"O Son of God, accept me today as a partaker of Your mystical Supper...
(Prayer before Holy Communion)
We prepare ourselves for the glorious feast of Christ's Resurrection with the holy Great Fast and conclude our spiritual preparation with the paschal or Easter Confession and Holy Communion.
Confession and Holy Communion are singularly important sacraments in the life of the Church and of the faithful, for they are the pulse of their spiritual life and holiness. Pertaining to these two sacraments, both the Eastern and Western Churches have their own particular laws and customs. The practice of receiving these two sacraments has varied in the different periods of the Church. Here we shall give a brief history of the practice of the Christians of the first centuries and of our Church from the times when Christianity was introduced in the Rus-Ukraine to the present day.
The Practice of the First Centuries
Christians of the first centuries lived a deep spiritual life. This life was above all manifested in the deep appreciation and respect they manifested for the Divine Liturgy and for frequent, even daily, reception of Holy Communion. For them to assist at the Divine Liturgy meant to unite each time in Holy Communion with the Eucharistic Christ, Therefore all the faithful received Holy Communion at every Divine Liturgy. In reference to this St. Basil the Great (+379) wrote in a letter to the Caesarius Patricius: "Now, to receive Holy Communion daily, thus to partake of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is an excellent and advantageous practice... We, ourselves, in Caesarea, of course, receive Holy Communion four times a week, on Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, also on other days, if there is a commemoration of some saint. In Alexandria and in Egypt, each Christian, even those belonging to the laity, has Holy Communion in his own home, and when he wishes, he receives with his own hands..." (Letter 93).
Not only did adults strengthen themselves at the Divine Liturgy with Holy Communion, but they also administered this sacrament to small children from the day of their baptism. This practice has been preserved to the present day in almost all the Eastern Churches, even though the Western Church abandoned it in the thirteenth century. In the Ukrainian Catholic Church this practice still continued to the time of the Synod of Zamost (1720), which directed that small children be given Holy Communion, when they had reached the age of reason.
The practice of daily and frequent Communion lasted un til the fifth century in the Church. At this time, this beautiful custom began slowly to decline. Under the influence of the teachings of the holy Fathers of the Church the faithful began more and more to acquire a better understanding and respect toward the Holy Eucharist. But this, in turn, awakened, within them, a sense of fear and unworthiness. Under the pretext of unworthiness, some limited the practice of receiving Holy Communion to Easter time or to a few days in the year.
St. John Chrysostom (†407) rebuked those who attended the Divine Liturgy, but did not receive Holy Communion: "In vain is the daily Sacrifice being offered up," he says, "in vain do we stand at the altar, since no one comes to receive Holy Communion... How can one be present at the Divine Liturgy and not receive the Holy Sacrament?" (Homily 3, On the Letter to the Ephesians). To those who tried to justify themselves by their unworthiness he says, not without irony, that if they are so unworthy then they should not even receive the Holy Sacrament once a year.
In the beginning, those who did not wish to receive Holy Communion did not attend the Divine Liturgy at all. Consequently, the various synods in the East and in the West began imposing ecclesiastical penalties upon those, who were not present for several weeks at the Unbloody Sacrifice on Sun day. From this rose a new custom: one could be present at the Divine Liturgy and not be obliged to receive Holy Communion. Mindful of this, the Church set out to lay down norms governing the participation of the faithful in Holy communion. The ninth canon of the Holy Apostles directs: "All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated on the ground that they are causing the Church a breach of order." The same canon was repeated by the local Synod of Antioch (341) which added that such persons are to be ex-communicated from the Church and remain so until they go to confession, produce fruits of penance and ask pardon; only then will they be able to obtain forgiveness." (Rule 2)
The local Synod in Agde (506), France, decreed that those who do not receive Holy Communion on the Nativity of our Lord, Easter (the Pasch) and Pentecost shall cease to be members of the Church. The final legislation regarding Confession and Holy Communion in the Western Church was formulated by the Lateran Council (1215), which bound all the faithful in conscience, at least once a year, to confess their sins and to receive Holy Communion.
After the practice of frequent Holy Communion had been abandoned, the Great Fast became, for all the faithful not only a time of preparation for the feast of the Pasch, but also an opportunity for the annual paschal (Easter) Confession and Holy Communion which they received on Holy Thursday, - the day of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, - or on the same day of the Resurrection (Easter).
From the time that, not all the faithful but only some, or even no one at all, received Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy, the Eastern Church introduced the custom of distributing the "antidoron" at the end of the Divine Liturgy to all those faithful who did not participate in Holy Communion. "Antidoron" is a Greek word which means "instead of the gift", that is, in place of the Holy Gifts. It was the remains (leftovers) of the prosphora or bread from which the Lamb or Host was cut out at the table of Prothesis.
The First Centuries of Christianity in Ukraine
When our ancestors accepted the holy faith from Byzantium they also accepted the prescriptions of the Greek Church concerning Confession and Holy Communion. The Metropolitan of Kyiv, George (1072), gives us these prescriptions in his "Rules", "Whoever is worthy," he says in the ninth rule, "let him receive the Holy Sacraments on all the Sundays of the Great Fast, Great Thursday. Great Saturday, Easter, Ascension of our Lord, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, during Peter's Fast, on the feast of St. Peter, the feast of the holy Martyrs Borys and Hlib, the feasts of the Transfiguration, Dormition of the most Holy Mother of God, St. Nicholas, the Nativity of our Lord, the Theophany and the Presentation (Meeting or Encounter) of our Lord." (E. Golubinsky: History of the Russian Church, Vol. I, Part Two, p. 534)
It appears from this that almost 150 years before the time the Lateran Council prescribed for the Western Church that the faithful must receive Holy Communion under penalty of mortal sin at least once year, in our land prescriptions encouraging the faithful to receive Holy Communion more frequently had already existed. In fact, as we have seen above, it was received by our people over twenty times a year.
The Practice in the More Recent Times
Regarding Confession and Holy Communion the prescriptions of the Kievan Metropolitan, Peter Mohyla (+1647), merit special attention. In his Euchologion, published in 1646, he directs all pastors to remind their people as early as Cheesefare week and the first week of lent of their obligation to confess their sins twice during the Great Fast - at the beginning and at the end of the Great Fast - as well as to receive Holy Communion. During the other three fasts he directs the faithful to go to Confession and receive Holy Communion at least once. He taught that the Church instituted four fasts in the year, during which every Christian should confess his sins and receive Holy Communion. Should one be so neglectful as not to confess his sins and receive Holy Communion even once a year during the Great Fast, Metropolitan Peter Mohyla directs the pastors to repri mand him publicly three times, namely, on Palm Sunday, Great Thursday and Great Saturday. Should he fail to fulfill his Christian obligation, then he is to be excommunicated from the Church publicly on Bright or Easter Tuesday until he repents. Should he die in the state of impenitence, then he is to be refused Christian burial. He recommends to those who rarely go to confession and lapse into sin repeatedly, that they confess and receive Holy Communion every month and on certain great feast days.
The Eastern Church prescribes before every confession a so-called "hoviniye"; this is a special preparation that lasts seven days, or three days or at least one day. During this period of preparation the faithful must, as far as possible, be present in church every day at the divine services, observe a strict fast, pray more at home, perform works of mercy, reflect upon their sins and during this time seek reconciliation with all The Synod of Zamost (1720) enjoins the priests to exhort the faithful to confess their sins at least three times a year and receive the Sacraments on these days: Easter (Resurrection Day) - on this day under penalty of excommunication -, on the Dormition of the most Holy Mother of God, and on the Nativity of our Lord. Lest the "hoviniye" (that special preparation before confession) prevent one from going to confession, the Synod explains that, although fasting is praiseworthy, nevertheless, it is not an integral part of confession.
The Synod of Lviv (1891) also recommended frequent Confession and Holy Communion and the observance of our traditional custom of receiving the Sacraments at least three times a year. The Synod ordered those who are negligent in this matter to be reprimanded and reminded of the penalty of excommunication from the Church.
For daily and frequent Holy Communion the Church does not demand confession each time one goes to Holy Communion. One may receive Holy Communion frequently as long as one is not guilty of mortal sin. Venial sins do not constitute an obstacle to Holy Communion. Actually one may receive Holy Communion daily while it suffices that he confess his sins once a month.
The most Holy Eucharist is the holiest and most sacred Sacrament because in this Sacrament, under the appearance of bread and wine, the true and living Jesus Christ, our Saviour, Lord and God is present. The Second Vatican Council declares that "in the Liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us: and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end are most powerfully achieved..." (Constitution on the Liturgy, 10). For this reason, the Council directs that we join our participation in the Divine Liturgy with Holy Communion: "The perfect form of participation in the Divine Liturgy, whereby the faithful, after the priest's Communion, receive the Lord's Body from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended." (§55)
Therefore, let these two great and holy Sacraments serve us as a perpetual fountain of love of God and of neighbor, of our faith and holiness and as our guarantee of everlasting happiness according to the words of Christ: "Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood, shall have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day." (John 6,54)
Source: A Byzantine Rite, Julian J. Katrij, OSBM