Holy Communion

Holy communion – the sacramental sharing by the Christian faithful of gifts of bread and wine which have become the Body and Blood of Christ – is the goal of the Divine Liturgy. In this Communion, God and man share a meal, and the Church is shown forth in its truest and highest form, as an image of the eternal banquet in the kingdom of heaven.

Preparation for Holy Communion

The prayer books of the Byzantine Rite provide personal prayers to be said before receiving Holy Communion; the faithful are also to fast beforehand, and go to confession and receive absolution of their sins if necessary. Furthermore, earlier in the Divine Liturgy the faithful have declared their love for one another, and affirmed their faith in Christ's teaching.

But the reception of Communion is of such solemn consequence that the Church appoints a sequence of prayers after the anaphora and before the reception of Holy Communion. The priest blesses the faithful:

May the mercies of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ be with all of you.

and they respond:

And with your spirit.

Then the deacon leads a litany which begins:

Now that we have remembered all the saints [that is, at the end of the anaphora], again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord.

The first petition addresses the reasons for our offering: that God may receive the Church's sacrifice, and that he may in return send the Holy Spirit upon its members:

For the precious gifts offered and consecrated, that our God who loves us all may receive them on his holy, heavenly, and mystical altar as an aroma of spiritual fragrance, and send down upon us in return his divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray.

and the people respond, "Lord, have mercy." The deacon may also intone petitions asking for God's protection during the remainder of the day. The concluding petition is always said, and brings us back to the theme and meaning of Communion:

Asking for unity in the faith and for communion of the Holy Spirit, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.

and the people respond, "To you, O Lord." The priest now prays aloud, clearly explaining the effects of Communion:

To you, O Master who love us all, we commit our whole life and hope, and we implore, pray, and entreat you: make us worthy to partake with a clear conscience of your heavenly and awesome mysteries from this sacred and spiritual table. May they bring about the remission of sins, the pardon of transgressions, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, confidence in you, not judgment or condemnation.

Rather than concluding with a doxology (praise of the Trinity), the priest asks that we be made worthy to address God as Father, at which point the faithful recite with him the Lord's Prayer (in bold face).

And make us worthy, O Master, that we may with confidence and without condemnation dare call you “Father,” God of heaven, and say:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.

and the faithful respond, "Amen."

The Prayer over Bowed Heads

There is one more prayer before Holy Communion, called the Prayer over Bowed Heads, since it is introduced with the deacon's command, "Bow your heads to the Lord." If you listen to the text of this prayer (which the celebrant prays aloud), it is not directed toward Communion, but asks for the safety of those leaving the church.

In all likelihood, this prayer was directed to those of the faithful who were unable to receive Holy Communion, and who would be dismissed from the church at this point. Such a prayer over a particular group of people (catechumens, etc.), said over their bowed heads, is a recurring feature of the Byzantine Rite.

Holy Communion

Now the time has come for the Body and Blood of Christ to be distributed to the faithful. The priest announces:

Holy gifts to holy people!

and the faithful, hearing themselves called "holy" (as they should always strive to be), respond to pointing to the example of their Lord and model:

One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The priest takes the "lamb", or central part of the original loaf or prosphora which has become the Body of Christ, and breaks it into four parts. This breaking or "fraction" represents the broken body of Christ, which will be shared among the faithful. One of the four parts is placed in the chalice, and warm water (representing the fervor of the Holy Spirit) is added to the chalice by the deacon. The deacon(s), then each of the priests, is given a portion of the bread which has become the Body of Christ.

The clergy and people then pray:

O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.

Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I profess you:
Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Master, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Holy One, when you come in your kingdom.

May the partaking of your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation but for the healing of soul and body.

O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly your most precious body and your life-giving blood, which, I pray, make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number.

The clergy consume the consecrated Bread, and drink from the chalice, while the Communion Hymn appointed for the day is sung. Then the remaining Mysteries are added to the chalice, which the deacon shows to the people, saying:

Approach with the fear of God and with faith!

and the people respond with an acclamation taken from Psalm 117, expressing Israel's expectation of the Messiah, and God's presence among them:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us!

As each of the faithful comes forward to Holy Communion, the priest or deacon gives them the Mysteries from the chalice on a spoon, saying:

The servant of God, (Name), partakes of the precious, most holy, and most pure body and blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ for the remission of (his-her) sins and for life everlasting.  Amen.

Note that in our tradition, all the faithful are normally expected to receive Holy Communion as a sign of their membership in the Church, and they are to live their lives in such a way that they can so receive. Also, this is not to be understood as a personal moment of communion just with God or Jesus, but with all the members of Christ's Body, the Church.

After Communion: a hymn to the Holy Spirit

When Holy Communion has been distributed to all who will receive, the priest blesses the faithful with the chalice containing the Body and Blood of Christ, saying:

Save your people, O God, and bless your inheritance.

(You may recognize this as the beginning of the troparion of the Holy Cross.) In some liturgical traditions, a blessing of the faithful with the Holy Eucharist (called "benediction") is a special occurrence. In the Byzantine Rite, this blessing is imparted at the end of every Divine Liturgy.

The people respond to this blessing with a Vespers hymn (in tone 2) from the feast of Pentecost:

We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith; and we worship the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.

It is no accident that a hymn from Pentecost is sung here. We often think of reception of Holy Communion as being principally about Christ; but in fact, all the persons of the Holy Trinity are present and represented. It is God the Father to whom our prayer has been addressed; God the Son who is our high priest, and who gives his Body and Blood to the faithful. As we have seen in the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, it is the grace of the Holy Spirit which comes upon us through these mysteries, imparting his gifts to the Church just as he descended upon the apostles at Pentecost. In this hymn, the faithful acknowledge that "the undivided Trinity has saved us."

The priest and deacon now take the chalice containing the remaining Mysteries back to the table of preparation, where they are honored with incense, and the priest praises God once more with a doxology ("Now and ever...") which once ended the psalmody of Holy Communion:

Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and forever.

And the faithful respond "Amen" before turning to the final portion of the Divine Liturgy: the Thanksgiving and Dismissal.

Recommended Reading