Frequent Communion: Tradition or Innovation?
Recently an article was published which stated that the
frequent reception of Holy Communion and the practice of receiving Communion
without going to Confession each time was unknown in Eastern Europe and was, in
fact, "an American innovation."
It is, indeed, unfortunate that very often as Orthodox
Christians we tend to regard the practices of some other Orthodox jurisdiction
or national church as being "correct."
The rational for this seems to be "Well, they have been
Orthodox for centuries; they must know the correct way..." Or "Our
ancestors brought the faith from (fill in the blank); therefore, what they do
there now must be the correct way."
This trend is not new by any means. One thinks of the famous
case of Patriarch Nikon and the Old Believers in 17th century Russia. In brief,
at this time many Greek Patriarchs and bishops, under the crushing heel of the
Ottoman Turkish Empire, came to Orthodox Russia seeking alms. Nikon and others
noticed that these hierarchs served the Liturgy differently and even made the
sign of the Cross somewhat differently than the Russian Orthodox did. Nikon
decided (with the agreement of these Greek hierarchs) that since the faith came
to Russia from the Greeks, the Greek way must be correct and the Russians
somewhere had introduced "innovations." Nikon then proceeded to
introduce certain "liturgical reforms" to the Russian Church based on
the practices of the 17th century Greek Church. (For more on this,
see Paul Meyendorff's excellent work "Russia, Ritual and Reform", St. Vladimir
Seminary Press. 1991). Those who rejected the reforms were labeled
"Old Believers" and were violently persecuted.
In point of fact, Nikon and company had it backwards. The
Russian Church, because it was geographically and politically isolated from the
Greek Church, had preserved many ancient liturgical forms that the Greek Church
had changed over the centuries (for the same reasons the Carpatho-Russian
liturgical tradition preserves, especially in the Presanctified Liturgy, many
forms that have vanished in other traditions). Nikon and the Greek hierarchs
assisting him mistakenly viewed these ancient practices as recent
In order to avoid the thinking of Nikon we must seek the
truth in the Tradition of the Church, that is, in the witness of the Holy
Spirit in the life of the Church in all of Her aspects: Scripture, worship, the
writings of the Fathers of the Church, the canons and theology. This is the
only acceptable standard to measure ourselves and our practices by.
It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the
practice of the early Church was not only to receive Holy Communion at every
Sunday Liturgy, but to receive it every day in some locales. Just to mention
one famous case, St. Basil the Great (d. 379 A.D.) mentions that he communed
four times a week. Other Fathers of the early centuries of the Church tell us
of the faithful bringing Communion home with them from the Sunday Liturgy in
order to receive during the week.
A careful reading of the prayers of the various Divine
Liturgies reveals that it is expected that all present would receive Holy
Communion. For instance, before the elevation of the "Lamb," the
priest prays, "... Deem it proper to impart to us with Your mighty hand, Your
most pure Body and precious Blood, and through us to ALL YOUR PEOPLE."
Indeed, the Synod of Antioch in 341 A.D. ordered
excommunicated those who came to Church and failed to receive Holy Communion
(Canon 2 of Antioch).
This Canon was an attempt to check what was becoming a
growing abuse in the Church at the end of the fourth century: Christians
attending Liturgy without receiving Holy Communion. St. John Chrysostom
lamented this practice: "In vain do we stand at the altar, there is no one
to partake" (Eph.3, 4).
This practice, which began in Syria in the fourth century,
was prompted by two primary factors. First, the church in the fourth century
was flooded with converts from paganism as Christianity became the socially
correct religion of the Roman Empire. Many of these people were very casual
about their faith. Some would leave the Liturgy with the catechumens (those who
were preparing for Baptism) when they were dismissed after the Gospel reading,
since catechumens were not allowed to receive Holy Communion.
The other reason was the new language that the clergy of the
Church began using to describe the sacraments. Words like "awesome,"
"fearful" and even "hair-raising" were used in speaking
about the sacraments of the Church in order to instill reverence for them among
these casual Orthodox. The end result, though, became a justification for
staying away from the Eucharist on the grounds of "unworthiness."
St. John Cassian at the beginning of the fifth century was
compelled to write against this new attitude:
"We must not avoid communion because we think that we
are sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the
purification of the spirit... 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 them."
It is unfortunate that the Orthodox Church, so careful to
preserve the faith of the Apostles, succumbed to infrequent Communion as the
general practice of the Church, putting forward the issue of
"unworthiness" as the reason.
This was compounded in the 17th and 18th centuries by
exposure, especially in the Slavic Orthodox Churches, to Western influences,
principally in regards to the practice of Confession. Instead of the priest
being a "witness" and minister of reconciliation in the Mystery of
Confession, he now was seen as a judge with the "power" of absolution.
A juridical absolution granted by a priest now became the necessary
"ticket" to receive Holy Communion. (In fact, the prayer of
absolution, "....I forgive and absolve you..." was introduced at this time from
Latin sources.) In the ancient Church, the Sacrament of Penance was seen as
being a "return" to the grace of Baptism. People received Holy
Communion by virtue of their Baptism and not because they had received an
"absolution." The order of the
sacraments still printed in Orthodox books today is Baptism, Chrismation,
Eucharist and then Penance.
Very often "absolutions" were, and sometimes still
are, given without even confession of sins, a practice totally at odds with the
Tradition of the Church.
Those who abstain from receiving Holy Communion, in fact,
"excommunicate" themselves from the Church and must, indeed, come to
Confession to be reconciled with the Church after their willful absence from
However, according to the teaching of St. Nicholas
"There are sins which are not mortal according to the
teaching of St. John. And this is why nothing prevents those Christians, who
have not committed sins separating them from Christ and leading them to death,
from communion to Divine Mysteries and the participation to sanctification, not
only externally, but in reality, for they continue to be living members united
to the Head..." (Pg. 150:449 B).
The Church calls us to Confession frequently to renew our
Baptismal commitment to Christ, to receive the forgiveness of our sins, to grow
in our spiritual life, because She has learned through the Holy Spirit that "If
we confess our sins He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and
cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). The Church calls us to Holy
Communion frequently because the Holy Spirit has taught Her that "Unless
you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in
You" (John 6:53). At each Liturgy the words of the Saviour are spoken:
"Take and eat... this is my body... ALL OF YOU Drink of this, this is my
blood..." Is this an "American innovation?" Rather, the
"innovators" are those who perpetuate the "original sin" of
"Orthodox" spirituality... that by fasting enough, saying enough
prayers, abstaining enough, and receiving an "absolution" one can at
last be "worthy" of Holy Communion one time.
There are times when one might feel it necessary to abstain
from Holy Communion, but these should be the exception rather than the rule. In
reality, the path that less honors God is the once-a-year formal observance of
the Sacrament. It is much more difficult to keep oneself on the road of
repentance before God, confessing often to the Lord through our spiritual
father, aware each day of our "unworthiness" and with thanksgiving
for the Saviour's love for us, even in our sinfulness, allowing us to approach
the Lord's table frequently. St. John of Cronstadt, writing at the beginning of
this century, perhaps was thinking of this:
"If your heart is right in your bosom; if, by God's mercy,
it is ready to meet the Bridegroom, then, thank God, it is well with you, even
though you may not have succeeded in reading all the appointed prayers (before
Communion). For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power...."