Most Orthodox faithful limit their preparation for receiving the awesome mystery of Holy Communion to fasting. By only fasting they are deceived into thinking that, having fasted completely and mechanically, they have followed the proper preparation and, thus, are communing worthily.
What is the right preparation, then?
Longing for Holy Communion
The first step in preparing for the Mystery is to long for and desire the Mystery. Faith that Holy Communion is a most necessary nourishment for the spiritual life makes the believer long for and strongly desire to come into direct contact, to become one with Christ. The first Christians were “every day keeping watch all together in the temple” (Acts 2:46). This watching, this burning longing, must exist in the believer’s heart.
We should long to meet Christ, Who is the Beloved of the beloved, and in Holy Communion not only do we simply meet, but we become one with Him. We become one body and one blood with Christ.
This longing for frequent Holy Communion grows with the thought that Holy Communion in the present life is the betrothal for the complete communion with God in the future life. Holy Communion, in other words is a basic presupposition for us to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Self-Examination and Testing
In order for us to commune, we ought to examine ourselves. This is specifically commanded by the Apostle Paul: “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:28-29).
An investigation of ourselves, in a quiet time and following prayer, will show us whether we are able to approach Holy Communion. But be careful! In this self-examination we must be neither supersensitive or senseless. The self-examination and self-censure of a spiritual person never has an exonerating result. The faithful Christian always declares himself guilty. But one declaration of guilt varies from another declaration of guilt. If, from this self-examination one catches himself guilty of grave sins, such as sins of the flesh, explosions of anger, a serious dispute with another person, etc., then he cannot commune without confession. lf, however, he catches himself guilty of “easily forgivable” sins, which even the greatest saint, bearing flesh and dwelling in the world, commits, then he decides, with feeling, of course, of his sinfulness, to commune.
If the self examination reveals the believer guilty of sins which prevent him from Holy Communion, then the Mystery of Repentance and Confession is a basic necessity. If, in order to participate in a common meal, you feel the need to first wash your hands, how much more must you feel the need to first wash your soul through the Mystery of Repentance and Confession in order to participate in the holy and spiritual Table of Heavenly Food? In the confession before a spiritual father, the Blood of Christ, “which was poured out for the life and salvation of the world,” is united with the fervent tears of the person who is sincerely repenting, and the cleansing and brightening of the soul comes about.
Every believer feels the need for confession before Holy Communion. Before the spiritual father, he repeats the confessional words of the prodigal son, “Father, I have sinned before heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). With contrition of heart he confesses his sins. With tears he manifests his repentance. And he hears the consoling phrase from the spiritual father, “Child, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). His joy after confession is great, both because his sins were forgiven, and because he will be able to commune of the Holy Mysteries, as long as the spiritual father allows it.
Unfortunately, most of the people approaching Holy Communion today have not confessed. One is appalled to think that people burdened with dreadful sins, approaching the limits of unbelief and crime, approach to commune without having confessed. Pious priests, fearing God and trembling that they not impart “the holy things to the dogs” and cast “the pearls before the swine,” question people as to whether or not those who are approaching have confessed. This questioning is wrongly misunderstood. Doesn’t a doctor, before giving a strong medicine, ask the patient whether he did the necessary preparation? Why should the priest, in imparting the Body and Blood of the Lord, not ask whether the person approaching has prepared properly? “But,” some people say, “the other person is insulted when the priest asks if he confessed.” We answer: It is preferable that he be insulted temporally than be condemned eternally.
Furthermore, the priest ought to address this question with great discernment, propriety and love, and only to those he knows are living a scandalous life who are approaching. For those who regularly approach the Cup of Life, following the permission of their spiritual father, such a question, of course, does not apply. For the rest, however, the priest must keep what St. Basil the Great commands:
“Don’t forget the Master’s commandment and that of the holy Apostles. For He says, ‘Do not give the holy things to the dogs, and do not cast the pearls before the swine.’ See that you do not hand over the Son of God into the hands of unworthy ones. Do not be afraid to stand up to the glorious of the earth, not even him who wears the royal crown at that time. To whom the divine Canons do not allow, do not impart.”
Holy Communion is a work of love performed out of love. Out of His great love, God, in the Second Person of the Trinity, communed with His creation, that is, He came to earth, became incarnate and “dwelt among men.” Out of great love He gave Himself as a sacrifice for us. Out of great love He poured out His Precious Blood. And out of great love He offered His Body and His Blood to be consumed by the faithful in the mystery of Holy Communion. “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive with Christ” (Eph. 2:4.5). Through Holy Communion we are made alive.
Out of great love He communed with us and became one with us. And we should out of love become one with Him, to commune of His Body and His Blood. Our approach to Holy Communion depends on the love we have for Christ. Whoever strongly loves Christ, whoever above every other love has his love for Christ, he it is who longs to converse with the beloved Jesus in prayer, to diligently hear the voice of his Beloved in the study of Holy Scripture will frequently unite with his Beloved in Holy Communion. Divine, fervent love for Christ, urges one toward frequent Holy Communion. If the love grows cold, then the longing for Holy Communion diminishes, and the receiving of Holy Communion becomes mechanical and, thus, unto judgment and condemnation.
Now, for preparation of the soul for Holy Communion, love for people is also absolutely necessary, which furthermore is the proof of one’s love for God. The disciple of love, the evangelist John, in his first Epistle combines three loves: God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for others. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: “that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:19-21).
Christ in His Sermon on the Mount stresses that reconciliation or making up with the people with whom we do not have a good relationship must precede our offering and worship in the temple. “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Math. 5:23-24). For this reason, also, in the Liturgy of the Faithful, as a basic presupposition for approaching Holy Communion, reconciliation and making up with others is stressed. St. John Chrysostom also protests and says that no one having enemies and hating them can approach the Holy Altar:
Do you want to take Holy Communion? Don’t feel hate and antipathy for anyone; have love for everyone. Unfortunately, there are Christians who, even when they are about to commune, do not seek forgiveness of others. This is how they think: ‘Why should I ask for forgiveness? And what if the other one took this as my weakness and wanted to misuse me? Then I would not be at fault. He would be at fault and he ought to ask me for forgiveness’…Oh, harshness, which is the daughter of egotism!
So a basic presupposition for Holy Communion is love for others. It is a good idea prior to Holy Communion, from the evening before, to seek forgiveness from the people in our family or in our surroundings. And let children kiss the hands of their parents and ask for their forgiveness and their blessing.
Prayer and Contrition
Another pillar of preparation for Holy Communion is prayer and contrition. A believer should spend his week preparing himself to receive the Lord of Glory by being careful with himself. He adorns his soul to receive the divine Pearl. He pays attention so that nothing happens to him which might deprive him of the joy of Holy Communion. And he prays daily with contrition to be granted the great gift.
Piety and Fear
A final stage of preparation for Holy Communion is fear and awe, which must exist in the believer’s soul at the time he is going towards Holy Communion. We need to say a few things also about the fear of God, which must exist in the believer’s soul, that is, about holy fear, which comes from the feeling of sinfulness, of the sacredness of the moment and of the majesty of God, which the believer is approaching.
We must stress the manner in which the faithful must come to the Mystery: with silence; no disorder whatsoever in the line; deep attention of soul and mind to the divine Mystery.
If one prepares diligently for Holy Communion, he will feel an indescribable joy and peace upon receiving the Holy Body and Precious Blood of our Lord.
Adapted from “When and How to Take Holy Communion” by Archimandrite Daniel Aerakis and abridged by Fr. Moses Samaan