Church Discipline and Etiquette in the Orthodox Church (Part III)

 Icon of the Mother of God of Pimen

Icon of the Mother of God of Pimen

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

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CHURCH DISCIPLINE AND ETIQUETTE IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH (Part III)

The Mystery of Repentance/Confession

"And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds".

[Please note: The correct and proper word is the word "Mystery" or "Mysterion", to refer to the "sacraments" of the Orthodox Church. Though the word "sacraments" is used in English by almost all Orthodox writers, the Greek word for the Church's vivifying ministrations are correctly rendered "Mysteries." Not only is the word "sacraments" borrowed from the lexicon of the Western (Latin or Roman Catholic) tradition, but it reflects theological ideas that do not accurately correspond to Orthodox Christian thinking.]

The popular perception of the Mystery of Repentance/Confession held by a vast majority of Orthodox Christians tends to fall into two basic attitudes. Either they totally ignore Confession as irrelevant, or else they live in dire fear of it. Both points of view keep people from experiencing the True cleansing power of this most important Mystery. Confession provides us a means by which to return to the original state of purity which we had immediately after Baptism.

"If we wipe away the socially learned responses to our bodies and to our passions, protecting ourselves against demonic temptation by frequent Confession and by moral living, we can return to the innocence of our youth. We can remain mature in body, yet remain unadulterated by the sin and pollution which the world to stupidly calls 'adult'. (Archbishop Chrysostomos, on "Repentance")

The modern world tries to pretend that sin is a myth and that personal accountability for one's actions before a just God is merely a quaint superstition. As Orthodox Christians, we are called to a different standard than that of the world. This has been true of Christians in all ages and is especially important in our times. We are called to be the "light of the world" (St. Matthew 5:14) and the "salt of the earth" (St. Matthew 5:14). This means that we must not only be vigilant in how we live, but we must be honest with ourselves and respond immediately to God's call to repentance when we fall short of the mark (αμαρτία). When we approach God in a spirit of humility and repentance, Confession can bring us face-to-face with ourselves. We can learn more from our weaknesses than we ever will from our strengths because acknowledgment of weaknesses is the shortest path to humility. As Abba (Father) Sarmatias said: "I prefer a sinful man, who recognizes his fault and humbles himself, to a self-complacent man of virtue." The most absurd notion that many people cling to in these times is the idea that no matter how selfish, vain, egotistical, and immoral they may be, they really are quite "good". This is a destructive delusion. Let us see how we might better examine our lives to see what the real Truth about ourselves usually is.

Proper Preparation for The Mystery Of Repentance/Confession

One of the easiest ways to examine our conscience is to call to mind each of the Ten Commandments listed in the Book of Exodus (20:1-17) and again in the Book of Deuteronomy (5:6-21), keeping in mind that Our Lord emphasized and expanded the meaning of these in His Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 5:1-7:29).

The Mystery of Holy Communion

Then Jesus said unto them[the Jews], Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whosoever eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever" (St. John 6:53-58).

These words, so often profoundly misunderstood, reveal one of the great Mysteries of Christendom. In fact, what is accomplished on the Holy Table during the Divine Liturgy is referred to as a "Holy Mystery" precisely because what occurs is beyond our comprehension.  The Orthodox Church has always believed and understood that Jesus Christ is actually present in the Bread and Wine which are offered on the Altar. These become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body and Blood of the same Christ Who commanded us to "eat My flesh and drink My blood." This is an awesome mystery which must never become routine or automatic so that we lose sight of the fact that God is present in the Chalice in a form which fulfills our highest hope for spiritual transformation. These Mysteries, the Body, and Blood of Christ provide us with a way to remove the stain of the ancestral curse of Adam, which we all share. This Mystery is not a magic "pill" to help us make our way through the mundane trials of the week; nor is it something symbolic and secondary. These Mysteries bring us into a true and vivifying relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship cleanses and purifies our souls for our inevitable face-to-face meeting with Christ after death.

Holy Communion is an occasion that demands of us a certain level of preparation. While it is true that we are all sinners and will always remain sinners in this life, that does not excuse us from our responsibilities to prepare ourselves, to the best of our ability, to be clean before the face of God.

Proper preparation for Holy Communion:

  1. Though we fast strictly for a number of hours before communing, it may happen that, while brushing our teeth in the morning, we accidentally swallow a small amount of water. This is not a violation of the fast and should not keep us from communing.
  2. The evening before we commune should generally be spent quietly at home, preferably reading or discussing spiritually profitable material. If there are divine services held on Saturday evening at the church (i.e., Vespers) it would be spiritually beneficial to attend and participate in them. Vespers are conducted for the purpose of preparing the Orthodox Christian believer spiritually to participate in the Divine Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion.
  3. We should say the Preparatory Prayers for Holy Communion, which are contained in any good collection of Orthodox prayers for daily use. Saying these prayers piously and attentively prepare us to receive the Holy Mysteries to our spiritual benefit. Saint Dionysius clearly states that all must approach Holy Communion "wholly clean both in soul and body."
  4. Generally, we should not commune if we are bleeding, for the very Blood of Christ enters into our bodies after we have received the Holy Mysteries. After we commune, we should be careful about putting anything in our mouth that we do not intend to swallow. It is possible for some of the Mysteries still to be on our teeth or in our mouth, so we should always be careful, after communing.

a.      Not to smoke or chew gum at any time for the next few hours.

b.     Not to spit for any reason.

c.      Not to brush one's teeth or to gargle.

If, indeed, we truly believe this Gift to be the Precious Body and Blood of Christ, how could we ever discard it or throw it aside as though it were an everyday thing? If we lose sight of Holy Communion as a Gift from God, we should think twice about communing. Unfortunately, those who have the glibbest attitudes about the Mysteries are often those who commune most frequently. There is very little to be gained spiritually from such behavior.

There is another extreme which is equally destructive to spiritual life, and that is the habit of receiving the Divine Mysteries only once or twice a year, rising out of the attitude that Holy Communion is so sacred that it should play no role in our everyday lives. Such people are starving themselves spiritually and will never experience the meaningful spiritual growth which comes from Holy Communion.

The parish priest who is the local overseer (episcopos), is responsible before God to make certain that the Divine Mysteries are administered only to those who have prepared themselves spiritually and most importantly to only Orthodox Christians and only to the people whom God has entrusted in his care. The parish priest knows all his spiritual children by their baptismal name. Those Orthodox Christians who are either passing through the area or are moving permanently here must introduce themselves before Sunday to the priest and before they begin receiving the Mysteries. If the parish priest does not know who the person is he cannot and will not offer the mysteries to him or her.  Those who wish to become stewards of the parish must first bring a letter of good standing from the former priest and parish. 

Jesus said, "I am the Good Shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own" (St. John 10:14).

(To be continued)

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"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George