In certain parts of the Church, especially those influenced by Russian practice, there has grown up a tradition that it is not possible to receive holy communion unless you have first made a confession. In many places the result has been that only the clergy and children receive holy communion. But what was the original practice? What should we now do?
First of all we must answer the question: is there a connection between receiving communion and sin? To which the answer is yes! In St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he explains the Tradition he received about the Last Supper and then says this “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks the Lord’s cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Then he says “But let everyone do a self-examination, and then eat the bread and drink the cup. For whoever eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgement to himself, if such a one does not discern the body of the Lord.” ( 1 Corinthians 11:26-29)
So what did St Paul mean? The universal understanding of the Fathers is that here St Paul was meaning that those who did not believe, those who were not Christians, those who were seriously sinful, should abstain from communion, examine themselves and repent. This is why he says “Let everyone do a self examination” but notice he says “everyone” because he was assuming that normally everyone would receive communion at every Liturgy. It was also assumed that after Baptism Christians would not sin again! This sounds extraordinary to us, because our understanding of sin has changed. The early Church understanding was that you would not break any of the Ten Commandments and above all that you would not apostatise i.e. in time of persecution, deny Christ. Now as time went on there were Christians who did apostatise, but afterwards repented and wanted to be received back into the Church. From this arose the practice of confession where the sinner could be restored through confession and absolution by the Church and be restored to full Communion. (There was a considerable amount of disagreement about this. Those who were not prepared to forgive, separated from the Church forming schismatic groups).
After the time of Constantine the Great large numbers of people were received into the Church some of whom had entered “without a wedding garment” i.e. insincerely or they were committing serious sins like murder and adultery. In those days everyone knew more or less everyone else’s business, so there were strong objections to such people receiving communion. As a result they were excommunicated and had to fulfil penances, often of several years. They would be received back into communion with the Church after confession and penance.
Gradually a number of different traditions started to develop in the Church, partly through the influence of Monasticism and partly due to the rise of Scholasticism in the West. The development led to lay people receiving communion less and less frequently and it was expected for people to go to confession from time to time. In the West the practice of receiving communion became infrequent and eventually lay people would receive communion only once a year at Pascha, and however often they communicated they would be required to go to confession first. So the two Mysteries became linked. In the Orthodox World there was no such link, but for all sorts of reasons lay people tended to receive communion fairly infrequently.
In Russia, through the influence of Czar Peter the Great and western Latin influences the Church started to adopt a number of Roman Catholic customs. This was particularly the work of Peter of Mogila, Abbot of the Kiev Caves Monastery and then Metropolitan of Kiev. He introduced much Roman Catholic theology and practice, and so a link between confession and communion was established – pure Roman Catholicism.
In Greece and other places under the Turkish yoke, because priests were likely to be tortured by the Turks if they heard confessions, an entirely different practice evolved, where those wishing to receive communion were required to fast for three days prior to receiving Communion. This might involve fasting on Saturday which is strictly forbidden in the Canons!
Father Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest, has this to say:-
“What we need then is, first of all, the real rediscovery in the Church and by her faithful members, of the true meaning of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church, as that essential act in which she always becomes what she is: the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the gift of new life, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God and communion with Him. The Church becomes all this by the “sacrament of gathering” – many coming together to constitute the Church, by offering as one body united by one faith, one love, one hope, the Holy Oblation, by offering “with one mouth and one heart” the Eucharist, and by sealing this unity – in Christ with God, and in Christ with one another – in the partaking of the Holy Gifts.
What we need furthermore is the rediscovery of Holy Communion as the essential food uniting us to Christ, making us partakers of His Life, Death and Resurrection, as the very means of our fulfilling ourselves as members of the Church and of our spiritual life and growth.
What we need finally is the rediscovery of the true meaning of preparation as the very focus of our spiritual life, as that spiritual effort which always reveals to us our unworthiness and makes us therefore desire the Sacrament of healing and forgiveness, and which by revealing to us the unfathomable depth of Christ’s love for us, makes us love Him and desire to be united with Him.” (Great Lent: Journey to Pascha)
Now, as we approach Great Lent, it is a good time to look at our lives and consider how we as individuals, prepare ourselves to receive communion, praying and fasting as the Church directs and attending services and reading the Scriptures – especially the New Testament.