by Fr. Dimitri Cosby
For Orthodox Christians, the center of spiritual effort is our participation in Holy Communion. We draw spiritual sustenance and strength from the Body and Blood of our incarnate Redeemer and the deep inner communion with Him which we experience through them. The Holy Spirit, working through these Holy Gifts, cleanses and invigorates us for our struggle against the passions and our growth in virtue and holiness.
Because of their importance we cannot approach the Holy Mysteries casually. We are expected to prepare ourselves through prayer, fasting, and recollection of and repentance for our sins. Orthodox prayer books give a collection of prayers designed to ready us for Holy Communion. We are expected to observe the usual weekly and lenten fasts, but there is also the special Pre-Communion fast (abstinence from anything taken by mouth) from the evening before the Liturgy at which we receive. We manifest repentance both by an extemporaneous examination of our conscience and by a heartfelt reading of the Communion prayers, which are essentially penitential in nature, and also by participation in the mystery of Confession.
The relationship between Confession and Holy Communion is complex. As we are well aware Confession is important in its own right, as a discipline which encourages us to look into our hearts and admit to the passions and vices we find in control there. If we do so we reap two benefits. In the first place the grip of sin is weakened, so that we may free ourselves for a purer, holier life. Secondly, and most importantly, we receive forgiveness so that, as our Lord promised, we may stand before Him un-condemned at the Judgment. St. John Chrysostom cites a saying of St. Paul, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:3 1), and adds, “And he said not, ‘if we punished ourselves, if we were revenged on ourselves,’ but if we were only willing to acknowledge our offense, to pass sentence on ourselves, to condemn the things done amiss, we would be rid of the punishment both in this world and the next:’
Because we sin and stand constantly in need of forgiveness, we must periodically come to Confession before we receive Holy Communion. We need the examination of conscience and the resulting cleansing of our souls which Confession provides before we can approach the Mysteries. Part of the reason for Confession is that sin cuts us off from God and from His Church. We sin as an individual before God and must constantly invoke His forgiveness in our private daily prayers. But ultimately we find pardon within the Church. To the congregation of His faithful, Christ has entrusted the grace of His death and resurrection, and upon her He bestowed, through His holy apostles, the power to bind and loose sins (Matthew 16:19 and 18:18; John 20: 22-23). The Church is the custodian of divine forgiveness and the arena in which it operates. In Confession the priest reminds us, “And I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all which you may say to me.” The priest does not forgive of his own authority, but his presence assures us that Christ forgives, that His cleansing grace resides in His Holy Church, and that healing is ours if we draw near in love and sincere repentance. The power of the Mystery derives from the grace of the Spirit and operates through both the Church and the sincerity of our own repentance. The priest encourages us to true repentance, stands with us as the Church’s representative before the merciful God to attest to our contrition, and assures us of our reconciliation both with the Church and with her Lord. In the prayers of absolution he asks God to “reconcile and unite [ penitent] to Thy Holy Church…” Only then can we reenter the Body of Christ, the Church. And there, in the Church’s healing embrace, we receive Christ’s precious Body and Blood, and the grace which flows into us from them.
Even after Confession, however, we must never think that we are “worthy” to receive. There are two reasons for this: (1.) the weakness of fallen nature enfeebles even our Confession and (2.) Confession itself only finds its fulfillment in something higher and greater.
In the first place no Confession is ever perfect or complete. Our very sinfulness limits our examination of conscience. We are not aware of the true nature and consequences of our actions. We especially are ignorant of the recesses of our minds, of the attitudes and passions that lurk there. And even if we possess the necessary depth of discernment, we are always subject to temptation and the allure of sin. How often do we come to Confession and pour out our heart before the Savior, and then as we walk away, have some malicious thought enter our mind, induced by pride, anger, jealousy or lust? If we were to confess even moments before approaching the Chalice, even in those few seconds the demons’ enticements or our own spiritual weakness would lead us into the sins of the mind, if not those of the body. We are not “worthy” to approach the Mysteries because we have gone to Confession and, therefore, for a few hours have the illusion of perfection. Rather, we are “worthy” to receive Communion, paradoxically, because in all humility we recognize our unworthiness. We are “worthy” only when we deny that there is anything in us deserving of God’s mercy and acknowledge that our sole hope of forgiveness, healing, and peace lies in His grace and love, which strengthen what is weak and fill up what is lacking and which are made present for us in the precious Body and Blood of the incarnate Word. We are “worthy” of Holy Communion only when we are aware of our absolute unworthiness.
For this reason, in particular, we must never withdraw from receiving the Mysteries because we feel too sinful. Instead, awareness of sin should lead us to the Mysteries, toward the purging of Confession and the divine sanctification of Communion. St. John Cassian sums up the Church’s teaching in this area quite well, “Yet we should not keep away from the Lord’s Communion because we know that we are sinners, but we should hasten to it all the more avidly for the sake of our soul’s healing and our spirit’s purification, yet with that humility of mind and faith that will cause us, while judging ourselves unworthy to receive such a grace, to seek it instead as medicine for our wounds.”
Secondly, Confession itself is not intended as an end in itself. Rather, it prepares us for Communion and, indeed, is completed only in that greater Mystery. All of the Mysteries draw their meaning and power, ultimately, from the central Mystery of Holy Communion. Confession finds its fulfillment in our reception of the crucified and risen Body and Blood of Him Who died and rose to remit our sins and reconcile us to the Father. Though important in itself, Confession is not the center of our spiritual life. That place belongs to Holy Communion. We humbly approach our Savior in Confession and ask His pardon, but the seal and fulfillment of forgiveness and our ultimate vindication lie in the great Mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood. Confession expresses our repentance, but it does not finally heal or cleanse. The Mysteries themselves are our healing, as we affirm in the prayer we offer immediately before we partake, “May the Communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.” This truth is confirmed in the formula spoken by the priest as we receive, “The servant of God receives…for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.” We have here a paradox: Confession cleanses so that we may receive the Mysteries, but only in receiving them do we realize true cleansing and only in their devout reception is our healing consummated and sealed.
In the end, we receive the Mysteries because we know that only through them do we partake of life and its fullness. Without them and the union with our Savior which flows through them, our existence languishes in sin, disfigured by passions and devoid of goodness and peace. In the Mysteries, however, all that is gross, earthly and fallen is purged away, and instead we are filled with mercy, joy, grace and glory. This promise is confirmed in the invitation to Communion spoken by the priest, “In the fear of God, and with faith and love, draw near.” We approach the Great Mystery in humility because of our sinfulness but also in awe of the depth and breadth of divine mercy and forgiveness. We draw near full of faith, seeing in Christ our only hope. We offer Him our love and entreat that the feeble flame of our love may grow ever greater in our heart, our love being ignited and fed by His love.