Salvation, as well as the spiritual life of every Orthodox Christian, is unthinkable without his participation in the Divine Liturgy, and especially without the communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. By communion with the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, believers mysteriously unite with Christ the Savior, form One Body – His Holy Church with Him – and receive sanctification of the soul and body.
Already in the Apostolic times of the Christian Church, the tradition of celebrating the Holy Eucharist was established on a Sunday (and, if possible and more often: for example, in memory of the holy martyrs), so that Christians could permanently be in communion with Christ and with one another. St. Paul, referring to the Corinthian Christians, says: “… I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. “(1 Corinthians 10: 16-17). Therefore, imitating the holy Apostles, all members of the local Christian community participated in the Holy Eucharist and communion every Sunday, and the rejection of the Holy Communion without serious grounds was considered contempt for the Church, and such a member of the community was subjected to condemnation. The continual growth of the Church of Christ in the 3rd century, and more so in the 4th century, led to significant changes in its organization. In particular, the Eucharist began to appear more often, and the presence of ordinary Christians was desirable, but not obligatory – as well as their participation in Holy Communion. In this regard, the Church has established the following canonical norm: “Everyone who enters the church (that is, to a certain community) and listens to the Scriptures, but through some sort of evasion, does not participate in common prayer or turns away from receiving the Holy Eucharist, let them be excommunicated from the Church until they are permitted back, having revealed the fruits of repentance and ask forgiveness, and thus will be able to receive it. (2nd rule of the Antiochian Council).
Nevertheless, the reality of the Christian’s constant readiness to receive the Holy Mysteries was difficult to attain because of different circumstances in the lives of many Christians. There is evidence that the holy fathers of the 4th century were working on the various practices concerning the regularity of communion. Thus, St. Basil the Great speaks of communion four times a week as a norm: “To partake every day and to join the Holy Body and the Blood of Christ is good and useful, since Christ Himself clearly says: who consumes My body and drinks My blood, has eternal life … We are partaking four times a week: on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as saint days. “(Message 93).
Less than half a century later, Saint John Chrysostom, says that many, including the monks, began to partake of one or two times a year, and calls on conscientious Christians to adhere to the ancient tradition of communion at every Divine Liturgy: “Many will sacrifice this sacrifice once for all year, others – twice, and others – several times. Our words apply to everyone, not only to those present here, but also to those who are in the desert, because they also partake once a year, and often – every two years. What? Whom do we praise? Those who partake one time, or those who are frequent, or those who rarely do? None of them, but of people who partake in pure conscience, with a pure heart, and with an unblemished life. Let them always proceed; and those who are not worthy, should not partake even once a year “(Chapters 17 and 4 of the Epistle to the Jews).
In the part of the 4th century, before the Council of Nicaea, a rule was established on the mandatory Eucharistic fast – the complete refraining from eating and drinking on the day of communion until the reception of the Holy Mysteries of Christ: “Let the holy sacrament from the altar only be seen by those who have not eaten” (41- the rule of the Carthage Cathedral). However, at the turn of the IV – V centuries, as Saint John Chrysostom writes, many Christians associated fasting not only before the Divine Liturgy, but also only in observance of Great Lent. The saint condemns the summary of this custom in the rank of norm: “Please, tell me: When you start communion once a year, do you really think that forty days you have enough to cleanse your sins for the whole of this period? And then, after a week, you again give in to what he did before? Tell me: if you, having recovered for forty days of prolonged illness, then again took up the same food that caused you illness, would you not have lost your previous work? Obviously so. If so, physical health is arranged, then more so – moral … All forty, and often not forty days, you dedicate to the health of the soul and think that he has commended God? I am not saying this to prevent you from starting once a year, but I want you to always go to the Holy Mysteries. “(Conversations to the Epistle to Jews 17, 4).
However, in the Byzantine Empire until the 11th – 12th centuries the monastic community established the tradition of communion only after serious preparation, which included a fast, a remorseful confession before the monastic clergy, reading a special prayer of rules before communion, that originated in this era. In the same tradition, pious lay people began to recognize monastic spirituality in Orthodoxy as the ideal way of Christian life. In the most precise form, this tradition is presented, for example, in the direction of Typicon (Chapter 32), the obligatory seven-day fast before communion.
At the end of the seventeenth century, a chapter entitled “Teaching Information” was included into the Prayer Book. In it, in particular, there is an indication of the mandatory period of preparation for Holy Communion – during the four multi-day fasting, everyone who wishes may be partaker, and beyond that, seven days of mandatory fasting, though this term may be shortened: “Three days or one day of fasting.”
In practice, the extremely strict approach to preparation for Holy Communion had positive spiritual results, however, it also led to the fact that some Christians did not partake for a long time, referring to conditions in life along with the need for decent spiritual and moral preparation. The norm called upon by the Orthodox Church was mandatory communion for all Christians at least once a year. Traditionally, this practice occurred on the eve of Pascha or the Nativity of Christ.
At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pious people sought to receive communion during the four Lenten seasons, and saints of that time, among which was Saint Theophanes the Recluse, the righteous John of Kronstadt, among others, urged them to receive the Holy Mysteries even more often. The years of godless persecution in the twentieth century prompted the confessors and martyrs of the glorious Orthodox Church to reconsider the existing practice of infrequent communion, so that now the majority of Orthodox church members are receiving communion with much greater frequency than Christians in previous decades.
Receiving Holy Communion necessitates a preparatory period of prayer and fasting. The confessional requirements for preparation for Holy Communion depend on the frequency of the sacrament of the Holy Mysteries and the spiritual and moral status of the believer.
The practice of preparation (fasting) is governed by the ascetic tradition of the Church. The fast is a form of refraining from eating meat (and in a more severe way – consumption of only dry food and water), avoidance all forms of entertainment. Fasting must be accompanied by diligent prayer and sincere repentance traditionally brought by the believer in the sacrament of confession directly before receiving the Holy Mysteries. At the same time, the duration and severity of fasting for Holy Communion may vary depending on the internal state of the Christian, as well as the conditions of his life.
The practice in our day, for those that receive communion several times a year, it is enough for them to prepare three days, while those who partake of the sacrament several times a year, and for those who receive communion more than once a month, a one day fast completely corresponds to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, reflected, including in the “Educational Information”.
According to the ecclesiastical tradition, fasting is not only abstaining from certain foods, but also more frequent attendance of church services, as well as reciting certain prayers at home, which usually consists of penitential canons and veneration of our Savior, the Theotokos, our Guardian Angel, saints and other church prayers. The combination of prayer at home during the period of fasting, according to the Followed Psalter (more precisely, included in its “Rule for those who are preparing to serve and wishes to partake of the Holy Divine Mystery of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”) may vary and depend on from the spiritual state of the one who prepares for the sacrament, as well as from the conditions of his life. The most important part of the prayer preparation of the parishioner is the follow-up to Holy Communion, consisting of the corresponding canon and prayers. Since the Holy Eucharist is the source of all Liturgies, the presence in the services preceding the Divine Liturgy – primarily the evening and early (or all-night) – is an important part of preparation to receive the Holy Body and the Blood of Christ.
The clergy must determine the measure of fasting and the amount of prayer for those who are preparing for Holy Communion, and take into consideration the spiritual and physical condition of that person, and the general care of our fellow man. In preparation for Holy Communion, it must be remembered that the goal of fasting is not for outward appearances, but the fulfillment of the penitential state of the soul, sincere forgiveness and reconciliation with neighbors.
There is a special practice of fasting during Bright Week – a week after the Resurrection of Christ. An ancient canonical rule on the obligatory participation of all believers in the Sunday Eucharist in the 7th century was also extended to the Divine Liturgy and Bright Week: “From the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God to St. Thomas Sunday, throughout the week, believers must be in the holy churches continuously reading the psalms and singing spiritual songs, rejoicing and triumphing in Christ, and listening to the reading of the Divine Scriptures, and enjoying the holy Mysteries. Thus, in this manner, together, we are resurrected with Christ.”(66th principle of the Trulean Council). It is clear from this rule that lay people are called upon to receive communion during the Divine Liturgy of Bright Week. According to the Church’s Charter, there is no fasting during Bright Week as this brings glory to Great Lent and to Holy (Passion) Week. Canonically, in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for those Christians who obeyed the Great Fast, during Bright Week, they should limit their fasting from midnight in order to receive Holy Communion.
It is necessary to distinguish between the Eucharistic fast in the proper sense of the word – complete refraining from eating and drinking from midnight to Holy Communion. This fast is canonically necessary and cannot be omitted. It should be noted that the requirement of mandatory Eucharistic fasting cannot be applied to infants, as well as to persons suffering from severe diseases requiring constant intake of drugs and to the dying.
There is a special practice of fasting during Bright Week – a week after the Resurrection of Christ. An ancient canonical rule on the obligatory participation of all believers in the Sunday Eucharist in the 7th century was also extended to the Divine Liturgy and Bright Week: “From the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God to St. Thomas Sunday, throughout the week, believers must be in the holy churches continuously reading the psalms and singing spiritual songs, rejoicing and triumphing in Christ, and listening to the reading of the Divine Scriptures, and enjoying the holy Mysteries. Thus, in this manner, together, we are resurrected with Christ.”(66th principle of the Trulean Council). It is clear from this rule that lay people are called upon to receive communion during the Divine Liturgy of Bright Week. According to the Church’s Charter, there is no fasting during Bright Week as this brings glory to Great Lent and to Holy (Passion) Week. Canonically, in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, for those Christians who obeyed the Great Fast, during Bright Week, they should limit their fasting from midnight in order to recieve Holy Communion.
Since the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, according to the Church’s Articles of Association, is occurs in the evening, this involves an increase in the length of the Eucharistic fast, which includes not only the night and morning, but also the day. Therefore, during the evening communion of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, abstaining food from midnight is the norm, however, for those without physical strength, the Orthodox Church made exceptions by reducing the Eucharistic fasting for six hours, that is, beginning the fast at Noon.
Canonical law commands that married couples abstain from joining together as one in for Holy Communion. (5th and 13th rules of Saint Timothy of Alexandria).
During the period of fasting, one who prepares for Holy Communion, reflects on his conscience, which implies sincere repentance of sins and the confessing his conscience to the priest in the sacrament of Penance. Confession before communion is an inalienable and extremely important part of fasting, since it not only cleanses the soul in order to receive Christ, but also bears witness to the absence of canonical obstacles to participation of the Holy Eucharist. In some cases, with the blessing of the clergy, the laity who intend to receive Holy Communion several times in one week – primarily during Passion Week and Bright Week – may be, with exception, exempted from confession before each communion.
Holy Communion is not permitted for those who are in a state of rage, wrath, with evidentially grievous sins or are unforgiving. Those who dare to embark upon the Holy Gifts in such an dark state of the soul, bring upon themselves the condemnation of God, according to the words of St. Paul: “For whoever eats and drinks unworthily, he eats and drinks to condemn himself, not thinking of The body of the Lord “(1 Corinthians 11:29).
The canons also prohibit communion in the state of women’s impurity (2nd rule of St. Dionysius of Alexandria, 7th rule of St. Timothy of Alexandria, 19th and 44th rules of the Laodicean Council, 69th rule of the Fifth-Sixth (Trullo) Ecumenical Council).
22 The question of Holy Communion is sharply confronted with those who live in family life but are out of wedlock. The Orthodox Church insists on the need for a church marriage, but does not deprive communion in legal marriages, which for reasons unknown, was not consecrated as a Holy Sacrament. Such a marriage is recognized by the Church as lawful, but not blessed. This measure of ecclesiastical economy, based on the words of St. Paul, states that “… For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but are now holy. “(1 Corinthians 7:14). “If an unbeliving woman is allowed to live together with a faithful husband, or vice versa, the husband is wrong with a faithful woman, then let them not divorce” (Rule 72 of the Trulean Council). This means facilitating the possibility of participating in church life for those Orthodox Christians who have entered into marriage before beginning their conscious participation in the Holy Sacraments of the Church. Unlike those that are spiritually lost, but married, which is a canonical obstacle to communion, such an alliance in the eyes of the Church is a legitimate marriage (except in cases where legally permissible “marriages”, for example, incest or same-sex partnerships are legally recognized in some countries, – from the point of view of the Orthodox Church, are inadmissible in principle and are not only immoral, but abominable in the eyes of God). However, the duty of the Orthodox pastors is to remind believers of the need not only to make a legally valid marriage, but also the church, through which God gives special grace for a full family life.
Preparing children for Holy Communion has its own peculiarities. The duration and content of the training is determined by the parents in consultation with the confessor and should take into account the age, state of health and the degree of the child’s chastity. The first confession before communion, according to the 18th rule of Saint Timothy of Alexandria, is carried out after the age of ten, but in the tradition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the first confession usually occurs at the age of seven. We must admit that for children under three years of eucharistic fasting is not obligatory. In the Orthodox Church, there is also a practice of communion of infants, but only with the Holy Blood. According to tradition, children from Orthodox families begin to be taught to refrain from eating and drinking before the sacraments of the Holy Mystery from the age of three. By the age of seven, the child must firmly become accustomed to partaking on an empty stomach; at the same time, one has to teach the child to observe pre-communion a day-long fast and read the prayers before and after Holy Communion.
The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is the main sacrament of the Church in the cause for our salvation. This is witnessed by our Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you: if you do not eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and do not drink His blood, you will not have life in yourself. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood, has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day “(John 6: 53-54). Therefore, the regular and worthy sacrament of the Holy Mysteries is necessary for a believer for salvation.
Regarding the frequency with which a believer should receive communion, different approaches may be adopted under the aforementioned rule of Saint John Chrysostom, “always with a clear conscience, with a pure heart, with an unblemished life.” This is evidenced by the holy fathers of the last centuries. According to St. Theophanes the Recluse, “the measure (norm) to partake in communion once or twice a month is blessed”, although “nothing can be more praiseworthy than receiving communion more often.” (letter 5). In this question, every believer can be guided by the following words of this saint: “Saints of the Mystery will more often be communicated if the spiritual father allows, but always try to proceed with proper cooking and more – with fear and trembling, so that when you get used, you do not start to do anything indifferent” 4). This advice from the saint should serve as a rule for all believing Christians to consume Divine Gifts in a worthy and saving way for eternal life.
1. St. Basil the Great. Creation. – T.1, Kn.2. – K., 2010.
2. St. John the Goldstone. Creation. – T.8, book 1. – K., 2010.
3. Saint Theophanes the Recluse. Letters T.9, – M., 2011.
4. The book of rules. – K., 2008.
5. Officer. – K., 2000.
6. Typicon. – M., 1906.
Protopriest Petro Zinich Professor KPBA