What follows is the text of a class from a series on Living the Christian Life in the World Today. This class was given on November 1, 2006 at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in McComb, MS.

Tonight we’re going to talk about prayer again, but specifically the prayers we say in preparation for Holy Communion. In most Orthodox prayer books, there are a selection of prayers—usually a canon and 10 or so prayers—provided to help in preparation to attend the Divine Liturgy and partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. I’m not going to talk so much about what prayers we should say as individuals in our preparation, that’s a topic to discuss with one’s confessor in discerning how much each person can and should do. We’re going to think more about the importance of preparing for the Eucharist, and we’ll also look at at least one example of a Pre-Communion Prayer as a “study” of what we pray in this period of preparation.

It really goes without saying that receiving the Eucharist is one of the most important things we do as Orthodox Christians. The very clear teaching of the Church is that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When we receive it, we commune of the very life of God. In a mystical way, under the forms of bread and wine, Christ enters our bodies. [As an aside, which I know I do these all the time, the Orthodox Church does not try to explain this Mystery. It is a Mystery. We can’t explain or even comprehend it, we experience it, and we know the power of God. Christ imparts to us His grace, He allows us to share in His life, in the receiving of Holy Communion.] We receive the whole Christ every time we approach the chalice to partake of the Mysteries. This should be both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Terrifying because what an awesome thing it is to be in the presence of God, and not only in His presence, but to receive Him into our bodies. And exhilarating because the Maker of all things wants to come and sanctify us, and to share His life with us. Incredible!

So how do we prepare for the great honor of receiving Holy Communion? Firstly, is our mindset. We don’t approach the Chalice casually. It is an honor and priviledge that Christ offers us the Eucharist. It’s not a right, it’s not something we do just because we’re Christians and Christians should commune. That cheapens the majesty of the Mystery. We approach the Chalice to receive a gift that nothing we do could ever earn for us, nor make us worthy of receiving. This is a theme we’ll see when we look at some of the actual prayers of preparation in a few minutes. We receive because Christ calls us, but we do so with the utmost reverence and Godly fear that we can possibly contain in our person. If we approach the Chalice as our right, or in a non-chalant manner, we run the risk of what St. Paul speaks of in 1st Corinthians, receiving unworthily, unto our damnation…many are sick and even dying he say, from receiving the Gifts in an unworthy manner. To approach worthily, again, doesn’t mean we are worthy, it means we approach in the right way. In the proper mindset. And with appropriate preparation.

Archbishop DMITRI said, “We are never worthy of receiving Holy Communion, but since Christ has accomplished salvation for us, it is only appropriate that we prepare ourselves as much as possible, for communing with Him in the Eucharist.” (Orthodox Christian Teaching, p.34). The preparation for the Eucharist involves, basically—the right mindset, struggle to live the Christian life, regular confession, and prayer. We’ve talked some in past weeks about living the Christian life, and prayer in general, and next week we’ll talk about confession. So, the Prayers of Preparation for Holy Communion.

In the Church, we prepare for everything with prayer (and fasting, really). There’s a saying that the Orthodox pray all the time—we pray before we pray, then we pray, and we pray after we pray. We surround everything we do with prayer. Before we approach to receive Holy Communion, we prepare ourselves with prayer. And not just our normal Evening Prayer, but special prayers composed to prepare us to receive the Eucharist. So why do we go through this process of preparation? When we receive the Eucharist, we receive the whole Christ. “We partake of the divine-human union (of Christ) by which we are united with God and through which we inherit eternal life” (Orthodox Christian Teaching, p. 32). We receive the life of God into our life. The priest says, ”The servant of God receives the Body and Blood of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and for life everlasting”. We receive the Eucharist for the healing of our soul and body. And everyone who receives, receives the whole Christ. We prepare ourselves through prayer to receive this grace so that the grace can transform our lives. All of our preparation is so that we can be ready to accept the healing Christ offers in His Body and Blood. It’s not that we pray and as a reward the grace of God changes us—we prepare ourselves to soften our hearts and make ourselves more receptive to the operation of the grace of God. The grace is there in the Eucharist, nothing is lacking, but the grace operates in our lives only inasmuch as we’ve prepared ourselves. That’s why the preparation for Communion is not just the prayers, but also involves the constant struggle to live the Christian life, regular confession…we prepare to receive the grace of God all the time really, in our struggle to live as Saints. And God will never give us more than we can bear—this means not only temptations, but we’ll never receive an experience of grace that we’re not prepared to contain.

And this is where we come to the prayer of Thanksgiving. We’ve prepared ourselves to commune with Christ, and after we do so we go into the world to share what we’ve been given. But before we step out of the Church, we offer Christ thanks for allowing us to commune of the Holy Mysteries. And in those prayers of thanksgiving, we also ask for the ability to preserve the grace we’ve received in the Sacrament. Many of the Saints, including St. Silouan of Mt. Athos who we’ve discussed a bit lately, say that the preservation of God’s grace is what’s so hard. And our preparation to receive the grace is as much about being able to preserve the grace we’ll be given as it is about receiving the grace. We will receive grace from God, we do every day, but do we preserve and live in the grace that He grants us to experience?

So, let’s look at one of the Prayers in Preparation for Communion, and one in Thanksgiving. The multiple prayers in the book are different, but in each of them we’re asking for essentially the same thing, so we’ll look at one prayer together, and as you pray the prayers in preparation you can think about what your saying and enter into the prayers by the grace of God on your own.

Prayer 5, of St Basil the Great
I know, O Lord, that I partake of thine immaculate Body and thy precious Blood unworthily; that I am guilty, O Lord, and that I eat and drink to mine own condemnation, not discerning the Body and Blood of Christ my God; but, taking courage from thy compassion, I come unto thee who hast said, He that eateth my Flesh and drinketh my Blood abideth in me, and I in him. Therefore show compassion, O Lord, and make not an example of me as a sinner, but deal with me according to thy mercy, and grant that these Holy Things be unto me for healing, and purification, and enlightenment, and preservation, and salvation, and unto sanctification of soul and body; unto the averting of every fantasy, of every evil deed and diabolical practice at work in my members; unto confidence and love toward thee, unto amendment and steadfastness of life; unto the increase of virtue and perfection; unto the keeping of thy commandments; unto communion with the Holy Spirit, as a provision for eternal life, and as an acceptable defense at thy dread tribunal; not unto judgment, nor unto condemnation. Amen.
(from Archbishop DMITRI’s translation, and St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral’s publication of “Prayers for Holy Communion,” pp. 26-27)

We begin by admitting our total unworthiness, by acknowledging that even in our preparation and our love, we’ll still receive unworthily because we don’t understand what we’re doing. It would be the height of arrogance to think that by praying we’re making ourselves worthy, or that we’re even able to understand what it means to commune in the body with God. But we approach because Christ commanded it—“unless you eat of the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you.” And then, as we always do in prayer, we ask for God’s mercy. That He not strike us down like St. Paul wrote about in Corinthians, but that His Holy Body and Blood might be for our salvation.
And then we list the things that communion with God brings, and we ask that God grant us these things in the communion of His Body and Blood. Healing—of soul and body. Purification—cleansing of our sins. Enlightenment—that we be able to see God and ourselves as we truly are. Preservation and salvation, and sanctification of soul and body. In essence, we asking that the image of God be preserved in us, and that we continue to grow in the likeness of Christ. And then we ask that God’s presence will avert, or turn away, all evil that might approach us. And its interesting that we pray for the aversion of fantasy—fantasy is not the center of our spiritual life (the saints say it has no place in the Christian spiritual life), knowledge of God is our spiritual life. Nothing that we can imagine could ever approach what God is. We exist in reality, and fantasy separeates us from the reality that we live in. And so we ask that our fantasies be shut down by the presence of God in our life. Then we ask that we be granted confidence in God—that our faith and our love might increase, and that our lives will be changed and made in accord with the will of God. And then we end by asking that communion be, in fact, communion with the Holy Spirit (the Spirit that enlivens and guides Christians, per the words of Christ) and for an acceptable defense at thy dread tribunal. If we fulfill all that we’ve prayed for, then we’ll be saints. Our defense at the last judgment is the blood of Christ—that we know (intimately, have experience of and relationship with) the Son of God. And we end, as many of the prayers do, with a final petition—that our receiving of the Mystery not be unto our judgment or condemnation. Always bearing in mind “Lord have mercy” and the knowledge that we can reject the very mercy we ask for. To say it in short, in the pre-Communion prayers we ask from the bottom of our souls that we be vouchsafed communion and union with God.

And to the prayers of Thanksgiving.
Of St Basil the Great
Master, Christ God, King of the ages and Author of all things, I thank thee for all the good things which thou hast granted me and for the communion of thine immaculate and life-creating Mysteries. I pray thee, therefore, O Good One, Lover of man, keep me under thy shelter and in the shadow of thy wings, and grant me worthily to partake of thy Holy Things with a clean conscience until my last breath, unto forgiveness of sins and unto life eternal. For thou art the Bread of life, the Fountain of holiness, the Giver of good things, and unto thee do we send up glory, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
(from Archbishop DMITRI’s translation, and St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral’s publication of “Prayers for Holy Communion,” p. 34)

We begin by stating to whom we’re offering this prayer of thanksgiving. By acknowledging Christ, and in this recognition we offer Him worship and thanksgiving. And then immediately we thank Christ for all the good things we have. Everything is from Him, we’re simply stewards of the blessings of God for the world. AND we thank Him for the communion of the Eucharist that we’ve just received. Our petition is to be sheltered under the wings of God—both to be protected and to be preserved. As we spoke about earlier, we thank God for the Eucharist and we ask that we be able to preserve the grace we’ve received. And then we ask that we might be able to partake, with a clean conscience, for the rest of our lives. The clean conscience is interesting—we know we receive only by the grace of God, we’ll never be worthy, but our desire is to live and pray as worthily as we possibly can. To be as sinless as we can, and to draw as close to Christ as we can day by day. Forgiveness of sins and life eternal are granted to those who truly repent, who truly turn from the ways of the world and embrace the fullness of life in Christ. By receiving the life of Christ into our bodies in Holy Communion, we have the opportunity to be entirely healed and united with Christ. We end this prayer of thanksgiving by again acknowledging Christ—Bread of life (obvious reference to Eucharist), Fountain of holiness, Giver of all good things. And to Him we send up glory, honor, and worship.

It’s my prayer that this discussion of communion prayers will help us all remember the greatness that we’re offered in the Eucharist, and that we’ll strive to enter more fully into the prayers. And in praying the prayers in a more heartfelt and engaging way, we’ll be called to a deeper commitment to the Christian life, and a deeper love for Christ out of all the things He’s done for us, unworthy though we be.

The service in preparation for Holy Communion will be prayed in the temple this Saturday night (November 4, 2006) after Great Vespers. And, of course, the Prayers in Thanksgiving for Holy Communion are prayed after Divine Liturgy every time Liturgy is celebrated in the Church.