Communing in the Orthodox Church: Part Two

Liturgical perspectives

by Doru Costache

The meaning of the scriptural and the canonical references to communing—as an ecclesial experience, integral to the event of constituting the church—finds confirmation in the orders of the divine liturgy accepted in the Orthodox Church of Byzantine tradition.

In the liturgy attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, the first part of the order contains prayers by which—on behalf of the congregation—the officiating clergy pray for God’s people’s purification and enlightenment, prerequisites for their full participation in Christ. The preparatory nature of this introduction is obvious, aiming at having God’s people ready for the eucharistic liturgy.

The second part of the order—beginning after the dismissal of the catechumens or, in their absence, after the litany of fervent supplication which follows the scriptural readings and the sermon—contains a series of prayers which point out explicitly that the gathering takes place so that all present commune. Thus, the second prayer for believers, just before the Cherubic hymn, mentions the purification of all in view of receiving the holy communion:

Again and often we fall down before you, good and loving one, and ask you to regard our prayer; cleanse our souls and bodies from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and grant that we may stand at your holy altar without guilt or condemnation. Grant also to those who pray with us, O God, progress in life and faith and spiritual understanding; grant that they may always worship you with fear and love, and take part in your holy mysteries without guilt or condemnation, being made worthy of your heavenly kingdom. That always protected by your power, we may offer you glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

This prayer, recited by either a bishop or a priest, is in the name of the entire congregation, not on behalf of the officiating clergy. This corresponds to the very meaning and purpose of the liturgy, which is an activity of God’s people, not only of the few who lead the gathering. Indeed, as the Greek word leitourgia teaches, the liturgy is the cooperation of the congregation, public service, engaging God’s people as one body. Except for a couple of prayers, introduced in the order in the late Middle Ages, no liturgical prayers refer to the officiating clergy. Instead, they are formulated in the plural. In so doing, they denote the gathering and refer to all present, even though it is the officiating clergy that recite them, and even though some prayers refer to the presence of clergy and laity within the congregation. While certain prayers, undoubtedly of later making, refer to the officiating clergy in the plural of majesty, primarily the “we” of the liturgical prayers refers to the congregation. This corresponds to the ecclesial sense of the eucharistic meal, as an experience of God’s people, not the privilege of a few. Accordingly, as the above prayer indicates, all present undergo the same purification, whether they are clergy or laity, so that all may commune, being made worthy by the divine grace.

True, this purifying mechanism does not work automatically. At the words “the doors! the doors!,” whose meaning most believers no longer remember, those whom the confessor banned from communing because of serious sins must leave the congregation. In the seventh century, as Saint Maximus wrote in his Mystagogy (ch. 14), the believers asked to undergo penitence were still excluded from the congregation and the church’s doors were literally shut. This is because, as we saw in the first part of this essay, the church’s canons do not allow for the presence of spectators in the eucharistic liturgy. This means that the penitents cannot remain in the gathering after “the doors! the doors!,” while the believers who remain in the church must all commune. It is not without reason that, at the appropriate moment, they hear the invitation to “take, eat” and to “drink from it all of view.” It would be blasphemous to think that these words are repeated out of some traditional notion. We must take them verbatim as pointing to the realism of the liturgy as the Mystical Supper and the New Alliance.

That this is so transpires through the prayer, addressed to the Father, which follows the consecration of the holy gifts of bread and wine through their ecclesial offering and the Holy Spirit’s descent. The prayer shows that the members of the congregation are gathered in order to commune and to receive the ensuing blessings:

So that to those who partake of them, they may be for vigilance of soul, for the forgiveness of sins, for communion with your Holy Spirit, for the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, for boldness before you, not for judgement or condemnation.

I must point out that, given the intrinsic connection between the holy communion and the ensuing blessings, in the event that some non-communicants still remain in the church after “the doors! the doors!” they do not receive anything; the blessings are granted only to those who commune. The spectators are there for a pious show, which might give them a sense of “ticking the right boxes,” as they say; however, they do not participate in the renewed Alliance between God and his people. This meaning finds confirmation in the prayer which precedes the “Our Father”:

To you we entrust our whole life and hope, loving Master, and we ask you and entreat you and implore you: make us worthy to partake of your heavenly and awesome mysteries at this holy and spiritual table with a pure conscience, for the forgiveness of sins, for pardon of offences, for communion with the Holy Spirit, for inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, for boldness before you, not for judgement or condemnation.

As with all other liturgical prayers, neither this prayer mentions non-communicant believers. The eucharistic liturgy is completed only when all the believers, for whom the prayers are recited, commune. In the same vein, just before the proclamation “The holy gifts for the holy ones,” which refers to the eucharistic gifts to be distributed to the saints who are present, namely, the congregation, another prayer reads the following:

Hear us, Lord Jesus Christ our God, from your holy dwelling and from the throne of glory of your kingdom, and come to sanctify us, you who sit above with the Father and are here present with us unseen; and by your mighty hand be pleased to share your pure body and precious blood with us, and through us, with all the people.

While, here, “we” is the officiating clergy, the prayer’s message is inescapable: Christ sanctifies the entire congregation in order to receive the holy communion. This is how all members present are made saints, a term which most people take for a reference to the glorified saints in heaven, but which actually signifies the members of the congregation. In so doing, here and everywhere else where the liturgy refers to the saints, the order simply iterates the language of the New Testament, which thus designates the believers. Equally important is that the prayer quoted above mentions the communion of all present. We know that we are all sinners and unworthy of the Lord’s table—for which reason we answer “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father,” but we also know that we are called to commune.

If we commune, indeed, it is not because of our virtues, since, as Saint Basil’s liturgy teaches, “we have not done anything good upon the earth”; it is because of God’s mercy. Accordingly, after “The holy gifts for the holy ones” the officiating clergy confirms once again our conviction that it is Christ who sanctifies us. Thus, while he breaks the Lord’s eucharistic body upon the paten, he proclaims: “The lamb of God is broken and distributed, broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet never expended, but sanctifying those who partake.” This sentence evokes Christ’s sacrifice by which he ever gives himself for the life of the world and for the sanctification of God’s people who receive his eucharistic body. But this is another confirmation that the liturgy’s purpose is to prepare the believers for the holy communion.

This entire process of preparation for the holy communion culminates with the call to all present: “With fear of God, with faith and love, draw near.” This invitation is explicit: all must approach the eucharistic chalice and partake of it. Of course, they should do this by personally approaching it with full awareness, or fear, of what they participate in—as faith teaches them—and with love for Christ, whose body and blood they receive. The order of the liturgy makes sense only if, after going through the steps outlined above, all present commune. If this does not happen, the liturgy is reduced to a pitiful travesty whose focus falls on the miracle of eucharistic transformation, an incomplete miracle nonetheless, since at the invocation of the Spirit the officiating clergy mentions first the congregation as recipient of the Spirit who transforms all. The congregation’s transformation into Christ’s body is fulfilled only when all eat from the one bread, as Saint Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 10:17).

Similarly, the order of the liturgy attributed to Saint Basil he Great emphasises the ministry of God’s people in its entirety, clergy and laity, the purification which occurs in the liturgy, and the communion of all as a way of effecting the church’s unity. Thus, right after the consecration of the gifts, the officiating clergy reads: “And unite us all to one another, who become partakers of the one bread and the cup in the communion of the one Holy Spirit.” Within the economy of the liturgy, teaching leads to eucharistic participation. The first part of the liturgy is not merely a means for stimulating pious emotions. That said, without the entire congregation receiving the holy communion, the teaching part is reduced to ideological instruction and the whole order of the service an event of emotional devotion. As the assembly communes, the above words are fulfilled and made true. Moreover, the rationale of the liturgy being observed and made true, the miracle of transformation is also accomplished: all become one in Christ’s body and blood, through the Holy Spirit, and ready for a a life of holiness. This nuance is made clear in the long prayer before the “Our Father,” which at some point reads:

Cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and teach us how to live in holiness by your fear, so that receiving the portion of your holy gifts with a clear conscience we may be united with the holy body and blood of your Christ. Having received them worthily, may we have Christ dwelling in our hearts, and may we become the temple of your Holy Spirit.

It goes the same for the rest of the order, which, from this viewpoint, fully concurs with that attributed to Saint John Chrysostom. The same is true about the Lenten liturgy attributed to Saint Gregory “the Dialogue” or the Great, which, without performing the eucharist, is nevertheless centred on the congregation’s communion. Here is a passage from its prayer before the “Our Father,” where we ask:

Freeing us and all your faithful people of all uncleanness, sanctify all of us, soul and body, with an indelible sanctification. Thus, partaking of these divine gifts with pure conscience, faces unblushing, hearts enlightened, and being enlivened by them, we may be united to your Christ himself, our true God.

The text of this prayer is clear: the liturgy effects the congregation’s purification in view of communing. The same message transpires through the prayer before the “Our Father” in the order of the liturgy attributed to Saint James, the Lord’s brother:

You have accepted the gifts, offerings, and fruits brought unto you as an odour of a sweet spiritual smell, and hast been pleased to sanctify them, and make them perfect, O good one, by the grace of your Christ, and by the presence of your all-holy Spirit. Sanctify also, O Lord, our souls, and bodies, and spirits, and touch our understandings…

In like manner, the prayer of the bowing of heads reads:

Send forth upon us, O Lord, your plenteous grace and your blessing; and sanctify our souls, bodies, and spirits, that we may become worthy communicants and partakers of your holy mysteries, to the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting…

Here, as for the previous liturgical orders, purification is clearly referred to a goal, namely, the congregation’s participation in the holy eucharist.

In the light of the above, Saint Basil’s advice that, although he communed only four times a week, “it is good and useful to commune every day” (Letter 93), makes perfect sense. The accepted liturgical orders of the Orthodox Church show that the divine liturgy constitutes a framework for God’s people’s preparation for holy communion. The liturgy’s entire course reaches culmination in the eucharistic participation of the present congregation.


This text in English represents an adapted version after the original published in Romanian as ‘Reflecţii despre regimul sfintei împărtăşiri în tradiţia Bisericii Ortodoxe’ Biserica Ortodoxă 2 (2003) 179-193 esp. 182-86. The references to the Liturgy of Saint James are new. The original article can be accessed here.

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9 November 2019 © AIOCS