Of the seven major sacraments in the Eastern Orthodox Church, two were established by the Lord Himself: Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Baptism initiates a person into the Body of Christ. The Eucharist provides the indispensable nourishment for continued membership in the Body of Christ.
"Eucharist" is derived from the Greek word eucharistia which means "thanksgiving," and is the heart of worship in the Orthodox Church. It is a sacramental thanksgiving to God in Christ and the Holy Spirit for all that our Heavenly Father has done in creating, redeeming, and sustaining believers in true faith. The Eucharist is often referred to as the "sacrament of sacraments," because it is the foundation as well as the goal of all the doctrines in the Orthodox Church.
The Holy Eucharist began nearly 2,000 years ago at the Last Supper when Jesus took the bread and told His disciples that this is His Body. Then Jesus took the cup of wine and told His disciples that this is His Blood. Jesus also told His disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of Him and for the forgiveness of their sins. While the primary purpose of the Holy Eucharist is for us to become united to Christ, in so doing, this sacrament also grants us eternal life. Jesus made this very clear by saying that if we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we will have eternal life. The Lord also said unless we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, we have no (eternal) life in us.
The early Christians called the Eucharist "the medicine of immortality," because they believed that the Eucharist is an antidote against spiritual death. It is imperative that we keep in mind that the Holy Eucharist is not merely a symbol of Christ's Body and Blood. It is in fact the very Body and Blood of Christ, changed in a mysterious way by the descent of the Holy Spirit. It is during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church that through the invocation (epiklesis) of the Holy Spirit, by the priest, that this mysterious change is effected.
Receiving the Holy Eucharist is contingent upon fulfilling several prerequisites. First, we should acknowledge our sins and ask God for forgiveness. A second requirement is to set aside a time of prayerful reflection to allow our thoughts to be guided by Christ through the Holy Spirit. Third, we should observe the fasts as designated by the Orthodox Church, and we should not eat or drink anything from midnight to the time of the following day that we plan to receive Holy Communion.
Fasting also means that we must not overindulge in any foods. In other words, moderation should play a key role in our lives — especially while we fast for Communion. Let us remember that the call for Communion during the service is "With the fear of God, Faith, and Love draw near."
Rev. Dr. Peter Rizos, pastor of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Woburn, Massachusetts, believes that whether or not one actually receives Communion is "a personal matter between one's conscience and God." Fr. Rizos, who has been a priest for over 40 years, adds "At all events, one should not receive Holy Communion just because one is in church."
As Orthodox Christians, we are most blessed to be able to receive Christ's Body and Blood in church every week. Indeed, there is no other Christian act of faith that is as beneficial for our body and soul as the Holy Eucharist, because it empowers us to grow in the likeness of Christ.
George Patsourakos of Billerica, MA retired as an education specialist for the federal government. He received a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in education, both from Northeastern University. You can refer comments and questions on this article to him at his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.