Never on a Sunday? Or Always?
How often should a person receive Holy Communion? This is a matter of tremendous interest for parishioners who watch the Communion line.
Consider the opinion of Saint Nikon of Optina: “What is best: to commune of the Holy Mysteries of Christ rarely or often? It is difficult to say. Zacchaeus joyfully received a dear guest, the Lord, into his house, and he did well. But the centurion, out of humility, recognizing his unworthiness, did not decide on receiving Him, and he also acted well. Their actions, though contrary to each other, are identical in their motivation. And they were equally worthy in the sight of the Lord. The essence is that one should prepare oneself worthily for the great Mystery.”
“It is difficult to say.” My sentiments exactly.
Comparing notes with other priests, we find basically six responses from parishioners about how often they decide to receive Communion:
- Every single time it is made available.
- Every time, except when one is not prepared.
- Many times a year, but not weekly.
- Two or three times a year, like a grandmother taught.
- Only when there is a substitute priest (since they boycott the regular priest).
Who is correct? Some parishioners are scandalized by those who get in line at every Liturgy: “Are they truly fasting each and every time?” Others are scandalized by those who stay in the pews: “They ignore the Lord’s command to ‘Drink of it, all of you’!” Both groups fire questions at the priest. “How can you let people pass up the Sacrament?” “Why do you let women receive during that time of the month?” From both sides, it’s: “Why don’t you enforce the Canons?”
One of the things that irk me is the emphasis on fasting as THE preparation for Communion. Fasting is ONE component of our preparation, but only one. What about the other (harder) preparations? Prayer. Scriptures. Confession, as needed.* Seeking pardon of those we have wronged. Forgiving those who have hurt us. Faithful stewardship. Taking care of each other.
How often should one receive Holy Communion? The Church does not give an unambiguous answer. The matter is not resolved by simply quoting a Bible verse, canon, or page of Church history. The guidance of the Spirit down through the centuries is the bigger part of the equation. Orthodox belief does not change, but the application varies according to circumstances. In some eras, Christians received Communion several times each week; in other times, less frequent Communion was the standard of piety. Orthodox monks, for example, are always fasting, yet receive Communion only a limited number of times each year (once or twice in each fasting season, and perhaps on major feasts).
To the six groups mentioned above, I would say this:
- The Always receivers. Fellow parishioners find it hard to believe that you take seriously the customary preparations (i.e. fasting). Ultimately, it’s not their business, it’s yours and God’s. But beyond fasting from food and drink after midnight, abstaining from sexual activity, arriving before Liturgy begins, … Is your conscience truly clear of all offense against God or man or family member, every day? If you are putting off a difficult conversation with someone, you should not come to Communion.
- The Almost-Always receivers. You are to be commended for having an awareness of the need for proper preparation, balanced by a desire to receive the grace of God as much as possible. It might be helpful to review the traditional forms of preparation to make sure that you have not missed some element. Are you refraining from inappropriate activities (parties, movies, TV shows) the night before receiving and getting to sleep at a reasonable hour? Are you in church from the start of the Liturgy? Are you at peace with those in your home, family, and workplace? Are you pitching in actively in the life of the parish according to your abilities?
- The Not-Always but Not-Rarely receivers. You are probably from a home that grew up with certain clear practices of preparation that involve fasting for several days consecutively, a ritual of exchanging forgiveness at home, and coming forward as a family for Communion. This is beautiful, and I hope you continue these practices down through the generations. For you, the challenge is to know the reasons behind your family traditions. E.g., When do you receive? Why then? Does your schedule need adjustment for changing circumstances of life?
- The Twice a Year receivers. Grandma taught you to receive only a couple times a year because under the Turks (or Bolsheviks), that’s about as often as she was able even just to attend church. Your pattern is a leftover from the Turkokrateia (or Soviet era). Good news: our side won! So now you can come to Church more than just at Christmas and Easter. If God means anything to you, then He should mean everything to you: so it’s time to behave accordingly. Just because the Always receivers might be wrong, that doesn’t mean your pattern is right!
- The Boycotters. Explain to us again … who exactly are you hurting …?
- The Never receivers. In this category are some people genuinely worthy of respect, who abstain for thoughtful reasons. And also others whose reasons are less valid. I ask only that you consider whether you have fallen into a habit through inertia rather than an ongoing act of conscience. It is not normal and probably not healthy for one who believes in Christ never to obey His command to share His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. “I have greatly desired to eat this Passover with you,” said Christ to His disciples (Luke 22:15), and that divine yearning is for your company as well. And … think about the example you are setting for your children and grandchildren.
The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. I do not mean irreverence by quoting that. My point is simply this. On the whole, I perceive a proper blend of “fear of God, faith, and love” in the lives of those whose reception is less often than always and more often than rarely. For them, the Mystery is not approached casually, but it is also not avoided. And in their lives, this translates into a balance of seriousness and joy, of principle and practicality, of health and humor and happiness. It translates into Christlikeness.
I know that you can find articles on the Internet by priests who say: Receive at each and every Liturgy! I find their lines of reasoning simplistic and patronizing. Unless you are a child (who should be receiving every Sunday!), you must exercise some spiritual discernment for yourself. Following a piece of one-size-fits-all advice is abandoning your personal responsibility. I am also here to offer advice in such matters, but I will not be anyone’s all-deciding guru.
Bottom line: all God’s children are unique, and so our spiritual practices will not be identical. In the end, we are accountable before God, each one individually, for our choices in life. So stop judging others and get serious about your own preparations to meet the Lord, both in Holy Communion and on the Last Day. “The essence is that one should prepare oneself worthily for the great Mystery.” Amen!
*[Regarding the qualification “as needed” for Confession. Some Orthodox jurisdictions teach that one must go to confession each and every time before receiving Communion. There is no canonical warrant for this. I find that this practice distorts the role of Confession in Church life: either Confession turns into a meaningless rush-‘em-through routine or it becomes The Central Sacrament and a shibboleth used by some priests to sort the “good” (=conscience-stricken) parishioners from the “bad.” Confession is good for the soul, but too much sacramental Confession becomes something unhealthy for the non-monastic Christian. The St. Nikon quote is cited in an article by Vladimir Moss.]
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