March 30, 2020

How We Can Be Sanctified by Holy Communion Even If We Are Unable to Receive It

St. Onouphrios being communed by an angel in the desert.

By John Sanidopoulos

According to the words of Christ, His Body and Blood are a source of life:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)

St. Cyril of Alexandria explains this as follows (Commentary on John, Bk. 4, Ch. 2) :

Christ therefore gave His own Body for the life of all, and again through It He makes life to dwell in us; and how, I will say as I am able. For since the life-giving Word of God indwelt in the flesh, He transformed it into His own proper good, that is life, and by the unspeakable character of this union, coming wholly together with It, rendered It life-giving, as He Himself is by nature. Wherefore the Body of Christ gives life to all who partake of It. For it expels death, when It comes to be in dying men, and removes corruption, full in Itself perfectly of the Word which abolishes corruption.

He goes on to explain how the bread and wine, when they become the Body and Blood of Christ, when touched and tasted, is like touching and tasting the actual body of Christ, which only imparted life:

"Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you" (Jn. 6:53). For wholly destitute of all share and taste of that life which is in sanctification and bliss, do they abide who do not through the mystical blessing receive Jesus. For He is life by nature, inasmuch as He was begotten of a living Father: no less quickening is His Holy Body also, being in a manner gathered and ineffably united with the all-quickening Word. Wherefore It is accounted His, and is conceived of as one with Him. For, since the Incarnation, it is inseparable; except as regards the knowledge that the Word which came from God the Father, and the temple from the Virgin, are not indeed the same in nature (for the Body is not consubstantial with the Word from God), yet are they one by that coming-together and ineffable concurrence. And since the Flesh of the Savior has become life-giving (as being united to that which is by nature life, the Word from God), when we taste It, then have we life in ourselves, we too united to It, as It to the indwelling Word. For this cause also, when He raised the dead, the Savior is found to have operated, not by word only, or God-befitting commands, but He laid a stress on employing His Holy Flesh as a sort of co-operator unto this, that He might show that It had the power to give life, and was already made one with Him. For it was in truth His own body, and not another's. And verily when He was raising the little daughter of the chief of the Synagogue saying, "Maiden, arise," He laid hold of her hand, as it is written, giving life, as God, by His All-Powerful command, and again, giving life through the touch of His Holy Flesh, He shows that there was one kindred operation through both. And when He went into the city called Nain, and one was being carried out dead, the only son of his mother, again He touched the bier, saying, "Young man, I say to you, Arise." And not only to His Word gives He power to give life to the dead, but that He might show that His own Body was life-giving (as I have said already), He touches the dead, thereby also infusing life into those already decayed. And if by the touch alone of His Holy Flesh, He gives life to that which is decayed, how shall we not profit yet more richly by the life-giving blessing when we also taste It? For It will surely transform into Its own good, i.e., immortality, those who partake of It.

When examining how this is done, St. Cyril explains how that which has become life-giving imparts life to both the body and the soul:

And wonder not, nor ask yourself in Jewish manner, "How?" but rather consider that water is cold by nature, but when it is poured into a kettle and brought to the fire, then it all but forgets its own nature, and goes away unto the operation of that which has mastered it. We too then in the same way, even though we be corruptible through the nature of our flesh, yet forsaking our own infirmity by the immingling of life, are trans-elemented to Its property, that is, life. For it needed that not only should the soul be re-created through the Holy Spirit into newness of life, but also that this gross and earthly body should by the grosser and kindred participation be sanctified and called to incorruption.

He explains how this was foreshadowed at the first Passover:

For the destroyer, that is, the death of the body, was arrayed against the whole nature of man, by reason of the transgression of the first-formed man. For then did we first hear, "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. But since Christ was about to overthrow the so dire tyrant, by existing in us as life through His Holy Flesh, the Mystery was foreshadowed to them of old, and they tasted of the flesh of the lamb, and were sanctified and preserved by its blood, he that was appointed to destroy passing by, by the appointment of God, those who were partakers of the lamb.

By partaking of this life in the Holy Eucharist, it assures that our bodies will one day be raised unto immortality:

For it were indeed even impossible that He Which is by nature life, should not surely overcome decay, and master death. Wherefore even though death which by the transgression sprang on us compels the human body to the debt of decay, yet since Christ is in us through His own Flesh, we shall surely rise. For it were incredible, yea rather impossible, that life should not make alive those in whom it is. For as if one took a spark and buried it amid much stubble, in order that the seed of fire preserved might lay hold on it, so in us too our Lord Jesus Christ hides life through His own Flesh, and inserts it as a seed of immortality, abolishing the whole corruption that is in us.

By partaking of Christ's Body and Blood, we become one with Christ:

For as if one should join wax with other wax, he will surely see (I suppose) the one in the other; in like manner (I deem) he who receives the Flesh of our Savior Christ and drinks His Precious Blood, as He says, is found one with Him, commingled as it were and immingled with Him through the participation, so that he is found in Christ, Christ again in him.

According to St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, in his book Concerning Continual Communion of the Divine Mysteries, when we worthily partake of the Holy Eucharist, there are great benefits physically and spiritually:

The sacred and Most Holy Body of our Lord, when properly and worthily received, becomes a weapon for those who fight the good fight, it becomes the cause of returning back to God for those who went astray; it strengthens the sick, it delights the healthy, it heals illnesses, it preserves health; with the Holy Communion, it is easier to correct ourselves, to become more forbearing and more patient in the pains and in the sorrows, more warm in love, more sensitive to knowledge, more willing to obedience, more sensitive and responsive to the energy of the [divine] charismata.

Yet, as St. John Cassian explains in his Conferences (Conf. 22), there are consequences to receiving Holy Communion unworthily and not believing that it is heavenly food rather than ordinary food:

As Paul says: "Let a person examine himself, and thus eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself." That is, whoever does not distinguish this heavenly food from common and ordinary food does not realize that it is not such as is permitted to be received by any but a pure mind and body. Then he says: "That is why many of you are weak and sick, and many have fallen asleep." That is, he says that spiritual weakness and death are begotten principally from this kind of reception. For many who receive it unlawfully and abusively are weakened in faith and grow sick in mind by catching the diseases of the passions, and they fall asleep in the sleep of sinfulness, never rising from this mortal slumber through a concern for their own salvation. And after this there follows: "But if we judged ourselves, we would certainly not be judged." That is, if we judged ourselves unworthy of receiving the sacraments whenever we have been wounded by sin, we would indeed make an effort to be able to approach them worthily thanks to the correction of repentance. Then we would not be chastised by the Lord for our unworthiness with the harsh scourges of sickness, so that we might experience compunction and have recourse to a remedy for our wounds.

St. Symeon the New Theologian goes so far to say that he who unworthily receives the Eucharist "partakes of mere bread, and not God at the same time" (Catechetical Homily, 10). And commenting on the liturgical exclamation "the holy things are for the holy", he says (Catechetical Homily, 4):

So, then? He who is not holy is unworthy? Far from it! But he who does not confess daily the mysteries of his heart, he who does not repent of them… he who does not continually weep… is unworthy. And he who does all of this and lives his life in wailing and tears is completely worthy not only on feast days, but also every day, although it is bold to say, to be in communion with these divine mysteries from his very first repentance and conversion.

Yet we are all called to frequently receive of Holy Communion, and if we don't then we will be condemned as despising the Divine Mysteries. However, as Saint Nicholas Cabasilas explains, if we do not have the means of receiving Holy Communion, then we will not be held responsible, but instead the life we have received in the past will be a means of invisibly sanctifying us as long as we are not able to receive:

If, therefore, souls are ready and prepared for the Mystery, and the Lord who sanctifies and perfects, ever wills to sanctify them and desires to impart Himself each time, what is there to prevent their partaking? Absolutely nothing. One might, then, ask, "If one of those living has the aforementioned good disposition in his soul, and yet does not approach the Mysteries, will he nevertheless derive sanctification from them?" Not everyone, but only those who are physically unable to approach, such as the souls of the departed, or those who "wander in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth," for whom it was impossible to behold either an Altar or a Priest. For Christ Himself sanctified these invisibly with the same sanctification. How do we know this? Because they had life in themselves. For Christ Himself said: "Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you." In order to show this, He sent Angels bearing the Gifts to many of these Saints. On the other hand, if someone is able to approach the Holy Table, but does not, it is absolutely impossible for him to obtain the sanctification that comes from the Mysteries, not simply because he has not approached, but because, although he was able to approach, he did not.

Therefore, since God is ever-willing to impart Himself and sanctify us, as long as we are in a state of worthiness by being prepared and ready to receive Him, then He will not neglect to sanctify us invisibly through the life we have already received as former communicants.