St. Maximus the Confessor calls Communion, "the climax of everything … which transforms into itself and renders similar to the causal good by grace and participation those who worthily share in it" ("The Church’s Mystagogy" 21). I have written many articles now on Communion because it is the "climax" of the Liturgy, the mystery of common union with God and through God, with all the people. It is the reason why we go to church. At the same time, it is the aspect of the Liturgy that now deserves our fullest attention as a priority. It is center of our faith, but sometimes it seems we just consider it a token reward for making the effort to attend the Liturgy and listen to the sermon.
Because we are a minority church dwelling in a sea of churches different from us and in a culture that is often hostile to faith, we sometimes feel we have to make accommodations to keep people coming and to give money to support the institution. This is important, of course, because we need an undergirding and supportive organization, which requires worldly resources, but so often it leads to a spirit of "minimalism." "Let’s do just enough to keep people from leaving," we say, and if we pursue such a policy, we receive what we aim for – the minimum.
To build a strong church, we need a solid spirituality established on life in Christ. In order to achieve this, we have a great treasure, the millennial tradition of faith as expressed through Eastern theology based on Christ, the savior and redeemer and God of all. This tradition speaks of holy Communion, "So perfect is this mystery, so far does it excel every other sacred rite that it leads to the very summit of good things. Here is the final goal of every human endeavor. For in it we obtain God himself, and God is united with us in the most perfect union" (Nicholas Cabasilas, "The Life in Christ IV," 10.26).
Yet it is Communion that is so often the target of minimalism and mere practicality. How can we restore its priority?
Any liturgical action should signify what it means. The meaning of Communion is "common union." It brings us into a real unity with God in the sharing of his body and blood. It also brings us into unity with all those who partake of the same mystery. That is why the disunity that exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches is especially tragic. How we celebrate the Eucharist, then, should express unity as much as possible.
The custom in the Byzantine tradition is to receive Communion at one Liturgy from one altar from one loaf of bread called a Lamb (in Slavonic "ahnec"). This is actually an apostolic tradition, going back to the Bible itself, where St. Paul instructed us, "The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Cor 10:16-17).
Because it is a tradition from the beginning of the church, the Western Church also used to use one loaf for one Liturgy and broke the one loaf into as many portions as needed for Communion to the people. This tradition has been maintained in the Orthodox Church, but because the Western Church used unleavened bread, it eventually became more "practical" to bake individual wafers for distribution.
It was also the loss of an ideal, as the Liturgy became more and more an individual and personal share in a sacrament, rather than a community action. When we Byzantine Catholics made a union with the See of Rome, some priests saw the convenience of individual wafers, and some, a very small number, even wanted to introduce the use of unleavened bread.
This did not happen, but the custom of using one loaf for Communion was compromised, and individual squares of bread were prepared ahead of time. It would certainly be more authentic to restore the ancient practice, so that Communion could better signify unity, but to cut the Lamb ("ahnec") for Communion might be seen as taking to much time. Communion at one Liturgy, though, should at least be from one loaf for the sake of the sign value.
There are other ways in which Communion signifies unity. Communion also brings about a unity and an equality among all those who receive. Truly, if each of us becomes a temple for the Bread of Life, for the body and blood of the Lord within us, how can anyone, rich or poor, strong or weak, old or young, even little children, man or woman, cleric or lay person, be of more dignity than another?
St. John Chrysostom understood this very well and he preached, "All things are equal between us and you, even to the very chief of our blessings. I (as bishop) do not partake of the holy Table with greater abundance and you with less, but both equally participate of the same … . The saving life that sustains our souls is given with equal honor to both. I do not indeed partake of one Lamb and you of another, but we partake of the same … . We are all alike brethren of Christ, we have all things in common" ("Homily 4 on 2 Thessalonians").
Today holy Communion has become somewhat clericalized. Priests and deacons receive it differently from the rest of the faithful. Many follow the principle that the altar area is reserved for clergy, and even those that are not ordained but serve at the Holy Table are chased from the altar at the time of Communion.
In the churches there has always been a division between the altar area and the nave, where the people attend. There was a kind of fence or wall between the two. The original purpose of this was practical, to keep order within the service, so that the priests and deacons had space to perform their ministry.
In the early part of the second millennium, some Old Testament ideas were re-introduced, and the altar area became a "Holy of Holies," which only the priest, deacons, and subdeacons, for the sake of serving, were allowed to enter. Everyone else, then, received Communion outside the altar.
However, as we see from St. John Chrysostom, in Communion, everyone is equal, for we all have Christ dwelling within us. The Orthodox Church keeps a memory of this principle, for the faithful receive Communion right at the Royal Doors of the icon screen, as if they had the right to enter.
Our Lord prayed at the Last Supper, "may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (Jn 17:21). This should not be heard as referring only to the union of churches but to the union of all believers among themselves.
Communion is the moment of the Divine Liturgy when unity is proclaimed. We may not be able to restore all the ancient practices, but we should at least try, as much as possible, to practice that unity. We should, at least, not ask those who are considered worthy to serve at the altar to leave for Communion. Young children who are baptized should not be held back from Communion. All the faithful, from the priest to the cantors and choir should receive together. It would be the beginning to make holy Communion signify what it means.