The act of partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion is given many designations in the New Testament, such as “a new covenant” (Heb. 8:8-12), “eternal life” (Jn. 6:54), a “dwelling in Christ” (Jn. 5:56; 15:5-7), and a “sharing in the Body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
In the early church, communion was permitted only to the faithful. CATECHUMENS who had not yet been accepted into the congregation were required to depart after the readings from the Epistles and the Gospel, that is, at the end of the Mass of the Catechumens. The sacrament was then administered to all the congregation. “All the faithful who come in and hear the Scriptures, but do not stay for the prayers and Holy Communion, are to be excommunicated, as causing disorder in the church” (Apostolical Canon 9).
The same penalty applied, of course, to the clergy: “If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or anyone in the sacerdotal list, when the offering is made, does not partake of it, let him declare the cause; and if it be a reasonable one, let him be excused; but if he does not declare it, let him be excommunicated, as being a cause of offence to the people . . .” (Canon 8).
The Council of Antioch (341) laid down a similar stipulation: “As for all those persons who enter the church and listen to the sacred scriptures, but who fail to commune in prayer together and at the same time with the laity, or who shun the participation of the Eucharist, in accordance with some irregularity, we decree that these persons be outcasts from the church until, after going to confession and exhibiting fruits of repentance and begging forgiveness, they succeed in obtaining a pardon . . .” (The Canons of the Blessed and Holy Fathers).
The so-called consistentes were the only group of penitents allowed to attend the liturgy to the end, but they were not permitted to partake of Holy Communion until they had been officially accepted into the body of the congregation.
In administering the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to the communicants, the Coptic church follows as closely as possible the procedure set by Christ when He instituted this sacrament. The two species, first the bread and then the wine, are separately given. This practice was widespread among all Christian churches until about the twelfth century, when the Roman Catholic church withdrew the chalice from lay communicants.
The celebrant priest administers Holy Communion by placing the pure Body into the communicant’s mouth. This manner is a modification of an earlier practice, common until the ninth century, according to which the communicant would receive the Body in his right palm while it was placed crosswise over his left palm. Reference to this older practice is made by many of the church fathers.
Female communicants were not allowed to touch the Holy Body with their own hands, and had to receive it on a mat spread over the right palm, the explanation being that after the resurrection Christ permitted men such as Thomas to touch Him (Jn. 10:26-28), while he forbade Mary Magdalen (Jn. 20:17).
When all communicants have received the Body, they receive the Blood by means of the spoon straight from the chalice. In the case of newly baptized infants, the priest dips his forefinger in the Blood, touches the Body, and inserts it into the infant’s mouth.
After the oblation has been sanctified, communicants partake of it, starting with the clergy in descending order of hierarchy and then the congregation. If the liturgy is being celebrated by a bishop, he starts by communicating himself, then the rest of the clergy and the deacons, then the congregation. He may also ask a priest to administer the Blood. Should a priest be officiating alone at a service attended by a large congregation he may, to save time, ask a fully-consecrated deacon to administer the Blood to the congregation, though not to his fellow deacons.
The church has laid down certain requirements to be met before receiving communion. A communicant must ensure spiritual preparedness, by showing genuine repentance for previous sins and shortcomings. Physical cleanliness, continence, and purity is equally important, together with a liturgical fast of at least nine hours prior to communion, reckoned to be the nine-hour duration between the hour when Christ was condemned to crucifixion (9 A.M.) and his burial (6 P.M.).
- Cummings, D. The Rudder (Pedalion). Chicago, 1957.
- Percival, H. R. Excursus on the Worship of the Holy Church. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2d ser., Vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956.