Worthily Partaking of Communion

St. Cyril of Alexandria  considers what the Lord Jesus teaches us in John 6:56 – “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  He writes:

6219061154_d4264b409d_mNow if we really yearn for eternal life, if we long to have the provider of immortality within ourselves, let us not abstain from the Eucharist like some of the more negligent, nor let us provide the devil in the depths of his cunning with a trap and a snare for us in the form of a pernicious kind of reverence. “Yes, indeed,” someone might say, “But it is written, ‘Any one who eats of the bread and drinks of the cup unworthily, eats and drinks judgment upon himself’ [1 Cor 11:29]. I have examined myself and I see that I am not worthy.” But then when will you be worthy? . . . Make up your mind, then, to lead a more devout life in conformity with the law, and so partake of the Eucharist in the conviction that it dispels not only death but even the diseases that are in us [1 Cor 11:30].”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4998-5003)

Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou comments:

Cassian JohnAs St. John Cassian put it, and which is a good note to end on, We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy … we should more greatly desire the medicine of our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do … considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility … for when they receive, they think themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.”   (Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy, Kindle Loc. 854-62)

The Eucharist: Food for the Spiritual Battle

Holy Communion is the fulfillment of all our efforts, the goal toward which we strive, the ultimate joy of our Christian life, it is also and of necessity the source and beginning of our spiritual effort itself, the divine gift which makes it possible for us to know, to desire, and to strive for a “more perfect communion in the day without evening” of God’s Kingdom. For the Kingdom, although it has come, although it comes in the Church, is yet to be fulfilled and consummated at the end of time when God will fill all things with Himself. We know it, and we partake of it in anticipation; we partake now of the Kingdom which is still to come. We foresee and foretaste its glory and its blessedness but we are still on earth, and our entire earthly existence is thus a long and often painful journey toward the ultimate Lord’s Day.

On this journey we need help and support, strength and comfort, for the “Prince of this world” has not yet surrendered; on the contrary, knowing his defeat by Christ, he stages a last and violent battle against God to tear away from Him as many as possible. So difficult is this fight, so powerful the “gates of Hades,” that Christ Himself tells us about the “narrow way” and the few that are capable of following it. And in this fight, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that “essential food” which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers.

(Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 47-48)

The Eucharist – The Whole Truth About God

We are in a position now to see the duality in the Christian idea of sacrament, corresponding to the duality – discussed earlier – in the Christian idea of the world. On the one hand, sacrament is rooted in the nature of the world as created by God: it is always a restoration of the original pattern of things. On the other hand, it is rooted in Christ personally. Only through the perfect man can the broken priesthood of humanity be restored. Only through Him can the dark, primordial ocean become the living waters of baptism.

Only by way of His cross can the dead world come to new life. Our task remains, but He has gone before, doing the hard work for us. If we kneel to pray, to adore, to offer our lives, we are only attaching ourselves and assenting to His own similar but all-embracing act.

(Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, p. 225)

Visions of the Liturgy: Old (Testament) and New (Children)

But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:16-17)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)

While Jesus taught that we have to become like a child to enter the Kingdom of God, through history theological reflection tended not to see the Kingdom from a child’s point of view.  Theology made ideas of the Kingdom ever more complex.  Even the Liturgy which is to reflect the Kingdom was not understood from the point of view of the child but became increasingly complex with layers of meaning that no child could even see let alone understand.  The Liturgy seems not to have been developed with the child in mind, and today many people do not appreciate children in the Liturgy because they are noisy, distracting, disruptive while they want an experience free of childlike behavior.   And yet we cannot enter that Kingdom unless we become like a child for the Kingdom and the Liturgy which reflects it are not the constructs of theologians, scholars, mystics and the highly educated experts, but are the revelation of and from God for those who can be children.

The late great liturgical scholar Robert Taft summarized the Orthodox Liturgy this way:

“In the cosmic or hierarchical scheme, church and ritual are an image of the present age of the Church, in which divine grace is mediated to those in the world (nave) from the divine abode (sanctuary) and its heavenly worship (the liturgy enacted there), which in turn images forth its future consummation (eschatological), when we shall enter that abode in Glory.  Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429), last of the classic Byzantine mystagogues, has synthesized this vision in chapter 131 of his treatise ON THE HOLY TEMPLE:

The church, is the house of God, is an image of the whole world, for God is every where and above everything.   .  .  .  The sanctuary is a symbol of the higher and super-celestial spheres, where the throne of God and his dwelling place are said to be.  it is this throne which the altar represents. … The bishop represents Christ, the church [nave] represents the visible world.  .  .  .

I mention the apostles with the angels, bishops and priests, because there is only one Church, above and below, since God came down and lived among us, doing  what he was sent to do on our behalf.  And it is a work which is one, as is our Lord’s sacrifice, communion, and contemplation.  And it is carried out both above and here below, but with this difference: above it is done without any veils or symbols, butt here it is accomplished through symbols. . . .

In the economic on anamnetic scheme, the sanctuary with its altar is at once: the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle decreed by Moses; the Cenacle of the Last Supper; Golgotha of the crucifixion; and the Holy Sepulchre of the resurrection, from which the sacred gifts of the Risen Lord — His Word and His body and blood — issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world.     . . .

In the iconography and liturgy of the church, this twofold vision assumes visible and dynamic form.  From the central dome the image of the Pantocrator dominates the whole scheme, giving unity to the hierarchical and economic themes.  The movement of the hierarchical theme is vertical: ascending from the present, worshiping community assembled in the nave, up through the ranks of the saints, prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, to the Lord in the heavens attended by the angelic choirs.  The economic or ‘salvation-history’ system, extending outwards and upwards from the sanctuary, is united both artistically and theologically with the hierarchical. ”  (THE BYZANTINE RITE: A SHORT HISTORY, pp 69-70)

The Liturgy and the Church are about ranks of bishops, apostles, angels, priests, saints, prophets and patriarchs.   What is missing?  Children.  We cannot enter the Kingdom without them or without being one of them.   We don’t have to have a seminary degree to understand the Liturgy.  We need the eyes of a child.  If the received Tradition forgets that, it has forgotten a key to the Kingdom.  We can do the Liturgy perfectly rubrically correct, according to the Typikon, with every ritual required.   We still need to have the heart of a child to enter the Kingdom.

It also is interesting that the received Tradition turned to and returned to the Old Testament for its liturgical meaning, rites and symbols rather than exploring themes suggested by the Gospel.   In the Old Testament, we understand, everything was in shadows and symbols:  “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…”  (Hebrews 10:1)   Christ came and revealed the Light opening Paradise to us, opening our hearts and minds and eyes to see clearly no longer in shadows: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  (Matthew 4:16)   But now according to Taft’s description it is the nave of the church and the non-clergy who live in the world of symbols (the shadowy world of the Old Testament!).  It is all that the Church permits for the non-clergy.    Behind the icon wall, reserved for the clergy is the Kingdom opened.  The Gospel, however, proclaims that we no longer sit in darkness or in shadows for the Light has come.   There is another effect of this return to the shadows of the Old Testament – the hierarchy serves to further distance the Savior from the people He saved!  It is moving away from Christ who ended all of the dividing walls and opened Paradise to all.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (Ephesians 2:14-22)

The Significance of Vespers

“…the recovery by the Church of the true spirit and meaning of the liturgy, as an all-embracing vision of life, including heaven and earth, time and eternity, spirit and matter and as the power of that vision to transform our lives… For, as we have seen, the only real justification of the parish as organization is precisely to make the liturgy, the cult of the Church as complete, as Orthodox, as adequate as possible, and it is the liturgy, therefore, that is the basic criterion of the only real “success” of the parish.

Let the Saturday service – this unique weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection, this essential “source” of our Christian understanding of time and life, be served week after week in an empty church – then at least the various secular “expressions” and “leaders” of the parish: committees, commissions and boards, may become aware of the simple fact that their claim: “we work for the Church” is an empty claim, for if the “Church” for which they work is not primarily a praying and worshiping Church it is not “church”, whatever their work, effort and enthusiasm. Is it not indeed a tragic paradox: we build ever greater and richer and more beautiful churches and we pray less and less in them?…

All conversations about people being “busy” and “having no time” are no excuses. People were always busy, people always worked, and in the past they were, in fact, much busier and had more obstacles to overcome in order to come to Church. In the last analysis it all depends where the treasure of man is – for there will be his heart. The only difference between the present and the past is – and I have repeated this many times – that in the past a man knew that he had to make an effort, and that today he expects from the Church an effort to adjust herself to him and his “possibilities.”

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Problems of Orthodoxy in the World,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 188-189)

A Historical Look at the Vespers Service

Vespers is the evening prayer service in the daily cycle of liturgical services.  It can be done every day of the year and is designed to be done at sunset each day. Archbishop Job Getcha offers us some idea as to when the various elements in our current Vespers service became part of the rubrics for Vespers.

“In the sung office, Psalm 103 followed Psalm 85 at vespers on Sunday evening. We do not know precisely when this psalm entered […] the first allusion to it appears in the seventy third of the Great Catecheses of Theodore the Studite (8th c.) […] During Psalm 103, the priest silently recites the presbyteral prayers taken from the Constantinople Euchologion, a reform introduced in the fourteenth century through the Diataxis of Patriarch Philotheos. […]

One thing we can note is that throughout history, Orthodox liturgical services have undergone changes.  Some changes were introduced for practical reasons, some for pastoral reasons.  After the 14th Century, many changes occurred in Orthodox liturgical rubrics as monastic practices replaced long standing liturgical practices in non-monastic parish churches.  The hymns and rubrics which make up our current services entered into the services in different centuries and reflect the changing nature of liturgical services.

Psalmist & Prophet David

Then follows the singing of the lucernarium – the evening psalms (140,141,129, and 116), the first of which formed part of the evening office already in the ancient Jewish Temple. It contains an allusion to the incense offered during the evening prayer and asks that this prayer may rise to God like incense. It is attested as well in the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.) […] We note the presence of a refrain for the first two verses of Psalm 41:

Lord I call upon you, hear me. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Lord. I call upon you, hear me. Receive the voice of my prayer when I call upon you. (Ps. 140.1)

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.

Let my prayer rise like incense before you, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.

Ref: Hear me, O Lord.


 […] Vespers then continues with the evening hymn, ‘O Gladsome Light’, a hymn already referred to by St. Basil as very ancient. […] The Jewish tradition, in which is rooted the prayer of the very first Church of Jerusalem, also had the practice of offering thanks for the artificial light that was lit at sunset. The Book of Exodus in the Old Testament already witnesses to the fact that the Jews observed a ritual connected to the evening light: at the evening sacrifice, when the lights were lit, incense was offered to the Lord. The incense did not have the banal sense it has today (of ‘incensing’ objects), but was used only to symbolize the offering that rises towards God. The lamps were lit from a candle that burned permanently inside the Tent of the Covenant (see Lev. 24.1).

 It is interesting to note that this evening ritual was preserved by the Jews even after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem: the Talmud reminded them that it is God himself that they praised and glorified in performing this ritual. The Church of Jerusalem inherited this tradition, and after the construction of the Anastasis complex around 335, it became customary to keep a lamp burning permanently in the Holy Sepulcher, from which all other lamps were lit at the proper moment in the Lucernare. […] This custom, originating from both Jewish and pagan antiquity, was thus taken up by the ancient Christ tradition. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225), in speaking of a Christian meal, indicates that, after the light is brought in, each Christian is to stand and sing a hymn to God, either taken from the Holy Scriptures or inspired from his heart. The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215) indicates that at the evening office the deacon brings a lamp, and the bishop says a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the illumination from the immaterial light through his only-begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330- c. 395) in the Vita that he composed of his sister, St. Macrina, also mentions a hymn connected to the bringing of the light during the evening prayer. It is therefore in this ancient custom of giving thanks during the lighting of the lamps at sunset that the hymn was composed and became the hymn of Byzantine vespers. […]

The prayer, ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’, follows, already attested to at this point in the service by the Account of John and Sophronios (7th c.).[…] Then the Canticle of Symeon (Lk. 2.19-32) is recited. … it is possible that this canticle was chosen in connection with the dismissal of vespers.” (The Typikon Decoded, pp 87-91)

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:29-32)

Communion: A Gift Received, Not Taken

If one looks at any of the icons designated as “The Communion of the Apostles” (not the Last Supper Icon), one readily sees that it is Christ who distributes the Eucharist to the Apostles.   They don’t take it, but receive the Eucharist as a gift.  And so we call the Body and Blood of Christ “the gifts.”

The great liturgical scholar Robert F. Taft. S.J. says of the rituals surrounding Holy Communion:

“There was, of course, a point to all this seemingly ritualistic minutiae, one long forgotten in modern western self-service clergy communion rituals: Holy Communion is a gift received, not something anyone – not even the presider – just ‘takes’. And since liturgy is supposed to say ritually what it means, this receiving was symbolized – and not just in Byzantium – by having everyone, even the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, receive communion from the hand of another as from Christ. For Eucharistic communion is not the sacrament of one’s private communion with the Risen Lord. It is the sacrament of our communion with one another in the one Body of Christ, a body at once ecclesial and Eucharistic. This was the original meaning of eucharist koinonia.” Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It, p 108)

It is clear in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper that Christ gave the bread and the cup of wine to His disciples.  Interesting in the icons of the Last Supper, one disciple is portrayed as reaching to take the bread – it is the apostle Judas.

See also my blog We Receive Holy Communion, We Don’t Take it

A Vision for the Church

“Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, are now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable them to remain alive in the world of today. The defenders of the orthodox way of life express one clear and profound answer as they define it. But there is no clear, total answer from any other side except reductions, like return to ‘Byzantium,’ or spiritual individualism, or reading the ascetics, or escapism from reality. I hesitate to come forward with my feelings – it sounds arrogant – that I have an answer! In everything that I preach, or teach, or write, I want this answer to appear, hopefully to shine through. But that answer cannot be squeezed into any system, any recipe, any defined way of life. No rules come out of that answer. It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the ‘Other,’ the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it.

The source of that eschatological, the lifting up of all life, is the sacrament of the Eucharist. The error of the defenders of a concrete and clearly defined way of life is not in attributing great importance  to the external forms of life. In that, they are right against all the pseudo-spiritual people, whether religious or cultured, who are obsessed by the idea of breaking with any forms or destroying them altogether. It does not mean that Christianity leads us into some sort of ‘other-worldliness.’ It means that the image of this world in Christ and through Christ becomes passing, dynamic, open, outreaching. To understand St. Paul when he says, ‘The image of this world is passing away,’ to make it real, we need in this world the experience of the other world, its beauty, depth, treasure, the experience of the Kingdom of God and its Sacrament – the Eucharist. 

The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation – to be love, truth, faith and mission – all these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community – love for Christ, love in Christ – as a mission to turn each and all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol.

The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’ – already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full. ‘The image of this world is passing away.’ But only by passing away does the world final become the ‘World’: a gift of God, a happiness that comes from being in communion with the content, the form, the image of that ‘World’.”   (The Journals of Alexander Schmemann, pp 24-25)

“Unto Ages of Ages”

TempleThe final exclamation which concludes many Orthodox liturgical prayers is “…unto ages of ages. Amen.”  We get so used to hearing that phrase that we probably don’t even consider where it comes from and why it is in our prayers.  David Instone-Brewer in his book TRADITIONS OF THE RABBIS FROM THE ERA OF THE NEW TESTAMENT examines many aspects of Jewish practice from the time of Christ and he points out that a feud had emerged between Sadducees and Pharisees about how properly to conclude a blessing in the Temple.  There apparently were different practices for ending a Temple prayer:  “Amen” was one traditional ending but also at one time the response was “Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever.”  The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife and so interpreted “forever” to mean until this age ended, since there is only this age but nothing beyond this age.  The Pharisees then changed the ending of the prayer to “for ever and ever” (= “unto ages of ages”) because then it referred to both this age and the age to come (which the Sadducees didn’t believe  in).  It was an effort to force the Sadducees to have to pray for the age to come.

Christianity which follows the beliefs of the Pharisees regarding the afterlife, the resurrection and the world to come kept the phrase “unto ages of ages. Amen” as part of their prayer to affirm belief in the afterlife and the Kingdom which is to come.   The split between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is mentioned in Acts 23:6-9 where St. Paul, himself a Pharisee, takes advantage of the disagreement to turn the two Jewish sects against each other (see also Matthew 22:23-33).  The phrase “unto ages of ages” occurs in the New Testament in Matthew 6:13 (in some ancient Greek manuscripts), Romans 1:25 and Galatians 1:5, Ephesians 3:21, 1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 13:21, 1 Peter 4:11 and frequently in the book of Revelation just to name some occurrences.