Closed Communion–Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known
Frederica Mathewes-Green (source)
6. Blessed Bread and Consecrated Bread
a) Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here’s how it works: the round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with a seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, the priest cuts out a section of the seal and sets it aside; it is called the “Lamb”. The rest of the bread is cut up and placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest. During the eucharistic prayer, the Lamb is consecrated to be the Body of Christ, and the chalice of wine is consecrated as His Blood. Here’s the surprising part: the priest places the “Lamb” in the chalice with the wine. When we receive communion, we file up to the priest, standing and opening our mouths wide while he gives us a fragment of the wine-soaked bread from a golden spoon. He also prays over us, calling us by our first name or the saint-name which we chose when we were baptized or chrismated (received into the church by anointing with blessed oil). As we file past the priest, we come to an altar boy holding the basket of blessed bread. People will take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship. Visitors are sometimes offended that they are not allowed to receive communion. Orthodox believe that receiving communion is broader than me-and-Jesus; it acknowledges faith in historic Orthodox doctrine, obedience to a particular Orthodox bishop, and a commitment to a particular Orthodox worshipping community. There’s nothing exclusive about this; everyone is invited to make this commitment to the Orthodox Church. But the Eucharist is the Church’s treasure, and it is reserved for those who have united themselves with the Church. An analogy could be to reserving marital relations until after the wedding. We also handle the Eucharist with more gravity than many denominations do, further explaining why we guard it from common access. We believe it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. We ourselves do not receive communion unless we are making regular confession of our sins to a priest and are at peace with other communicants. We fast from all food and drink–yes, even a morning cup of coffee–from midnight the night before communion. This leads to the general topic of fasting. When newcomers learn of the Orthodox practice, their usual reaction is, “You must be kidding.” We fast from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil nearly every Wednesday and Friday, and during four other periods during the year, the longest being Great Lent before Pascha (Easter).
Altogether this adds up to nearly half the year. Here, as elsewhere, expect great variation. With the counsel of their priest, people decide to what extent they can keep these fasts, both physically and spiritually–attempting too much rigor too soon breeds frustration and defeat. Nobody’s fast is anyone else’s business. As St. John Chrysostom says in his beloved Paschal sermon, everyone is welcomed to the feast whether they fasted or not: “You sober and you heedless, honor the day…Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.” The important point is that the fast is not rigid rules that you break at grave risk, nor is it a punishment for sin. Fasting is exercise to stretch and strengthen us, medicine for our souls’ health. In consultation with your priest as your spiritual doctor, you can arrive at a fasting schedule that will stretch but not break you. Next year you may be ready for more. In fact, as time goes by, and as they experience the camaraderie of fasting together with a loving community, most people discover they start relishing the challenge.
b) Why I did not try to take communion as an inquirer into the Orthodox Church. I Corinthians 11:17-34 Though I had read this passage for decades, the reality of it never struck me until I came to the Orthodox church. There I found a “church” that took “church” seriously on a level I had never encountered. Paul begins his teaching on the Eucharist by saying the Corinthian church came together not for the better but for the worse. It is possible for our assembly and our Eucharistic celebration to be to our spiritual harm! Paul says it is to our judgment if done in an “unworthy manner” ! (v. 27) This was the first “truth” that never really crossed my mind, and certainly never occurred to me or anyone else I knew. I had read that dozens of times while presiding over the Lord’s table and always thought it meant eating and drinking with unrepented of sin, like being in an adulterous relationship but still taking communion. But what is the “unworthy manner” that St. Paul talks about in this passage, and its consequences?
1. A HIGH VIEW OF DOGMA The Corinthians had schisms among them, lit. heresies. There was not a unity of belief, a common confession of faith, thus Paul says, “Therefore, when you meet together it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” The Eucharist assumes the unity of the partakers, that they confess a common understanding of God, Christ, the Spirit, man, sin and redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ. It is not possible to meet together at the Lord’s table and have “communion” if there is no communion among the partakers. Modern Christianity’s approach to “communion” is inversely proportional to the number of new denominations being formed every day. John Stott attempted to define the bottom line common ground in “The Basis of Christian Unity”. As the churches grow, the minimum dogmatic agreement gets smaller and smaller. This is contrary to Biblical history and Church history. The reason the Bible was written was to correct false teachings and maximalize the understanding of the person and work of God in Christ through the Spirit in the Church. The Church kept that mind and from the beginning has continued to continually define what is within the boundaries of New Testament apostolic teaching. Does this mean someone has to intellectually grasp and affirm every jot and tittle of every Ecumenical Council? No, it just means we need to submit ourselves to the Church that has historically upheld and taught them.
2. A HIGH VIEW OF ECCLESIOLOGY The Corinthians had an individualistic view of the Eucharist. This is the common attitude of 20th century Christians when they come to the Eucharist. “Communion is between me and God,” is what I first said when I was told I could not commune until I was received into the Church. The underlying (and often openly spoken) question is “Who are you to tell me I cannot partake here? Who are you to judge me?” The individualism of the Corinthians is clear: Paul condemns them because they took their suppers with no regard for the rest of the church: and that is at the root of the issue. Each person did what he wanted to do, not considering the rest of the Church: their actions were between them and God, not between them and the Church, the community of faith, gathered around the altar of God (I Cor. 10:14-18) The issue of individualistic communion is spoken to very clearly in V. 29, “for he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” What does it mean to “judge the body rightly”? It means that if we do not understand the nature of the Church which is the body of Christ, that our salvation is communal in his body over which He is head, then we are guilty of the body and blood of Christ. What the eucharist says is that communion is NOT between just you and God, it is between God and his church. Communion is not and individual act it is an act of a community, it is ultimately the act of the body of Christ, the Church in which we have our salvation because it was bought with the blood of Christ and we are members of it. . v.30 for this reason many among you are weak and sick and a number sleep. When the Church bows to individualism, the Church suffers and every member individually suffers too. The unity and communion of the Church is destroyed when it grants blessings to everyone who comes in the door and says, “Give me what I want because this is between me and God and you have no right to ask me any questions about what I believe.” Christians who insist on going their own way, doing their own thing, submitting to no one, rejecting authority, living according to their own judgment, placing themselves above the community, are spiritually sick and weak. To believe that my relationship with God is only between me and God is a spiritually weak belief and lived out it leads to spiritual sickness and death.
3. A HIGH VIEW OF THE PRIESTHOOD This is a question of submission to the Church and its spiritual leadership as outlined in the NT. The Church is an “organism”, the living Body of Christ, but it is also “organized” with a structure and responsibilities and roles of leadership. Am I willing to submit my spiritual life to the pastoral care of the spiritual fathers of the church? Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them for they keep watch over your souls as one who will give an account”, I Tim. 5:22 “Do not lay hands on anyone quickly and thus share in the sins of others.” The first question a priest will ask you at the communion cup if he does not know you is “Who is your Bishop?” This is shorthand for “Whose authority are you under within the Church?” or “Who knows you spiritually, who can vouch for your life as a confessing Christian?” This is extremely contrary to our current spirit of the age. We balk at the humility of obedience and submission to authority and discernment of our “personal relationship with Christ” within a Church.
4. A HIGH VIEW OF THE EUCHARIST We believe that the Eucharist is not “just symbolic” act of unity, or a ritual that makes us feel good about being together, or an individual bread and wine “post it note” to remind us of Jesus’ death for us. We believe it IS objectively the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not “what I want it to be for me”, nor does what I believe about it change it in any way. It is what it is by the Holy Spirit, not by my personal interpretations or beliefs about it. It would be like getting hit on the head with a 10 pound sledge hammer and thinking that I won’t be hurt because I don’t believe it is really a sledge hammer it only looks like one. The reason the Eucharist is withheld from me is not because the Church wants to see how many hoops it can get me to jump through, or it is an exclusive club with a high priced membership fee. The church is not keeping the Eucharist FROM ME because it is judging me, it is keeping ME FROM the Eucharist so that I will not fall into judgment (v. 31-32), it withholds the power of the Eucharist so that I will not eat and drink condemnation when I do come to the Lord’s table. The priest by the authority of his bishop has the spiritual responsibility to keep ANYONE from partaking unworthily, not just non-orthodox people. The Eucharist is a medicine for sin. Like all potent medicines, we keep them from our children, we do not give them except under a doctor’s care and only for the ailment for which it is prescribed. If a strong medicine is given to someone who is weak, or for the wrong reason or in the wrong dosage it can maim or kill. The mother church keeps its medicine under lock and key and prescribes it only to its children who are prepared and able to take it. vs 27-30 make it clear that the Eucharist can be taken in a way that harms the partaker. The church takes that possibility seriously. Anyone coming to the table saying, “you have no right to exclude me, this is between me and God” has already shown that they have not discerned the body of Christ rightly and thus would be eating and drinking condemnation, and the church wisely forbids them to partake until they are taught to be able to judge the body rightly.
5. A HIGH VIEW OF PERSONAL INTEGRITY I need to ask myself why I would WANT to have “communion” with a group of people that I do not know if I am in communion with or not? What is my agenda if that is my desire? The questions come down to these: Am I willing to be shepherded in a matter that the church sees as this serious? Am I more interested in blanket acceptance than submitting myself to the authority of a pastor to see if I actually hold the truth of the Gospel? Can I have true communion with the Church not understanding what it teaches and believes? Most listeners probably disagree with us on these three areas alone. Then that means you in fact do not share “all things in common” with us. Why then insist on taking communion? The Orthodox Church holds the outsider to the same high level of personal integrity as it does its own members. As an Orthodox Christian I would NEVER presume to approach another Church’s altar and take their communion knowing that I am not submitted to their authority, do not hold a common belief, and while I might have the highest regard for their commitment, faith and beliefs, I would have no intention of “joining up” and committing my life to their particular denomination. I don’t take communion in another Church out of respect for their tradition. I know I don’t believe what they believe about it so I do not pretend to believe it by taking their communion, which would be putting on a facade and essentially acting out a falsehood. We have to have the integrity to let other Churches teach and believe what they want and not pretend we agree by “communing” with them. This does not mean condemnation of another, but being honest enough to act in accord with our convictions and beliefs. If someone wants to take communion in the Orthodox Church I’d say, if you agree with us on our dogmas and praxis enough to commune with us, then why don’t you become Orthodox? Communion is THE focal point of the sacramental Churches. To denigrate it to the level of a “symbolic act of symbolic union” of all Christians is destroying its meaning and purpose in the life of the Christian and in the life of the Church.
6. A HIGH VIEW OF CHURCH HISTORY The Orthodox Church’s self understanding is that it is the continuation of the apostolic Church. It can literally trace its history back 2,000 years through a continuous line of Bishops. That is “just the fact’s ma’am”. No boast, no pride, no arrogance. It just “is”. When the Church says, “You must become part of the Church to commune with the Church” it is saying “This is the historic Church, all others are either schisms, divisions, or at worse, heresies”. That does not sit well with modern Christians, but the Church does not judge those outside the Church, nor do we judge your communion, your faith, your salvation or your relationship to God. We can only say to those who wish to commune at our altar “Who is your Bishop?” to know whether or not you are part of the historic Christian Church and are submitted to Christ in it. Modern Christians do not have these historical roots and thus cannot understand how ANY Church can dare to legitimately claim to be “the New Testament Church”.