who constantly engages in it.
Also, Rule 2 of the Council of Antioch penalizes those who “turn away” from the Communion with excommunication. Zonaras explains that the turning away should not be understood as outright defiance of the Sacrament, which leads to a full banishment and anathema, but rather reluctance to take part in the Eucharist due to false humility.
St. Mary of Egypt and Other Ascetics Received Holy Communion Once or Twice in Their Lifetimes and Were Saved Anyway
“It is not the hermits who run the Church, and the Church did not tailor Her rules to hermits,” St. Nicodemus says. Without being physically present at the Liturgy, only the souls of the dead are sanctified, as well as all those who roam deserts and mountains, caves and valleys of the earth (See Hebrews 11:38). Nevertheless, the Hagiorite adds, if hermits had the opportunity to attend the Liturgy and to take communion but they didn’t, they should also be condemned as contemptuous of the Divine Mysteries and as violators of the sacred rules.
Can Laypersons Be Blessed by Attending the Liturgy but Not Receiving Communion?
This seems likely because they are in the Church, and the Holy Spirit sanctifies the whole assembly. Yet, to what extent do they unite with Christ? Clearly not as much as they are when they partake of His Body and Blood. Saint Nicholas Kabasilas was convinced that those who were present at the Eucharist and could partake of it, but did not do so, never received sanctification.
Every Christian should ask themselves one question: do you want to be with Christ or not? If you would like Jesus to dwell in your heart and mind, to sanctify and heal you from every sinful affliction, you should remember the Lord’s words, Take, eat; this is my body… Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament. These words apply to each of us, and the only right thing for us to do is to obey the voice of the Good Shepherd if we want to be His faithful disciples.
Thank you for this posting. I have struggled, as a priest, for many long years, to convince various Orthodox parishes that frequent, regular Holy Communion is the historical norm in the Orthodox Church. I have. seen more acceptance of this in some jurisdictions than in othets. Folks in some ethnic groups have inherited the idea of infrequent Communion from roots & traditions in the old world countries. Converts are far more likely to be onboard with frequent Communion, perhaps because of their great (sometimes desparate) thirst for the Fullness of Truth, also, perhaps due to their coming from other churches, where frequent Communion is absolutely the norm. However, that is not to extoll “convert” over “cradle” Orthodox. Both bring gifts & talents to the table, both have much to give, and both have much to learn. One key question is, really, are people coming to Church to be a living part of the God/Man Jesus Christ, or ate they coming to be part of some ethnic pseudo-religious social club? The social & cultural dimensions have validity & context, but ONLY if Jesus Christ is first & foremost. “You have to know that you are perishing, in order to know that you need a Saviour.” If your need is that real, desparate & pressing, you will do anything & everything to avail yourself of all available Help. In this healing & transformative healing process, that which is of the most supreme importance is the regular & frequent receiving of Holy Communion. And why not? Do you not believe that you truly receive the Body & Blood of Christ? Do you not feel the holiness of the Change, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that Christ is truly in our midst?
Do you not receive with reverence, awe and thankfulness that which are the Gifts of Gifts? Do you not know that you are, slowly changed, healed & transformed (physically, mentally, emotionally & spiritually)by taking within your own body the Body & Blood of Christ? Do you not know that all who receive of Him are thereby more at one with Him and with one another, this being the true meaning of being in Communion with other Orthodox Christians? Do you somehow not understand or realize that to consciously participate in the Divine Liturgy is to, each & every time, make a real spiritual journey, from Earth to the very Gates of Paradise? If we truly seek conscious union with God, in & through Christ, then we must avail ourselves to doing all that most fully & truly helps us in this living, dynamic Process. Let us be renewed in frequent, conscious, thankful participation in Divine Liturgy, and frequent right receiving of Holy Communion! Can you live without Holy Communion? I for one, absolutely cannot. Come and taste and see! And be renewed, healed, strengthened and transformed! God bless! Amen.
A hundred years ago my Grandfather was a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Once a year on the 6th or 7th of January I will go to the Serbian Church for Christmas Liturgy. In a packed church, on Christmas day, when the priest announced “approach with fear and love”, I was the only one to go up for communion. And then the priest asked me what I wanted. He asked me my name, which was familiar to this church. Then he said “confession first”. So the entire liturgy was stopped until he heard my confession, and then gave me communion. This was in front of several hundred parishioners. Needless to say, I have never gone to communion in the Serbian Church again.
You can make some valid arguments against “exaggerated reverence,” but all the people I know who consciously approach the chalice with an attitude that they should fast, if not for days, and confess before communion, i.e., with fear and trembling, are far more pious and sincere than those I know who attend frequent-communion parishes and take it every week. In fact, I know more than a handful of people who take frequent communion but drink water and even coffee the morning of Sunday, which for the regular person with no disability (I cannot think of coffee being medically necessary for anything), is completely inappropriate. I have never been to a church with an ideology of “frequent communion” has not been accompanied by either irreverence and secularism, regardless of how ostentatious their Christianity is. In America, at least, “frequent communion” is almost always accompanied by selective/infrequent fasting, “malleable” canons, “marriage for love”, etc. Sometimes I even hear people say they are entitled to communion regardless, these being converts who have read one book about Orthodoxy and then aspire to become Patriarch. And the claim that converts are more conservative is nonsense, they are just more likely to be Republicans, but often you actually see them bend Left over the years, in particular with respect to the Church, a la Frank Schaeffer. Of course, people should take communion, but if they are not properly prepared, then they take it not for “salvation and healing” but unto “judgement and condemnation.” If you take an exam and don’t study you will fail, which is not good. If you don’t follow the instructions for taking a medicine then it will not work, which is not good. However, if you have the properly prepared mentality and spirituality necessary for taking communion then you will fast and confess and start preparing for the next Sunday the previous Sunday, if not sooner. This, as a byproduct, may in turn result in people taking communion less frequently, but Mary of Egypt only took communion a few times in her life, if not only once, and she has front-row seats to Great Lent. I have much respect for the saints and the Philokalia, but this take on frequent communion is devious. Let the Anglicans revel in schmemannism, keep it out of Orthodoxy!