What is Holy Communion?
Holy Communion, or the Divine Eucharist, is the Mysterion (Mystery or Sacrament) instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself at His last meal with His disciples before His Passion, the Mystical Supper. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 6:26-28, we read the following:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
At the Divine Liturgy, we fulfill the Lord’s command to take and eat His most Holy Body and Blood, when we receive Holy Communion. What we receive in Holy Communion is not mere bread and wine, but actually and truly His Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine.
How essential is Holy Communion?
The Lord’s answer to this was very straightforward. In St. John’s Gospel, chapter six, we read these words:
Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat my flesh and drink my blood, ye have no life in you.”
In other words, Holy Communion is not optional in order to be a Christian, but rather it is essential. It is not a nice addition to spiritual life, but the foundation and primary means of our being united to Christ. Those who say it is “enough” to have “Jesus in your heart” through a “born again experience” or “accepting Jesus” may imagine that they are united to Christ, but they are not organically and really united to Christ, whatever emotional, intellectual, or psychological experiences they claim to be having. Union with Jesus Christ is not a “head-trip.” It is a physical and literal reality.
It is not only the sectarians, however, who endanger themselves by being separate from Communion. Orthodox Christians who neglect the Mysterion of Holy Communion risk cutting themselves off from Christ’s Body, the Church. And we have no excuse, because this Holy Mysterion is readily available to us.
How often do we go to Holy Communion?
There is no one answer for everyone. The basic answer is, “As often as we are adequately prepared to receive Holy Communion.”
As a minimum, we should receive Holy Communion four times a year, during the Great Lent and/or Holy Week, during the Apostles’ Fast, the Dormition Fast, and the Fast before the Nativity.
Those who are serious about spiritual life should increase their efforts to receive Holy Communion more frequently than this minimum. That is, they should keep the fasting days prescribed by the Church, pray daily, confess frequently, support the Church, give alms, and strive always to cleanse their souls. It is important to remember that a minimum is just that – minimal; we should not be content with it. This is especially true after our children grow up, and we face later middle age and old age, when our thoughts should be turning more to death and God’s Judgment, and less to worldly concerns and worldly habits.
How do we prepare to receive Holy Communion?
Preparation for Holy Communion consists in prayer, fasting, reconciliation to our enemies, and confession.
At what age should children start fasting and confessing before Communion?
Parents should work together with the spiritual father to discern at what age a child is ready to begin fasting. The same is true of confession. As a rule of thumb - by the time a child is seven, he should be fasting and confessing before Holy Communion.
St. Makarios of Corinth on Preparation for Holy Communion and the Benefits of Communion
(excerpts from Concerning Continual Communion)
Holy Communion illumines, brightens, and sanctifies all the powers and senses of man’s soul and body, and strengthens the soul in doing the commandments of the Lrod and every other virtuous act. It is the true food of the soul and of the body, as our Lord says: ‘My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.’ (John 6:55)
Common bread is improperly called our daily bread, because it strengthens only our body and not our soul. Properly and principally the term daily bread denotes the Body of our Lord and the Word of God, because they strengthen the soul as well as the body. For this reason, those of us who have received spiritual regeneration through Divine Baptism must continually eat this spiritual food with warm love and a contrite heart.
Before partaking of Holy Communion, it is necessary that we cleanse ourselves of every defilement, especially malice, by means of Confession. For just as love is the fullness and completion of the whole Law, so malice and hatred are the annulment and violation of the whole Law and of every virtue.
Before the Christian communes, he must make necessary preparation, that is, he must confess to his spiritual father, correct himself, feel compunction, acquire inner attention, guard himself from passionate thoughts as far as possible, and also from every other vice. Similarly, he must exercise self-restraint, pray, be inwardly awake, become more devout, and do every other kind of good deed, reflecting what awesome King he is about to receive within himself; especially if he considers that the grace which is given to him from Communion is proportionate to his preparation. It is evident that the more one makes such preparation, the more benefit one receives.
How can they cleanse their mind, brighten their intellect, and beautify all the powers of the soul, if they do not partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord, which is the true purification, the true beauty, the true illumination, and the true nobility of the soul, as the divine Chrysostom says?
My brother, if you are worthy to commune two or three times a year, you are worthy to commune more often, as the divine Chrysostom says, provided you keep the same preparation and worthiness. What, then, hinders us from communing more often? Our negligence, our indolence, overcome by which we do not prepare ourselves as much as possible for Communion.