Holy Communion is THE Sacrament of the Christian Church. It is the most essential means for our salvation, and for our progress in the way of Christian perfection. It is the Sacrament through which we receive the Body and the Blood of Christ, under the forms of consecrated Bread and Wine, for the remission of sins and for the reception of eternal life.
I. NAMES GIVEN TO HOLY COMMUNION:
It has several names according to its various aspects and meanings. It is called:
- Eucharist, which means Blessing or Thanksgiving, and describes its Sacramental aspect.
- The Lord’s Supper, referring to the occasion on which it was established.
- Communion, because of the action and its results, inasmuch as we communicate with our Lord Himself in this sacrament.
- Sacrifice, which refers to the immolation of our Lord on the Cross, where He shed His Blood, as a victim, for the salvation of mankind. The last two terms are the most common nomenclature used in Armenian. “Holy Sacrifice” or “Sourp Badarak” is the term we use to describe the ritual of Holy Communion.
II. ESTABLISHMENT OF THE HOLY COMMUNION:
As the central Sacrament of the New Testament, the Holy Communion was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The archetypes of th
e Holy Communion are:
- The Passover, the commemoration of the passing-over of the angel of God, sparing from killing the children of Israel who had the sign of blood on the lintel of their houses, in which they were eating the Paschal Lamb.
- The Manna, the heavenly food, which was, as Moses said, “the bread which the Lord has given to eat” (Ex. 16: 15). Manna was a type of Christ who gives Himself in the Holy Communion as the true food of the soul. “My Father gives you the true bread from hea ven . . . I am the bread of life” said Jesus (John 6 : 31).
- The Sacrifices of the Old Testament are regarded as foreshadowing the true Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
The Divine Institution was revealed and promised by our Lord in His preachings, before it was actually established at the Last Supper. The verses 32-50 of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. John are considered as “a discourse about the food of the soul, the divine teaching made available through faith.” The latter part of the same chapter, verses 51-59, is “a discourse about the Holy Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of Christ.” The account of the establishment of the Holy Communion is explicitly recounted in the first three Gospels (Matt. 26 : 26-28, Mark 14 : 22-24, Luke 22 : 19-20). It is also clearly referred to in the Epistles of the Apostles. For our purpose we consider it worthwhile to bring forth verbatim the account
of the foundation of this Sacred Institution, as it is given by St. Paul, which is chronologically the first written account about Holy Communion. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (I Cor. 11: 23-24).
III. THE MEANING OF THE HOLY COMMUNION:
“This is my body . . . This is my blood”; these words are not taken metaphorically. The verb IS does not mean “shows” or “represents”. Some one has said in this connection: “In the institution of the greatest Sacrament of the New Testament . . . our Lord would have taken care that the terms He used in the founding and establishing this Sacrament should be clear and free of possible misinterpretation.” Therefore the words of the Lord must be taken in their obvious and usual sense, and not metaphorically.
It is plainly said in the New Testament, and it is clearly taught by the Church from the earliest times, that “The Bread and the Wine” should not be considered as ordinary elements, “but the very Body and Blood of the Lord.” This belief is shown in the great reverence paid to the Holy Communion by historic Christianity. The earliest Fathers of the Church are quite clear in teaching that the Consecrated Elements of the Holy Communion are the very Body and Blood of the Saviour. One of them, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, living in the first part of the fourth century, has said, “That which seems bread is not bread, even if it is so perceived by the taste, but is the Body of Christ.”
IV. THE EXCELLENCE OF THE HOLY COMMUNION:
The Holy Communion is distinguished from the other sacraments first by reason of its unique character; that is to say, by the fact that our Lord is given us in this Sacrament not in the way of “superabounding grace,” as in the other sacraments; but “truly and really.” He gives Himself “as spiritual food for the faithful, quickening the soul and leading man into immediate fellowship with Him.” Second, the Holy Communion is distinguished from other sacraments by reason of its being both Sacrament and Sacrifice. As a Sacrament the Holy Communion possesses all the constituent features of sacraments in general, i.e., the outward signs, or the “matter,” the minister, and the grace bestowed. The outward sign and matter of this Sacrament is the bread and wine and the proper prayers. The ministers are the bishops and priests only. Deacons assist at the Divine Liturgy and even in emergency cases can communicate the faithful from the presanctified Holy Communion, but they can never consecrate it. The Grace bestowed through this Sacrament is remission of sins and reception and strengthening of eternal life, and union with our Lord.
Holy Communion is not only a Sacrament but also a Sacrifice. “As Sacrifice, it is the continuation of the sacrifice of Golgotha.” The very words used by our Lord clearly show this: “My Body given . . ., or broken for you,” “My Blood shed . . . for many for the remission of sins.” “These expressions indicate that this Institution is itself a propitiatory sacrifice.” It is not simply a representation of the death of our Lord, but actual and real sacrifice, in which “The Offerer and the Victim are one and the same, our Lord, even if the sacrifice be offered by the priest.” It is not simply a reminder or commemoration of the historical fact of Golgotha, but an actual and objective sacrifice. The purpose of the sacrifice on the Cross was the reconciliation of man with God, the atonement for the sins of man and their expiation, in general. Whereas the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered for specific people, it is the application of the general benefits of the sacrifice of the Cross, to those for whom the Eucharist is celebrated, both for the living and the dead.
It is also a Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, Worship, and Praise, which we offer to God, for His goodness and loving kindness. In this Sacrifice of Thanksgiving the congregation joins with the priest, taking part in the singing or following it in spirit.
All those who would take Holy Communion must prepare themselves by repentance and obtain absolution by confession. Willful indifference to the Holy Communion or carelessness in regard to it deprives us of its benefits.
V. THE DIVINE LITURGY:
The celebration of this unbloody Sacrifice is called the “Divine Liturgy.” The Armenian Divine Liturgy is composed of four main parts. These are: The Preparation; The Instruction; The Oblation; and The Benediction. The third part, the Oblation or the Sacrifice, is the most essential act of the Divine Liturgy.
- “The Preparation consists of certain acts and prayers for the ritual and consequently the moral purification of the celebrant priest as well as of the participating faithful in preparation for the performance of the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice.
“The first theme of the Preparation is the assumption by the priest of his sacerdotal function by the Vesting.
“The second and third themes of the Preparation consist of acts and prayers of repentance and for divine forgiveness, which make the priest and the believer bold to enter into the presence of God in a mystical way.
“The fourth theme is the preparation of the elements of the Holy Sacrifice, i.e., the bread and the wine, symbolizing the preparation of Christ for his redemptive work before His Baptism.
- The Second Part of the Divine Liturgy is also called Synaxis, which is a Greek word, means meeting, and it refers to a general prayer meeting, which used to be held prior to the Eucharist, or the Holy Sacrifice proper, in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Synaxis was held for the purpose of Christian edification.
“The first theme of the Synaxis is the proclamation of God’s Kingdom in the Church, the citizenship of the faithful in it and the affinity of the Kingdom on earth with that of heaven.
“The second theme of the Synaxis (Lections, Creed, and Prayers) refers to the enlightenment of the mind of men called to enter into God’s kingdom, and to the understanding of divine truths and of the will of God. This is followed by the proclamation of and witness to the Christian faith by the enlightened believer. In this part of the Synaxis the teaching ministry of the Church is symbolized and the reception of the Gospel or the good news by mankind is sacramentalized.
- After moral purification and mental illumination, the third and main part of the Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice proper, effects the spiritual and mystical union of the Christian with his Lord and God, Jesus Christ.
“This essential union of the Christian with the Lord constitutes the core of the Sacrament or Mystery of the Eucharist and is the ultimate purpose of Christian life as a whole.
“It is this third part of the Divine Liturgy which constitutes the sacrament which was instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself at His last supper with the Apostles, and which was performed by the Lord in person on Calvary.
- The fourth part of the Divine Liturgy, i.e., the Last Blessing and Dismissal, is only an appendage and an elaborate send-off after the termination of the Sacrament.”
VI. RECEIVING THE HOLY COMMUNION
Along with church attendance every Sunday, the periodical receiving of Holy Communion is the most important religious obligation of every practicing Christian. One can hardly be called by the holy name of “Christian” without having the regular habit of going to church, and without receiving the Holy Communion at least once or twice during the year. The Armenian Church requires from regular practicing members the reception of Holy Communion on the following holy days of the year: Easter Sunday (Spring), Transfiguration and/or St. Mary’s Day (Summer), Holy Cross Day (Autumn), and Christmas (Winter). There is no limitation as to how often one may approach the holy altar. There is, however, strict ruling about delinquency in receiving the Holy Sacrament.
Any member of the Church desiring to take communion must previously make preparation. The first step in this preparation consists of examination of conscience, the reading of the Bible, refraining from certain pleasures, and reconciliation with your fellowman. This last is the most important requirement.
The next step is to go to the church and make confession to the priest and receive absolution a week or a few days before taking communion.
It is necessary to fast during the morning of the day when Communion is to be taken. The fast should be observed from twelve o’clock midnight until the time of Communion, which would be the first thing taken in the mouth on that day. According to common practice prevailing in America, the service of Divine Liturgy is not over before eleven o’clock A.M. Therefore, persons who are sick or unable to fast, for health reasons, can obtain a dispensation from the priest, by explaining the circumstances to him at the time of confession; or they can ask the priest to given them Holy Communion early in the morning with the presanctified and reserved Sacrament.
The prospective communicant must attend the Divine Liturgy early and devoutly on the day in which he desires to communicate. Toward the end of the service he should come into the chancel, when the curtain is being withdrawn, and the deacon calls: “With fear and with faith draw near and communicate in holiness” (Yergughiv yev havadov harach madik yev surpoutiamp haghortetsarouk). When the priest turns and comes to the edge of the bema (altar stage), the communicant should approach him, and make the sign of the cross, say “Megha Astoudzo,”2 and standing should open his mouth, slightly protruding his tongue, and on which the priest lays a small particle of the Host (Sacred Body) dipped in the Cup (Precious Blood).
It is customary for men to precede women in approaching the altar to take Communion.
The communicants should come in line from the right, and after receiving the Holy Communion, should pass to the left and remain in the chancel, or when there is no more space in the chancel, in the forepart of the nave (middle part of the church), until the partaking is ended and the priest stands and blesses the people saying: “Save thy people, O Lord, and bless thine inheritance, feed them, and lift them up from henceforth for evermore.” The communicant should then go back, take his seat and say his private prayers.
Women should refrain from using lipstick before receiving Holy Communion.
There is no doubt that all of us love the “Sourp-Badarak,” the Divine Liturgy sung in the Armenian sacred music. But that is not enough. A practicing Christian should also partake of the Holy Communion, approaching the altar, as often as he can; because the Holy Communion is our means of receiving eternal life, and the true sign of the unity of the Church. By no other act of the Church is the unity of the people of God in the church more proven than by the Holy Communion. By Communion not only are we united with God, but also with our fellowmen. Holy Communion deepens man’s communion with other men.
The real progress and strength of a church does not consist merely in its financial success, but in its spiritual oneness and love. A church cannot make any real progress unless and until Holy Communion occupies its rightful position in it. Holy Communion is of primary importance in the Church.
May God give us His grace and wisdom to know this vital truth about Holy Communion. May He create in us an ardent desire to approach His altar for Holy Communion and may He make us worthy of this greatest privilege given to men.