The Struggle for Communion

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For many Protestants whose Church experience was largely shaped in the past few decades, one of the most disconcerting aspects of a first visit to an Orthodox Church is the fact that not everybody, not all Baptized Christians, are permitted to receive communion. Indeed, communion is restricted to Orthodox Christians who have made preparation to receive (that’s another topic). For some this is a surprise, for others, not, and for still some few, this is a welcome fact. When I first visited in an Orthodox Church I fell into this last group. I did not rejoice that I was not able to take communion, but I rejoiced that I was not allowed to (in the state of schism in which I was living). Someone was saying to me, “There are things in your Christian life that must be addressed before you approach the Cup.” I understood this as healthy.

Indeed the rapid disappearance of communion discipline across much of Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century became as well a rapid re-interpretation of the sacrament and the radical exaltation of the individual over the Church. I have several reflections to offer in this vein.

First – the rapid disappearance of communion discipline meant the disappearance of boundaries. Nothing in the Church any longer said, “No.” With this, the Christian life itself loses definition. “Communion” with Christ becomes a purely subjective event, itself stripped of meaning because of the lack of boundaries. If there is no “No,” neither can there be a “Yes.” The Garden of Eden, paradise of perfection, contained a single “No,” one boundary. And yet that boundary alone defined communion with God. In not eating of that tree, Adam and Eve could live in obedience. Every other meal takes on its meaning of blessed communion because it is eaten in obedience. With the act of disobedience and the destruction of the only boundary given by God, every tree becomes a potential tree of death. Indeed, Holy Communion itself can become a Cup of Death according to St. Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians.

Second – with the abolition of boundaries, communion ceases to be a struggle, and loses the ascesis that is essential to a healthy Christian life. Communion with God is a gift from God – but like the Kingdom of God, the “violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This rather odd verse is a reference to those who pursue God in such a way that it is not inappropriate to use the word “violent” to describe it. St. John the Baptist’s ministry was marked by his fasting and struggles in prayer. It is such efforts that are “violent” in the Christian life. It should be normative in the Christian life that the holy mysteries are approached with ascesis. Rather than approaching God with an attitude of entitlement (“this is my communion”) we approach struggling against sin in our life: repenting, confessing, forgiving, fasting. In a Christian life they are acts of love.

In all of our healthy relationships some level of ascesis is practiced though we rarely reconize it or call it by that name. In marriage we understand that husbands are to “love their wives even as Christ loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25) that is, they are to lay down their lives for them. A marriage built on romantic phrases rather than sacrificial acts of love can all too easily be a marriage destined to fail.

It is not that we earn grace or salvation – I would argue strongly that every effort of “struggle” is itself an effort made possible and infused with grace. But the gift of our salvation should not be likened to a man who never picked up a baseball bat suddenly walking up to the plate at the last out in the ninth inning, facing a pitcher with an ERA below 1 and smacking the baseball deep into the stands in center field. I’ll grant that grace could work like that, but it would be Walt Disney and not Jesus Christ. Thus the God who saves us by grace tells us to “keep my commandments,” and any number of other things. [An exception: the wise thief. Ninth inning. Though even he surely knew a struggle as he fought his way to the words: “Remember me in your kingdom.”] God will not abandon us as we take up that struggle – but struggle we must – for such is the life of grace.

Before I was received into the Orthodox Church, of necessity I took a different “approach” to communion. Attending services I knew that I would not yet be able to approach the Cup. But I kept the fast. From midnight forward I ate nothing. Thus like the rest of the congregation, I sang in hunger as Heaven surrounded us and God gave Himself to us on His most Holy Altar. I could not eat – but I could struggle to eat – I could be hungry.

Hunger is not the fullness of the faith – but, if I may be so bold – it is part of the fullness. And at certain times part of the fullness is more than nothing.

I think this is an important point for much of our life. There is a fullness of the Cup of Salvation that most of us have not yet tasted, even if we come to the Cup each Sunday. I do not yet know the fullness of loving my enemies, or forgiving my friends, or walking without fear (we can each make this part of the list longer). But I can know the fullness of hunger for these things and the daily toil of struggling for them by grace.

And by grace I pray at last to have been brought across that boundary of sin that separates me from others and myself, united to Christ and the liberty that comes from Him alone.

20 Responses to “The Struggle for Communion”

  1. Theodora Elizabeth Says:

    I think one of the hardest things, but I don’t see it mentioned often, about the inquirer/catechumenate part of becoming Orthodox is that you are OUT of Communion, literally. It was hard for me to get used to. It took me 51 weeks (exactly) to become Orthodox, and it was a relief to finally be able to take Communion as an Orthodox. I’d been missing something awful by not partaking. However, to use Western Christian “juridicial” (s’?) language, the validity of the Eucharist I partook of for five years as an Episcopalian is doubtful.

  2. Mark D. Moore Says:

    I believe it is so important to value and take the word “no” seriously for the reasons you have given. Thank you.

  3. Tom Says:

    “Indeed, communion is restricted to Orthodox Christians who have made preparation to receive (that’s another topic).”

    Father, could you address this topic some time please? I’m confused as to whether defining these requirements is entirely in the hands of each Priest, Bishop, jurisdiction – or whether there are any universal Orthodox norms.

  4. Meg Says:

    Beautiful post, and describes exactly where the West has gone wrong, in its individualistic approach to all things sacred. Thank you!

  5. Matt Says:

    I can certainly relate to what you’re saying here. I’m in the process of becoming Orthodox (I actually enter the catechumenate this morning), and my last time receiving Eucharist in my Anglican parish was far far more painful than not receiving in the Orthodox Church.

  6. AncientFaith Says:

    The Struggle for Communion

    I will, for the first time, actually copy and past an entire blog entry by Fr. Freeman, as something struck me about this one…

  7. d burns Says:

    Fr. Bless,

    As a catechume I was uneasy about receiving communion and its great mysteries. Later, after my baptism it seamed right and natural. Now I seamed to have lost some of the fear that I know I should approach the cup with. I don’t know if thats normal, but I do sometimes wonder if I’m just going though the motions or actually strugling with my own salvation.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    The struggle is vital. Tom, the preparation does vary, though there are some general things, which I can write about.

    Most importantly, I would say, in perhaps an American tone, if you put nothing into your communion, your reception will be less as well. Not that God is not fully present in each communion – but if you don’t really want Him – he’ll not force Himself on you. The struggle is the realization of this, and to approach every communion, not in the easy habit that has become so much a part of modern piety, but rather knowing that the tradition that is there, is there for my salvation, not as a legal requirement.

    Keep the fasts, pray the prayers of preparation (any good book of Orthodox prayers will have a good set of preparation guidelines. I personally think the little prayer book published at Jordanville is as good as any – and about the same). But pray, fast, make an effort to forgive all, and make confession as needed.

    It’s not a lot, but it’s so much more than most people wind up bothering to so. We’d rather write about it and discuss it. But do it. And go meekly to your communion.

    Do not forget the poor. Do not approach God’s cup with no concern for giving alms.

    My daughter, when she lived in Siberia, spoke about the many beggars on the streets (tragic economy). But there was ample opportunity to remember the poor on your way to your communion. It may not be as immediate for us but we can certainly do the same.

    God is not far removed us – but we from Him. If you want Him you will pray, fast, give alms, etc. We will struggle for Him. If we don’t want Him we should either quit saying that we do, or go to confession and weep for our sins and the grace to want God again.

  9. EYTYXOΣ Says:

    A friend and student of Dr. Daniel Wallace (Greek prof at Dallas Theological Seminary and a major force in discovering and digitizing ancient NT manuscripts) sent me a note about Dr. Wallace’s recent visit to Patmos and his comments about Orthodox communion (versus Evangelical Protestant “communion”): What I have Learned from the Greek Orthodox

  10. EYTYXOΣ Says:

    Maybe this link will work

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Thanks, Eutychos. It was interesting reading. It’s been so long since I’ve talked to more than one evangelical protestant at a time or just eavesdropped (which is what I guess I was doing as I read it) I guess I was just amazed at what they don’t know (we Orthodox have a lot of communicating left to do) as well as many things they assume about themselves that are questionable. But nonetheless, it seemed like a very positive discussion.

    I was struck by one responder’s question about Orthodoxy, “Where is the room for Reform?” assuming, I suppose, the notion of semper reformanda. Of course, Orthodoxy does reform, extremely gradually. But there are practices today in America, such as frequent reception of communion (not frequent liturgies – that has always existed but frequent reception of the Body and Blood by the laity) is a fairly recent development – certainly a return to an earlier pattern, but still new. In Russia, my daughter was told by her priest not to take communion more than once every six weeks, or the congregation would be scandalized. He understood her American practice, and agreed with it, but also recognized that this is not at the moment the common practice in Russia (let alone in Siberia where she lived). It was different – though the careful preparation and ascesis before communion there was far greater than almost any Orthodox practice in the U.S.

    I do not advocate less communion, just deeper preparation. If we had communion less because we were taking preparation more seriously, it would only mean that we weren’t being preparaed very often. Same effect, different approach.

    The right goal, is frequent communion with deep preparation. Not minimalism, but maximalism. I don’t want less of Jesus I want all of Jesus.

  12. November In My Soul Says:

    Fr. Freeman,

    I have come full circle on the issue of communion. At one time I believed that it was inappropriate to deny it to anyone, that extending communion was extending God’s love and that denying communion only drove people away. How wrong I was. Now I understand just a little about the sacredness, the holiness of communion. The time of anticipation as a catechumen helped me to understand. Now I see communion as treasure to be protected. Once again I thank God for your wisdom and for the Internet to disseminate it.

  13. Matthew N. Petersen Says:

    I agree that boundaries are necessary. I agree that ascesis is necessary. But our contention is not that you have boundaries, but that you have the wrong ones. We aree that you should exclude unbaptized. We agree that you should exclude people who deny Christ. We agree that you should exclude unconfessed sinners. But we disagree you should have lines of communion among the repentant baptized. I have been baptized. But even if I went to confession I still could not receive communion.

    On the other hand, someone could be literally atheist, yet wish for cultural reasons to remain Orthodox, and though he is the sort that should be excluded, many Orthodox churches would not exclude him.

    So I have trouble understanding your discussion of boundaries. Yes I agree we need boundaries. But you put them where they ought not to be, and do not erect them where they ought to be.

  14. Mr Bleaney Says:

    Thank you for your good advice Father.

  15. Barnabas Powell Says:

    For me it was the difference between being awake and being asleep.

    A conscious, purposeful approach to the Cup as oppossed to “its my right to approach” the Cup.

    While I have long abandoned the notion of “sinners in the hands of an Angry God” view of God, I none the less find that the Orthodox view of God in His majesty, holiness, and uncreated splendor is much more terrifying than any “fire and brimstone” sermon I ever heard or preached.

    So, the notion that the Cup should be approached or handled in any other way than with awe and preperation is simply unacceptible.

    Fire is a good thing, but handled wrongly and you’ll get burned. Our God is a consuming Fire. The Cup is the very Body and Blood of the God/Man, Jesus. Approach with faith and love, to be sure, but don’t approach asleep!

  16. EYTYXOΣ Says:

    Matthew N. Petersen Says:
    July 2nd, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    I agree that boundaries are necessary. I agree that ascesis is necessary. But our contention is not that you have boundaries, but that you have the wrong ones. We aree that you should exclude unbaptized. We agree that you should exclude people who deny Christ. We agree that you should exclude unconfessed sinners. But we disagree you should have lines of communion among the repentant baptized. I have been baptized. But even if I went to confession I still could not receive communion.

    On the other hand, someone could be literally atheist, yet wish for cultural reasons to remain Orthodox, and though he is the sort that should be excluded, many Orthodox churches would not exclude him.

    So I have trouble understanding your discussion of boundaries. Yes I agree we need boundaries. But you put them where they ought not to be, and do not erect them where they ought to be.

    The fact that, as you suggest, many Orthodox Churches might not exclude such a person is, to me, a reflection on the failures of that Orthodox congregation and its priest (or bishop?) and not on the boundaries the Orthodox Church draws around communion.

    “Closed communion” was one of the stumbling blocks that got in the way of my interest in becoming Orthodoxy. I thought it was unfair, not right, incorrectly restrictive, etc. After all, Jesus didn’t pick and choose who among the 5,000 to feed, right? (Though this might not be a proper analogy to the Eucharist, only a foreshadowing or symbol of it.) At some point, though, it was no longer an issue, or my issues took second place to my need to join the Church. I could no longer deny the grace that was working in my life via the Church, and I chose to accept what the Church has believed and practiced from the earliest days as far as I could tell – i.e., it jealously and even secretly guarded the Eucharist. No one outside Christian circles knew about it until Justin Martyr described it, and even then his efforts didn’t prevent his martyrdom, nor did they stop the rumors that Christians were cannibals and their love feasts were immoral.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Matthew,

    The boundaries are those established by the Church’s canons. It is not true that if you went to confession you could not still receive communion. Admittedly the catechumenal process usually takes a while, but the essence of the catechumenate for already baptized persons, is its conclusion, that they make confession, receive absolution (whose primary intention is to receive forgiveness for the sin of schism) and be admitted into communion. I think many do not understand that the primary issue is the sin of schism, not something else. It is why, according to the canons, the Bishop should personally (on the recommendation of the priest) approve every person to be received into the Church, for only Bishops have this authority – that is to reconcile schismatics to the Church. It is delegated sacramentally to priests (we may chrismate), but the authority to do this comes only from the Bishop.

    Neither should an atheist be accepted at the Cup. I have never knowingly offered the cup to an atheist, whether baptized Orthodox or not. The number of cases of which I am aware, some even creating public embarassment, (that I might have sought a different way to handle personally) exercised by a priest in guarding the Cup of Christ are too numerous to speak of. It is a solemn warning given to us on the day of our ordination.

    But the boundaries were drawn by the Fathers of the Church – the same ones who gave us the Nicene Creed. And like other matters, those are still the canons we live by. Though canons can be altered, these are such settled matters that I would pretty much treat them with Creedal authority. I hear no discussions among the Orthodox that such communion canons should change.

    It seems to me, that you have separated out a notion of “private sin” – i.e. “even if I go to confession” which does not recognize that the sin involved is a sin against the Body of Christ (in Orthodox understanding) that of Schism. If someone truly repentanted of that I would work to see they were received as soon as seemed appropriate (the spiritual life should move relatively slowly for the sake of our soul). So it’s not the question of confession (you confessing what you think you have done) but rather you repenting of what the Church, following Scripture and the Canons, says you have done. This is quite different.

  18. Michael Bauman Says:

    Matthew,

    I’ve been Orthodox for 20 years, for much of that time I accepted the closed communion as a matter of obedience. I experienced my own brother and sister-in-law being refused because they were in schism (a fact they denied at the time). Then recently my priest gave a sermon on the importance of touch in the life of the Church. The holy, but still fully human, touch made possible by the Incarnation.

    Being in the Church, the Body of Christ, is not just a matter of spiritual or mental adherence to certain beliefs. It is just as much a physical reality as a spiritual one. One has to receive the laying on of hands in order to be part of it, the cleansing, the annointing, the acceptance of the community before one can “taste and see that the Lord is good” The act of the congregation as the new one is being Chrismated is particularly expressive. In the Antiochian practice as the priest annoints the person and pronounces “The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit” the congregation responds loudly, “Seal!” It is similar to when a priest is ordained and the ordaining Bishop proclaims, “He is worthy”. The congregation responds, “He is worthy-Axios” thereby accepting the man as a priest in the community. Then the Bishop lays his hands on the man and ordains him.

    Holy Communion is not an individual act and it is not a right. We pray at each liturgy that Christ Himself “accept me today as a communicant” “without condemnation” I beleive the phrase goes: “Only Orthodox Christians who are in good standing and have prepared themselves with confession and fasting may approach”

    If you go to an Orthodox service you will ofen see folks who are long standing members of the congregation who do not receive. For some it is because they have not prepared that day, for some they are under spiritual guidance during a period of repentance, for others it is simply a hardness of heart. They are perhaps the type of which you speak, those who are in the congregation more out of social custom or fillial connection. They have absented themselves from partaking.

    One such case of which I am personally aware. During a “Ask the Priest” session we have every once in a while a certain member of our congregation made the statement that she supported “a woman’s right to choose” Abortion. Our priest immediately told her if she felt that way, she should not approach the Cup. She responded that she didn’t go anyway. This woman has been titularly Orthodox all of her life yet her own unbelief has separated her from the great grace of the Church. No one had told her not to go to Holy Communion. She just stopped.

    Not only does the priest guard the Cup, so does the Holy Spirit. The fact that she responded to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a matter for hope in her case that she will eventually be restored.

    It is a great mystery that reaches from the highest reaches of heaven to the inmost depths of the soul and body of each one who receives. It brings us together in a terrbily intimate association much like marriage (see Fr. Stephen’s post on marriage as communion down stream). Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit arranged this marriage, but we do get a say, of sorts, as to whom we are married.

  19. acolyte Says:

    Matthew,

    The participation in the Eucharist is in part a manifestation of a common faith. Like it or not, we don’t share a common faith and this as far as paper goes is true for many core issues from Christology on down. The Eucharist is not a means to communion, it is the result of it in a sense.

    Moreover, our exclusion is consistent with Apostolic and Patristic practice. Jews did not admit non-covenant members to Passover even if they professed belief in one deity, which many philosophically minded gentiles did. I don’t deny that Protestants are Christians, I just deny that there is some list of “essentials” floating out there right next to some common thing called “the church” which has many historically different instantiations. That tends to be the creation of Protestantism to account for its unity among widespread divisons. You can play that tune, but I don’t see why the Orthodox have to dance to it.

  20. Errare humanum est Says:

    […] July 7, 2007 Posted by wilken in eucharist, Uncategorized. trackback Oh, and here’s an interesting post about the struggle for communion. […]

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