Posted: January 16th, 2015

To Brush Or Not To Brush

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
Is there a place in our fasting regimen for dental hygiene before receiving Holy Communion?


This question came in:


Should we brush our teeth on Sunday morning before receiving Communion?  When my son was at summer church camp, the priest doing Liturgy sent him back to his cabin (i.e. he could not stay at the service) when it was learned that my son had brushed his teeth.  Why would this be wrong?


Somewhere in the heavens right now, I can imagine Jesus saying, “What must they think of Me?!?” 


Honestly, it is heartbreaking to learn that there are priests and monks who get uptight about brushing teeth before Communion, on the premise that one might, just might, swallow a little water in the process … and thus … [gasp] …break the fast!!  As if there were not already enough real sins to worry about, we have to go and invent some more, just to give people another reason to feel bad about themselves.


Happily, our Holy Tradition speaks to this matter.


First, in Holy Scripture.  The Lord Jesus Christ teaches us plainly that when we fast, we must go through our normal routine of hygiene, in order not to advertise our fasting to others. 


Matthew 6:17-18—But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” 


Bad breath gives away your fasting.  Keep your spirituality a secret and brush your teeth. 


Secondly, in the Holy Canons.  Canons are written norms established by church authorities and validated by Ecumenical Councils.  You can find all the canons of the Orthodox Church in a book called The Rudder.  Canon 16 (of Archbishop Timothy of Alexandria) reads as follows regarding pre-Communion hygiene:


Q.  If anyone fasting with a view to communion, while washing his mouth or in the bath, has swallowed water involuntarily, ought he to commune?


A. Yes.  Since Satan has found an occasion whereby to prevent him from partaking of communion, he will keep on doing this more frequently. 


In other words, if you accidentally ingest water, you should receive Communion anyway and so spite that tyrant, the Devil (who tries to throw up roadblocks to keep you from Christ).


Thirdly, in God’s gift of common sense.  If Jesus Christ were going to come to your house later today, wouldn’t you dust and mop and vacuum?  Wouldn’t you tidy up the place?  And what is receiving Communion, but welcoming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ into the house of your body and soul?  Well then, break out the brush and start scrubbing!


Finally, in the Golden Rule. There is the ethical teaching of the Law, the Prophets, and our Lord: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Who wants a whiff of halitosis all throughout the Divine Liturgy?  Not me and probably not you, either.


So do your neighbor a favor.  Brush, floss, rinse, and spit.  Use a little Scope if you need to.  Do unto others: spare them the blast of Pharisaical holiness that comes from the mouth of anti-brushers.   When I was a deacon, I served with many different hierarchs.  Not a one of them came to church with “morning breath.”  Why would any priest or monk want to live contrary to the example of his leaders? 


Wasn’t Jesus Christ the One who commanded that sins are to be forgiven even to seventy times seven? Would Jesus bar you from His Gifts because of a few drops of accidentally ingested water? To think that is to worship a petty, nitpicking tyrant.  Over time humans come to resemble the thing they worship.  And (I cannot help but observe) those who get upset about pre-Liturgy brushing are most often themselves petty, nitpicking tyrants, who use their power of binding to keep campers from the Eucharist, rather than exercising their power of loosing sins to make a way for young people to come to Christ.


Use your head.  Brush your teeth before Communion. 

It’s the Scriptural thing to do. 

It’s the canonical thing to do. 

It’s the sensible and healthful thing to do. 


AND … it’s the kind thing to do. And kindness is never, ever a sin. 


Καλή Νηστεία!  May yours be a Blessed Lenten Fast!



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