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Question 93.

Dear Fr Christopher, your blessing.
I have read your text about St Chrysostom's Easter Homily and specifically the supposed connection between fasting and communion.
I am contacting you to ask you a question about this very topic.
From various sources we know that early Christians used to receive the Holy Communion quite often as it was unjustifiable for someone to attend the Liturgy without partaking. Recently I had the chance to read St Chrysostom's writings on Lent and I came across an extract (P.G. 49: 199) that may at first reading imply that Christians in Antiochia did not partake during the entire Lent, which was seen as a preparation period for Paschal communion:
"For this end are fasting and Lent appointed, and so many days of solemn assemblies, auditories, prayers, and teachings, in order that by this earnestness being cleansed in every possible way from the sins which we had contracted during the whole year, we may with spiritual boldness religiously partake of that unbloody Sacrifice; so that should this not be the result, we shall have sustained so much labour entirely in vain, and without any profit.
Let every one, therefore, consider with himself what defect he has corrected, what good work he has attained to; what sin he has cast off, what stain he has purged away; in what respect he has become better. And should he discover that in this good traffic he has made any gain by the fast, and be conscious in himself of much care taken of his wounds, let him draw near! But if he has remained negligent, having nothing to show but mere fasting, and has done nothing which is right besides, let him remain outside; and then let him enter, when he has purged out all these offences."
I assume that the true meaning of this passage is not that the faithful did not partake for such a long period. After all what was the purpose of the Liturgies performed on the Sundays of the Lent, if not to receive the holy communion?
Could you please help me by providing the correct interpretation of the holy father's passage?

Thank you very much.
Kissing your hand,
Steven

 

Answer to Question 93.

Dear Steven,
From many of St. John's homilies we know that he was all for frequent communion and even preached about daily communion, but by the end of the fourth century the decline in frequent communion had become a major source of pastoral concern. Some areas in the east had made worse the division of the Christian community into communicants and non-communicants by introducing a category of penitents who could remain after the dismissal of the Catechumen. Those in this final grade of penitence, immediately preceding reconciliation and readmission to communion, were called "bystanders" or "those attending without an offering" because its members were allowed to stay for the Eucharist part of the service, but without the right to make an offering i.e. to present a prosphoron or gift of bread for use in the service or to communicate. This practice was well known in the churches of Asia Minor Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia as well as Constantinople.
Chrysostom was against this practice arguing that those who attend the Eucharist without communicating, that if they are not worthy to partake of the sacrament then neither are they worthy to participate with the faithful in the prayers, "You are not worthy of the sacrament nor of communion? then neither are you worthy of the prayer. So penitents unworthy of the prayer as well as of the communion are dismissed. Servants who have offended the master are sent away like the unbaptised. It is an insult for a guest at a feast to sit at table, but refuse to partake. Is he not insulting the host? How do you stay and not partake of the table. I am unworthy you will say, then you are also unworthy of that communion in the prayers."
But Chrysostom is not only among the first to draw attention to the decline in frequency of communion, he may have been partly responsible for it, telling his people over and over again that many partake unworthily, stressing again and again the "sincerity and purity of soul" needed to approach the supper of the Lord. With this purity approach at all times without it never! He laments: "in vain is the daily sacrifice, in vain do we stand before the holy altars no one partakes, he immediately adds "I say these things not so you will partake lightly, but so you will make yourselves worthy. (Hom. 3 on Ephesians)
How often did the faithful receive communion in Chrysostom's time? Obviously not often enough to suit him, from his constant preoccupation with the issue. Chrysostom's frequent laments contain some concrete hints as to actual practice. For example he has to preach not only against the unworthy reception of communion, but also against the notion that communion should be limited to feast days. Similarly in his sermon Eph. hom. 3, Chrysostom scolds his flock for falling into the routine of taking communion only on certain feasts days. Chrysostom basically gives the same message in several other writings like "Discourse on the Baptism of Christ", in I Tim. hom. 5, and in Heb hom. 17.
But despite Chrysostom's fervent insistence on more frequent communion, the message his flock heard more clearly was the downside of his exhortations: When he says "the holy things for the holy" he is saying "if someone is not holy let him not approach".
In the text you sent from John Chrysostom's XX Homily on the Statues he is not denying Communion to those who partake frequently, but he is concerned with the custom of those who only partake on the great feasts like Pascha. They believe that by keeping the fast of Lent they are made worthy of participating of Holy Communion, but he wants them to understand that the fasting of food is in vain if at the same time they do not observe the fast spiritually by fighting the passions. Chrysostom is known for his saying:
"Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?"
So what he is saying in the text is that if your fasting was only the giving up of certain foods without the spiritual struggle that must accompany true fasting then your fasting was all in vain and you have remained as you were before the Lenten fast: you were unworthy then and have remained unworthy so do not approach for communion. After the text that you sent, he continues:
"Let no one rest on the fast merely; whilst continuing unreformed in evil practices. For it is probable, that he who omits fasting may obtain pardon, having infirmity of body to plead."
In other words don't rely only on the fast to make you worthy because there are those who cannot fast because of bodily infirmities yet still have the blessing to partake. He then continues saying that if they have fasted why are they not reconciled to their enemies, why have they retained in their hearts envy and hatred towards those who have wronged them?
Further down he says that we must keep (not only the fast but) all the commandments especially that which bids us to consider no man as an enemy, nor retain resentment long, but forthwith to be reconciled; because it is impossible that he who hath an enemy, and bears malice, can enjoy the holy Communion.
Thus I would say that from the text, John's message is that Lent is a spiritual journey leading us to Pascha where the majority of the members of the church will have communion, but if you are one of those that believe that you are unworthy to partake at other times of the year, don't think that by just giving up certain foods that this will make you worthy. Lent, with its fast and the many services is given us as a period of spiritual struggle, a period of spiritual cleansing. True fasting means to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. Only if you renounce these things is your fasting true and acceptable to God. If done properly it can bring about a spiritual change in you and if at the end of the fast you feel the same then you can be sure that your fast was not conducted correctly. There is a right and a wrong way of fasting and only if done correctly can it bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
I hope this has helped. After sixteen centuries it is surprising that nothing has changed. The majority of Christians still only partake on the Great Feasts, especially Pascha and still believe that with a little fasting they are made worthy to partake on Easter night.
Have a great Lent or as we say in Greek "Kalo Stadio" meaning have a good fight in the spiritual arena.
With Love in Christ
Fr. Christopher Klitou.