As we are continuing in our sermons about the sacraments of the Church and the Orthodox life and giving an emphasis on the ecclesiology of the Church, the boundaries of the Church and what keeps us within the Church and what puts us out of the Church, today I wanted to speak a little bit about holy Communion. Two weeks ago we spoke about birth, children coming into this world; last week we spoke about baptism, entering into the body of Christ. Today I wanted to speak about partaking of the body of Christ.
In my hand I have what is called a prosphoro. The word in Greek means an offering. As many of you have probably seen them before, many, many people make them and bring them to the church as an offering, but many people don’t know what happens on the inside of the altar after the prosphora are given to the members of the community and they are taken to the priest. Many, many people don’t know what the stamp that we use when we bake prosphora means and why it’s so important and why it’s used. I want to quickly explain this, because it has to do with how we view the Church and how we view ourselves and how we commune with the body of Christ which is the Church. All of it is here on the prosphoro.
The prosphoro, when we make it at home, we’re supposed to pray, and we stamp it with these symbols. On this symbol here—I know it’s far away and many of you cannot see, but I’ll point it out—there are three essential symbols on it. There is a central square which represents Christ himself. It’s got these four little monograms, which say Iesus Christos, Nika, which, roughly translated, is “Jesus Christ, Victor,” because he is the victor over death. So the center square represents Christ. And to his left—your left, his right—is a little triangle which represents the Virgin Mary, and to his left are nine little triangles which represent the nine orders of saints and angels.
What the priest does is he does a little service early in the morning, at the very beginning of the day—usually it’s done during the orthros service, the matins, the morning prayers, which some of you are here for—where he takes a piece from every different prosphoro. I try to take a piece from all the prosphora that people bring so that everybody’s prayers get included in the holy Communion. He’ll take out a piece that represents Christ, and he’ll put it on the diskarion, which is the little plate that goes along with the chalice that the priest walks around the church with and brings to the altar for the consecration. Then he’ll take out the piece for the Virgin Mary, he’ll take out the piece for the nine little triangles for the different saints and angels, and he’ll commemorate all these different people.
Then what’s really, really important is that he will take out, will cut a piece out that represents the living, and he’ll take a piece out that represents the departed, those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. All those little papers that you give—and all of you should give for the priest to commemorate, that say, “Yper ygeias kai yper anapafseos, those for the living and those for the departed,” all those names the priest reads at every Divine Liturgy during this little service as a preparation to prepare the gifts. So for every name that all of you have given, he takes a little tiny particle, a little crumb, from the prosphoro, and he places it on the diskarion. So we see in the end, after he’s read all these names—and sometimes there are many—we see that we have the whole Church. It’s not just Christ; it’s not just him. It is him, it is the Virgin Mary, the saints and the angels, those who are living and those who are departed. They are all there in real time, present during the Divine Liturgy.
All that goes into the chalice, and all that goes into each one of you when you commune. So when we commune, when we take holy Communion—and this is why we prepare ourselves with fasting and prayer and confession—is that we receive the body of Christ, and that body of Christ contains within it both Christ who is the head of the body, but also each one of us, we who are alive and those who have passed away. It’s a very profound and very deep reality, and this is what we do so that when we commune, we are becoming more and more the body of Christ; we are becoming more and more like icons of Christ, that icon of Christ that we are called to be as Orthodox Christians.
So we see here that holy Communion means a whole lot more than just a private relationship I have with Christ—I go and I take holy Communion and I receive Jesus and I feel better about myself—but rather it is an ecclesiological reality. It is a reality that involves the whole Church. If we think of it that way, then you see that there are many other implications, and this is why you see that all the other sacraments are connected to the Eucharist, to holy Communion, and you cannot separate one from the other. Now we can see that in baptism we are entering into this body so that we can take holy Communion. When we sin and we cut ourselves off from that body, we go to confession, which we’ll be talking about next week. Why? So that we can participate, again, in the body of Christ.
We don’t want to cut ourselves off from the body, and this is why it’s important that when many people ask me, at least, or may ask you, your friends, younger people, but even older people within the Church, “Why does the Church not have open communion with other Christian denominations?” This is a very, very big question, especially in Canada, where we live in a multi-cultural society. There are 30,000 different Protestant and Christian denominations in our country alone and in North America, and everybody preaches a different type of Jesus, and many, many of those churches have what is called an open communion. For those churches that still practice some type of a communion service, they will commune everybody who comes through their doors, and it seems to be very loving and it seems to be very welcoming. The Orthodox Church many times is criticized because we do not have open communion with other Christian dogmas.
The reason for that comes back to this. When we take holy Communion, we are becoming one with Christ, with his Church, with the teachings, and with one another. In order to be one, we all have to believe the same thing about Christ, we all have to adhere to the same holy Tradition. When we deviate from that Tradition, we start to teach other things or believe different things—for example, one person may believe that Christ was not God, or maybe somebody else might believe that Christ never really existed but rather he was just a figment of the early Church’s imagination—well, from that moment people depart from the Church. So they depart from this body; they depart from this one family that is united in faith.
This is why communion is not possible from that point and on. I’ll give you one example. If I, for example, went to a Roman Catholic Church, and I received holy Communion there, which I am not permitted to do as an Orthodox Christian, but if I did that, with that action, I am in fact saying that I am uniting myself with that church, with that body. If I am uniting myself with that body, then I am uniting myself with all the Christians who are baptized into that body, and I am in essence saying that I believe everything that they teach, every dogma that is preached, everything that they have done. Of course, as an Orthodox Christian, I do not. That’s why I’m an Orthodox Christian. And I disagree with certain teachings, so this is why I do not commune there. It has nothing to do with loving people or with accepting people or with judging people, but rather it has to do with being clear with what we believe and who we are, our spiritual religious identity.
This is why we don’t have open communion, and this is why we need to teach our children and our grandchildren especially that we should not be communing in other churches, but rather communing in the Orthodox Church, because this is where the unity of the faith is. There can only be one Church and one teaching. This is why it’s so important for us to commune often—to prepare ourselves properly: to fast properly, to confess, to prepare ourselves spiritually, to listen to our spiritual fathers, but also to commune often, so that we are constantly becoming the body of Christ. This is extremely important, and as we go on, we see that all the other sacraments are connected to the center of the faith, which is the holy Eucharist.
Every single one of you is in here. Every single one of you is in the chalice when we receive communion, so it’s important not to have anything against our brothers and sisters. It’s important to forgive. It’s important to have a clear conscience, so that when we receive the body of Christ, which is all of us and Christ himself, then our conscience is clear and we make sure that action is not a lie, that it is a true expression of our faith and that we truly approach the chalice with faith, hope, and love. Amen.