A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

O Lord, my God, I know that I am not worthy that You should enter into my soul’s habitation because it is desolate and in ruins. You will find no fitting place therein to lay Your head. But as from on high You humbled Yourself and came to us, so now submit to the measure of my lowliness. As You consented to lie in a manger, consent now to come into the manger of my soul and body. As You did not scorn to enter and to dine with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, scorn not to enter into the house of my humble soul, although I, too, am a sinner and leper.

As You did not cast out the sinful woman, a harlot, when she approached to touch You, so have also compassion on me, a sinner, as I approach to touch You. Lord and Master, let the burning fire of Your holy Body and precious Blood be unto me for cleansing, enlightenment and strengthening of my soul and body; for relief of the burden of my many transgressions, protection from all diabolical influence, restraint of my sinful habits and the putting to death.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 1086-1094)

 

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Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“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. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

Holy Communion and Menstruation

Occasionally an old debate re-emerges and parishioners get caught up in the ideas being argued. So it is that I was asked the other day about whether menstruating women should be allowed to come to Holy Communion. This issue has come up from time to time throughout the Centuries of Christianity’s existence. We see this being addressed for example in the 4th Century document called The Apostolic Constitutions, written about 375AD. In this writing, concern about menstruation is portrayed as really belonging to a Judaizing of Christianity – a return to following the Law not supported by the New Testament.   That document states the following:

Now if any persons keep to the Jewish customs and observances concerning the natural emission and nocturnal pollutions, and the lawful conjugal acts (Leviticus xv), let them tell us whether in those hours or days, when they undergo any such thing, they observe not to pray, or to touch a Bible, or to partake of the Eucharist? And if they own it to be so, it is plain they are void of the Holy Spirit, which always continues with the faithful.

The point being made is that for baptized and chrismated Christians, we have been given the Holy Spirit, which cannot be taken away from us by conjugal acts or natural emissions. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit while engaged in these acts, then we are void of the Holy Spirit at all times. The corollary is if we have the Holy Spirit received in our baptism and chrismation, then we can receive Holy Communion even if in menstruation. Since we don’t lose the Holy Spirit through acts of natural emission or conjugal acts, then we can receive Holy Communion after such acts. The Apostolic Constitutions continues:

For concerning holy persons Solomon says: “That every one may prepare himself, that so when he sleeps it may keep him, and when he arises it may talk with him.” (Proverbs 6:22) For if you think, O woman, when you are seven days in your separation, that you are void of the Holy Spirit, then if you should die suddenly you will depart void of the Spirit, and without assured hope in God; or else you must imagine that the Spirit always is inseparable from you, as not being in a place. But you stand in need of prayer and the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Ghost, as having been guilty of no fault in this matter. For neither lawful mixture, nor child-bearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution, can defile the nature of a man, or separate the Holy Spirit from him. Nothing but impiety and unlawful practice can do that.”   (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 3158-69)

This 4th Century Christian document is pretty clear that only Christians with wrong ideas about menstruation and the like will abstain from Holy Communion. Interestingly, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) thought the Apostolic Constitutions and their canons should be counted and read as Scripture in the Orthodox Church.

Though the teaching about menstruating women and Holy Communion has actually varied in different periods of Orthodox history and in the varying cultures influenced by Orthodoxy, there have been some clear teachings that say this should not be a concern for Christians. The concern results from a tendency ever present in the legalizing piety of Orthodoxy toward Pharisaic attitudes. It is a piety that becomes popular at times. For some it seems more pious to abstain from Communion when in menstruation. However, since we don’t follow the Jewish Law regarding clean and unclean in all matters, it seems unusual that we would pick this one matter and then suddenly make ourselves feel more holy by keeping one aspect of the Law.  We would do well to remember the words of St. James in his epistle:  “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”   The piety which says menstruating women should refrain from Communion seems to say that you can keep one point of the law and ignore the rest and consider yourself holy.

As the Apostolic Constitution points out it is really only “impiety and unlawful practice” which can separate us from the Holy Spirit.  Neither childbirth nor menstruation is  impious or unlawful.   Additionally one might ask oneself, if in the Liturgy we faithfully proclaim Christ’s commandments – “Take, eat” and “Drink, all of  you” – under what circumstance would we dare disobey Christ? He commands us to receive His Body and Blood for the remission of sins. Why disobey the Lord?

I see the question about women’s menstruation and Holy Communion in the context of Acts 15, where there is a debate in the nascent Christian community as to whether Gentile men must become circumcised in order to become Christian. In other words, are Christians obligated to keep Torah? The then early Christian community, largely Jewish, had to decide whether you must become a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian.   The council of apostles and elders decided, NO!   If we read that text, we see that the chosen apostles of Jesus decided that the Law really was for a Jews a burden they couldn’t bear, and so it was neither spiritually prudent or good to impose the law upon converts to Christianity.     I think that decision by the apostolic founders of the Church applies today to the discussion on women and Communion. Does menstruation suddenly demand that Christian women must keep Torah?  Following Jewish or Pharisaic practice is not required of us as Orthodox Christians. The Apostles themselves settled that discussion in their lifetime.   Yet, pious ideas emerge which overrule even the apostles themselves.   Indeed it has frequently become part of the piety of various Orthodox nationalities, and seems so pious to tell menstruating women not to receive Communion. There is, however, strong reason from the Apostles, in our Scripture and from the Tradition of the Church to recognize that piety for what it is and to know there is sound reason for us not to follow it. Our task is, as we pray in the baptism liturgy to “preserve our baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God.”  Neither menstruation or childbirth defiles the baptismal garment nor do they take away from any woman the Holy Spirit.

This debate will go on, and I’m not trying to resolve it.  I am answering as a pastor a question I received from parishioners about how I see this issue.