At just about any Catholic or Orthodox church you attend these days, most at liturgy will receive Holy Communion. While their comportment generally suggests at least a certain amount of reverence for the sacrament, surveys and anecdotes suggest that few actually are prepared to receive or fully understand why receiving the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the greatest of the Church’s mysteries.
Preparation for Holy Communion should occur every day of a Catholic or Orthodox Christian’s life. But to place recipients in the proper frame of mind, and to ensure that they understand the sacrament fully, the faithful of Byzantine churches begin to ready themselves for Sunday liturgy by praying “The Service of Preparation for Holy Communion” at Compline each Saturday evening.
Parts of the service also can be prayed without praying Compline and can be prayed either the night before or the day of Divine Liturgy, Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, or Typica with Holy Communion. It also can be prayed any time one wishes to reflect on the meaning of Holy Communion. And while it is Byzantine, every Christian would benefit from praying this service.
The version I use is included in A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians (Holy Transfiguration Monastery) The Publicans Prayer Book (Sophia Press of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton) also contains a complete version of this service. While the two are close in content, the Publicans Prayer Book uses contemporary English rather than the style of the King James version used in A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians.
If prayed at Compline, the service begins immediately following the Creed. After praying the first section, the canon of preparation, we return to Compline.
The longest section is prayed after Morning Prayer when we rise. After opening prayers, we pray Psalms 22, 23, and 115 (Septuagint numbering). Then we pray didactic verses on how to approach “the Immaculate Mysteries”:
“When thou, O man, art about to eat the Master’s body,
Draw nigh with fear, lest thou be seared; It is Fire.
And as thou drinkest the divine Blood unto communion,
First reconcile thyself with them that grieve thee,
Then, with daring, venture to eat the Mystic Food.”
These didactic verses are followed by ten prayers of Church Fathers: St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Damascene, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and St. Symeon Metaphrastes. We are instructed to “pray with trembling. ”
With these prayers, we reflect on the unparalleled significance of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In praying, we reflect on our unworthiness to receive, our sinfulness, God’s compassion and mercy, and how the sacrament heals and purifies. There is no better catechesis on Holy Communion, especially if you pray these prayers every week.
The last of the ten prayers is one by St. John Chrysostom that generally is prayed in some form at all Byzantine liturgies just before Holy Communion:
“I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. Furthermore, I believe that This is indeed Thine immaculate Body, and that This is indeed Thy precious Blood. Wherefore, I pray Thee: Have mercy on me and forgive me my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, in knowledge and in ignorance. And vouchsafe that, uncondemned, I may partake of Thine immaculate mysteries unto the remission of sins and unto life everlasting. Amen.”
The third section, the shortest, is prayed immediately before the reception of communion. This section also includes a prayer that is usually prayed at all Byzantine liturgies:
“Of Thy Mystic Supper, O Son of God, receive me today as a communicant. I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies; nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief do I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”
This is followed by verses that not all prayer and service books include, but which I have found to be most awe-inspiring:
“Tremble, O man, as thou beholdest the deifying Blood,
For it is a burning coal consuming the unworthy.
The Body of God both deifieth and nourisheth me;
It deifieth the spirit and wondrously nourisheth the mind.”
In addition to these prayers, prayers of thanksgiving are prayed at the conclusion of liturgy.
Not all of the faithful pray these prayers the night before and prior to liturgy. Nor does every Byzantine church pray all of the prayers during liturgy included in the Holy Transfiguration and Sophia Press prayer books. Some pray only a portion of them. And not all books contain exactly the same prayers.
Yet regardless of the number of prayers, the core message is the same. What we read in these prayers and reflect on is how Holy Communion is a far greater mystery than we can know, how we receive the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord for the sake of our souls, and how unworthy we are to receive. With this in mind, we are taught to approach the Holy Mysteries with great awe and humility.