For many Protestants (and some others) whose Church experience has largely been shaped in the past few decades, one of the most disconcerting aspects of a first visit to an Orthodox Church is the fact that not everybody, not all Baptized Christians, are permitted to receive communion. Indeed, communion is restricted to Orthodox Christians who have made preparation to receive (that’s another topic). For some, this is a surprise, for others, not, and for still some few, this is a welcome fact. When I first visited an Orthodox Church I fell into this last group. I did not rejoice that I was not able to take communion, but I rejoiced that I was not allowed to (in the state of schism in which I was living). Someone was saying to me, “There are things in your Christian life that must be addressed before you approach the Cup.” I understood this as healthy.
Indeed the rapid disappearance of communion discipline across much of Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century became as well a rapid re-interpretation of the sacrament and the radical exaltation of the individual over the Church. I have several reflections to offer in this vein.
First – the rapid disappearance of communion discipline meant the disappearance of boundaries. Nothing in the Church any longer said, “No.” With this, the Christian life itself loses definition. “Communion” with Christ becomes a purely subjective event, itself stripped of meaning because of the lack of boundaries. If there is no “No,” neither can there be a “Yes.” The Garden of Eden, paradise of perfection, contained a single “No,” one boundary. And yet that boundary alone defined communion with God. In not eating of that tree, Adam and Eve could live in obedience. Every other meal takes on its meaning of blessed communion because it is eaten in obedience. With the act of disobedience and the destruction of the only boundary given by God, every tree becomes a potential tree of death. Indeed, Holy Communion itself can become a Cup of Death according to St. Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians.
Second – with the abolition of boundaries, communion ceases to be a struggle, and loses the ascesis that is essential to a healthy Christian life. Communion with God is a gift from God – but like the Kingdom of God, the “violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This rather odd verse is a reference to those who pursue God in such a way that it is not inappropriate to use the word “violent” to describe it. St. John the Baptist’s ministry was marked by his fasting and struggles in prayer. It is such efforts that are “violent” in the Christian life. It should be normative in the Christian life that the holy mysteries are approached with ascesis. Rather than approaching God with an attitude of entitlement (“this is my communion”) we approach struggling against sin in our life: repenting, confessing, forgiving, fasting. In a Christian life they are acts of love.
In all of our healthy relationships some level of ascesis is practiced though we rarely reconize it or call it by that name. In marriage we understand that husbands are to “love their wives even as Christ loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25) that is, they are to lay down their lives for them. A marriage built on romantic phrases rather than sacrificial acts of love can all too easily be a marriage destined to fail.
It is not that we earn grace or salvation – I would argue strongly that every effort of “struggle” is itself an effort made possible and infused with grace. But the gift of our salvation should not be likened to a man who never picked up a baseball bat suddenly walking up to the plate at the last out in the ninth inning, facing a pitcher with an ERA below 1 and smacking the baseball deep into the stands in center field. I’ll grant that grace could work like that, but it would be Walt Disney and not Jesus Christ. Thus the God who saves us by grace tells us to “keep my commandments,” and any number of other things. [An exception: the wise thief. Ninth inning. Though even he surely knew a struggle as he fought his way to the words: «Remember me in your kingdom.»] God will not abandon us as we take up that struggle – but struggle we must – for such is the life of grace.
Before I was received into the Orthodox Church, of necessity I took a different “approach” to communion. Attending services before I was received into the Church, I knew that I would not yet be able to approach the Cup. But I kept the fast. From midnight forward I ate nothing. Thus like the rest of the congregation, I sang in hunger as Heaven surrounded us and God gave Himself to us on His most Holy Altar. I could not eat – but I could struggle to eat – I could be hungry.
Hunger is not the fullness of the faith – but, if I may be so bold – it is part of the fullness. And at certain times part of the fullness is more than nothing.
I think this is an important point for much of our life. There is a fullness of the Cup of Salvation that most of us have not yet tasted, even if we come to the Cup each Sunday. I do not yet know the fullness of loving my enemies, or forgiving my friends, or walking without fear (we can each make this part of the list longer). But I can know something of the fullness of hunger for these things and the daily toil of struggling for them by grace.
And by grace I pray at last to have been brought across that boundary of sin that separates me from others and myself, united to Christ and the liberty that comes from Him alone.