Each week during Lent, as you know, I’ve been writing about the rich depth of our Orthodox spirituality. A few weeks ago, I talked about how fasting opens us up to others (click here), and, last week, I spoke about how confession allows us to experience God’s loving mercy (click here).
But, the mystery, par excellence, is communion!
If, as Orthodox Christians, we understand salvation as union with God (theosis or deification), then communion is the pinnacle of our spirituality!
The word says it all—”communion” is a Latin word that means, “fellowship, mutual participation, or sharing.”
When we commune, we take Christ into ourselves and we are transformed into the Body of Christ. Or, to put it another way, we find union with Christ and begin to share in his life.
Sometimes, people ask me: “What’s the gospel … the Good News?”
What it isn’t, is just an ethical system. It’s much more than that.
The Good News is actually the proclamation of Christ’s triumph over death, which leads to the transformation of the world: new creation. This, brothers and sisters, is what we call the Kingdom of God.
If God had a “mission statement” it would probably be something like: To destroy death by death so that everyone may experience new creation in the form of resurrection!
Communion, therefore, is an opportunity to step forward and embrace God’s vision of new creation, to experience a foretaste of God’s new world.
If we hold back, we’re not only excommunicating ourselves from God (yikes!), but we’re saying “no” to the Kingdom. In other words, we’ve excluded ourselves from the grand vision God has planned out for us.
(F.Y.I., if a priest serves Divine Liturgy and doesn’t take communion, he is defrocked! And, isn’t the priest an example—though flawed by his own unworthiness—for us all?)
Yes, the spiritual life begins with a change of heart (μετάνοια or repentance, which finds it’s pinnacle in confession), but it is sustained through a regular encounter with Christ when we commune at the Heavenly Banquet (another name for the Divine Liturgy).
This is confirmed in what we pray at every Divine Liturgy:
“Grant us to partake of Your heavenly and awesome Mysteries from this sacred and spiritual table with a clear conscience for the remission of sins, the forgiveness of transgressions, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, and boldness before You, not unto judgment or condemnation.”
Sometimes, people tell me, “Father, I didn’t fast or say my prayers this week. I don’t think I’m worthy of taking communion this week.”
When I hear these words, my heart breaks.
Yes, communion is important and we should take our spiritual walk seriously (including fasting, prayer, and almsgiving), but we shouldn’t turn our understanding of communion into a form of legalism: if I do this, then I’ve made myself worthy of communion.
The reality is, we are never worthy to partake of communion. There’s nothing we can do. We can fast and pray until we’re blue in the face—it won’t make any difference.
We are able to commune, however, because of God’s grace and mercy. Through his love, he allows us to approach. It’s God who makes us worthy. Here’s what the Liturgy says,
“Let our mouths be filled with Your praise, O Lord, that we may sing of Your glory, because You have made us worthy to partake of Your Holy Mysteries.”
“We give thanks to You, Master Who loves mankind, benefactor of our souls, that even on this very day You have made us worthy of Your heavenly and immortal Mysteries.“
“[God,] lead them to every good work and make them worthy to partake without condemnation of these, Your most pure and life-giving Mysteries, for the forgiveness of sins and for the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
The fasting we do and the prayers we say DO NOT MAKE US WORTHY of communing. Only God does.
So, if we have struggled in our spiritual walk, that’s OK. After all, what does the priest say when we commune? It’s, “The servant of God [name] receives the Body and Blood of Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”
In addition, Christ didn’t leave communion up to us. If he did, we’d either never commune because we realize we’re sinners and unworthy, or we’d draw near only out of hubris and pride.
When Christ instituted the Eucharist, his words were: “Take, eat …” and “Drink from it, all of you …”
Note that these are commands, not statements. And, they definitely aren’t suggestions—“if you feel like it, then …”
It’s the same in the Divine Liturgy. The priest comes out of the altar and says, “Approach with the fear of God, faith, and love”—a command to the people assembled.
Imagine you were invited to a grand banquet given by a very powerful and famous person. Would you show up at his house late? And, after you arrived and your host has set the table with a sumptuous feast, would you stand in the corner and refuse to eat? Of course not! That would be insulting.
So, if God has laid out, not just a grand banquet, but a Heavenly Banquet, and has invited to us to draw near and partake, why do we refuse our Divine Host? (Pun intended ? )
Brothers and sisters, Christ became enfleshed and died on the cross for our salvation and healing. On the third day he rose from the dead and, with that, new creation began. This is God’s grand vision: a new heaven and new earth.
But, Christ didn’t just become enfleshed and die on the cross. He also became enfleshed and offered us his own Body and Blood to us! And, by receiving him in communion, we share in his life and participate in God’s grand plan.
This can be scary. After all, we’re never ready. Only “One is Holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.”
Nevertheless, God invites us—he wants us—to share in his life. He wants us to embrace him through communion.
And, by doing so, may
“… the communion of the holy Body and Blood of [God’s] Christ … become for us faith unashamed, love unfeigned, fulness of wisdom, healing of soul and body, repelling of every hostile adversary, observance of [his] commandments, and an acceptable defense at the dread judgment seat of [his] Christ.”
Blessed strength to you all as we continue our Lenten Journey!