On the Reception of Holy Communion

With the many media stories and subsequent discussions that have been amplified this week due to the issue emanating from the Portsmouth, NH Parish, we offer the attached brief theological reflection, "On the Reception of Holy Communion"  “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)by The Rev. Demetrios E. Tonias, Ph.D.
It is our hope that as we respond to the questions, fears and concerns of our our faithful and the wider community at large, that such theological reflection will elevate the conversation and put it in the proper context of our theological, spiritual and faith-based reality that we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and life eternal!   "With the fear of God, Faith and Love draw near!"

On the Reception of Holy Communion

Rev. Fr. Demetrios E. Tonias, PhD

“For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)

At every Divine Liturgy, the priest calls the faithful to approach the Chalice and receive Holy Communion with “the fear of God, faith, and love.” Throughout the Orthodox Christian world, the faithful come forward, make the sign of the Cross, and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. At this moment, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann notes, “the time has now come to offer to God the totality of all our lives, of ourselves, of the world in which we live.” As the priest offers Holy Communion, he declares to each communicant that these precious and life-giving gifts are for “the remission of sins and eternal life.”

In these days of COVID-19, concern for physical well-being has caused some to forget the truths which Orthodox Christians have believed for two millennia. Such concern provides us with an opportunity to remind ourselves of our core beliefs and to reaffirm that which the Church has taught from its earliest moments.

The bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ. At the Mystical Supper, the Lord told His disciples that the bread was, in reality, His Body and the wine, in truth, His Blood. At the consecration, this transformation takes place when the priest asks God to, “Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon the gifts here presented and make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ, and that which is in this Cup, the precious Blood of Your Christ, changing them by Your Holy Spirit.” From the earliest moments of the Church, the Fathers have expressed the belief that the bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ. St. Justin Martyr proclaimed, “We have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the Flesh and the Blood of that incarnated Jesus.” Similarly, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that, “The bread is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ.”

Communion is the foundation of our relationship with God. Christ offered bread and wine to the Apostles as a means of communion and union with Himself. Fr. John Meyendorff describes our reception of the Eucharist as “the intimate union of the human person with the Triune God.” Immediately after the Mystical Supper, the First Eucharist, Christ told His disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:18-20). Thus, St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us that, through Holy Communion, we become like “the burning bush of Moses.”

There is no difference between the Mystical Supper and the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist that Christ instituted in the Upper Room before His Passion is the same that we celebrate today. St. John Chrysostom instructed the faithful of his church that, “The offering of today is in no way inferior to that which Christ offered, because it is not men who sanctify the offering of today; it is the same Christ who sanctified His own. For just as the words which God spoke are the very same as those which the priest now speaks, so too the oblation is the very same.”

Communion is the antidote to sin and the path to eternal life. We receive Holy Communion for the remission of sins and eternal life. Writing in the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch told the church in Ephesus that Holy Communion “is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ.”

A message for us today. In the age of COVID-19, what does this mean for the faithful?

  • The Body and Blood of Christ lead us to eternal life and union with God, not sickness and death.
  • The Eucharist that we receive today is the same as that which the Apostles received from Christ before His memorable and lifegiving Passion.
  • When we receive Holy Communion, we have Christ moving and indwelling within us.
  • The bread and wine that we receive is truly the Body and Blood of Christ—they are holy and everything they touch is holy.

Thus, our Ecumenical Patriarch instructs us that:

  • The Mystery of the Divine Eucharist is non-negotiable because we believe that through it is transmitted to the faithful the Body and Blood of the Savior Christ “unto the remission of sins and life eternal” and it is impossible that through this Mystery of Mysteries any disease might be communicated to those who partake. For this reason, the Church remains steadfast and immovable in its teaching towards the essence of the Mystery of Holy Communion.
  • As to the mode of distributing the ineffable Mysteries to the faithful, the Church, respecting Holy Tradition … finds no need for a change of this mode, especially under pressure from external factors.

For the entire life of the Church, there has been no alteration to these most basic beliefs concerning Holy Communion. For the faithful, there is no question. For those who struggle with this belief, it is good to recall the words of the father of the boy with an evil spirit, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). There is nothing wrong with struggling to believe, this is the task of every Christian. It is wrong, however, for the unbelieving to attempt to lead the faithful to disbelief. Put simply, as Christians we either believe that we receive Holy Communion unto eternal life, or we don’t.

These are indeed challenging and difficult times, but they are temporary. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The belief that the Body and Blood of Christ leads to life and not death is central to our faith. This is the faith of the Apostles, the faith of the Fathers, and the faith of the Orthodox everywhere and at all times. May God bless and keep our families safe and lead us all to the knowledge of His truth.