Met. Saba (Esber) on Preparing for Communion
Some Words about Going up to Receive
Forty years ago, the predominate custom was for the faithful to go forward to partake of mystery of the Eucharist infrequently, since the predominate understanding said that one should only partake of the Eucharist a few times each year, such as on major feasts... In my childhood, I would hear the grown-ups say that the maximum permissible number of times that the faithful could partake of the holy things was once every forty days, while following a number of requirements.
They based this on man's being unworthy of this dreadful mystery. Without a doubt, for them this conviction stemmed from great honor given to the divine mystery and a realization of their own sins, which required the faithful to prepare with total sincerity in order to partake of the holy mystery. Since the faithful were not able to undertake this preparation continually, they refrained from approaching the holy chalice rather than approaching without having prepared as they should.
I remember that my grandmother would bathe on the Sunday in which she would receive the holy things, after having visited the homes of all her neighbors, asking their forgiveness if she had sinned against them. I likewise know a very faithful man who is not absent from the Divine Liturgy unless he is extremely ill and bedridden. He did not go up to partake at all during the time he practiced his career. His argument was that his job required him to lie constantly, since he worked in real estate. He was convinced that he was unworthy as long as he was going to go back and lie the next day.
In addition to what we have briefly mentioned is ignorance about the mystery of the Eucharist and its place in the life of the believer and his spiritual advancement, as well as ignorance about the concept of the Church and the communion of believers.
With the beginning of the revival that occurred within the See of Antioch after the middle of the twentieth century, the concept changed under the influence of the teaching and preaching of the clergy, especially those who studied theology in institutions of higher education. We came to witness a concern for partaking, and regularly approaching a regular feature among the faithful. However, we also came to witness great negligence in preparing for the great mystery on all levels, to the point that many of those who arrive at church very late approach the chalice without scruple. As for fasting, abstaining from food and drink before partaking, it was left by the wayside.
There is no doubt that the path of moving people from one practice to an opposite practice required the expenditure of enormous effort, but it unfortunately did not give the same importance to the issue of the necessary preparation and worthiness. Unfortunately, emphasis was put on the Church's proper understanding of frequent partaking without giving personal preparation the preaching, education, and effort that it deserves. The new teaching gave all concern to the theological side and to witness to the necessity of frequently partaking and not refraining from it, on the basis of Eucharistic theology and the texts of the divine liturgy themselves, which announce that the sacrifice has been undertaken for the sake of all those present. As for the life of repentance, it was ignored and this is what has brought us to a situation where we see thousands going forward to partake at every Divine Liturgy they attend, while the great majority of them do not practice the mystery of repentance and confession at all, not even once a year.
There is a great distinction between correct theoretical teaching and the pedagogical path that leads to living it in its fullness. Possessing intellectual knowledge of a given matter does not mean living that matter or having experience with it on an existential level. For me to know, for example, the Gospel's view of forgiveness does not mean that I have experience with that forgiveness. This is the case for all the other virtues. So I must be trained gradually in order to arrive at the level of Christian forgiveness.
The Importance of Education
Many of us have ignored or forgotten the importance of practical education. Here I recall that many have come to say that we are the children of God and that we are free in Christ, and this is a true teaching of the Gospel. But the result is that the love of God of which we speak has not led us to behave like His children. At the same time, fear of God has been banished from our hearts and no defense against sin remains that would prevent it from dominating us. This is why we witness today a decline in morals and a breakdown in homes.
The Apostle Paul says, "When I was a child I ate what was for children, but when I became an adult, I started to eat what is appropriate for adults." Ignoring this basic rule within the Church has led us to formalistic spiritual practices. We have come to talk about virtue, forgetting the difficult training that we must live daily in order to arrive at it.
In education there is a clear progression and no one possesses the virtues simply through theoretical knowledge of them. The life of repentance does not deviate from this rule, since it cannot be lived without it. Hence we must pay attention to the importance of preparing our souls and our bodies for total participation in the mystery of the Eucharist, but in the measure of our preparation and our personal life of repentance. This is something where there is no general rule that is applicable to all the faithful in all places and at all times. Here the mystery of repentance and confession serves for our spiritual progress. It is determined for each believer by a father confessor who has final say in guiding the believer as to when to approach to partake and when to refrain. At times the spiritual father may, in order to discipline the believer, resort to forbidding him from the mystery of the Eucharist, with the goal of raising his spiritual level. These matters cannot be defined in a general essay, but rather through personal confession and guidance, between the believer and the father confessor.
Between Worthiness and Preparedness
There is common a confusion between worthiness and preparedness. One who refrains from the holy chalice on the grounds of being unworthy confuses worthiness and preparedness. No human is worthy for God to dwell within him and to be united to Him. What human is completely pure and spotless and without sin? No human deserves this great grace. God's dwelling among us and within us is only because of his overwhelming mercy and his extreme love and his condescension which cannot be grasped by human reason. This is why there will never come a time when I will be worthy of this great grace, the Eucharist. No, and when I think that I have become worthy I have fallen greatly-- I have fallen pride, the mother of all evils.
As for preparedness, it is the work of preparing myself to receive the Lord. Just as one prepares to receive an important person into his home, by cleaning himself and his home, and by putting on appropriate clothes, so too the believer prepares to receive the Lord within his being. I go forward in the spirit of worthiness and with the conviction that I am a sinner and never worthy. But God's vast mercy causes us to go forward, relying upon Him. Because God is merciful to this degree, I require of myself the preparations that the Church has set down generally, and that my father confessor has set down for me personally. This is so that I do not slacken and take advantage of God's mercy, forgetting my obligation to strive for the salvation of my soul.
The Mystery of Confession and the Service of Preparation for Communion
On the basis of the Gospel's teaching, the Church has set down a number of things that help to prepare for partaking. There is the mystery of confession, the prayer before partaking, making peace with those with whom one has a dispute, and setting right the sins that one has committed, in addition to fasting and refraining from all food and drink from the midnight before the divine liturgy and participating in the divine liturgy from the beginning... Adhering to these teachings is required for approaching the honorable body and blood of the Lord.
The Apostle Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "One who has eaten the bread and drank from the cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." So what then should be done? The Apostle responds, "Let a man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
In some Antiochian churches in America, letters at the top of the first page of the Sunday handout in bold letters there is written a warning that a believer does not have permission to enter the nave of the Church if he arrives during or after the chanting of the trisagion (Holy God, Holy Mighty...) and thus does not have permission to partake. In a country where the faithful travel many miles in order to get to their church on Sunday morning, you constantly see people who arrive late for reasons beyond their control following the liturgy from the narthex, without giving excuses that may very well be valid. Why in the East do we not obey any teachings and create within ourselves superficial emotions of faith?
The Relationship between the Eucharist and Repentance and Confession
As for the relationship between the mysteries of the Eucharist and of repentance and confession, it is not a canonical relationship, but rather a living practical relationship. While some call for no approaching the Eucharist except after confession, some others do not see the necessity of making this connection canonically. For you to continually partake without ever confessing, this is something that is not permitted at all. For you to go for repentance and confession prior to every time you regularly partake, this is something that is not possible outside the life of the monastery. The best way remains for you to go to confession and the Eucharist according to the guidance of your spiritual father.
Do not forget to search your conscience well the night before the Divine Liturgy. This activity will put you on the right track and keep you from falling into a routine of partaking, and keep the flame of love for Christ burning within you.
Approach the divine mysteries with a broken heart, convinced that you are unworthy because you are a sinner. Rely completely on God's mercy, saying "Lord I am not worthy for you to enter into my home, but your expansive mercy compels me to approach you." Approach with fear of God, that fear that is found in lovers so that they do not lose their beloved. The fear of God keeps you in continual communion and closeness with Him. The prayer of preparation before communion says, "If you have resolved, O man, to eat the body of the master, approach with fear lest you be burned, because it is fire. And if you have resolved to drink the divine blood, first make amends with those who have grieved you. Then all mystical nourishment is assured."
Do not forget the words of the Apostle Paul, "He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment unto himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many among you are week and sick and many are asleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged" (1 Corinthians 11: 29-31).
"Kalimat fi al-Taqaddum min al-Munawala al-Muqaddasa" by Saba (Esber), Metropolitan of Bosra, Hawran, Jabal al-Arab and the Golan in Majallat al-Nour 67 no. 6, October 2011 pp. 300-303; translated by the blog "Notes on Arab Orthodoxy"http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com/2011/10/met-saba-esber-on-preparing-for.html