“If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.”
Recent decades in the Orthodox Church have seen a return to the practice of frequent Communion. This is a good thing. No less than St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, one of the compilers of The Philokalia, wrote a book encouraging such a revival among the faithful.
Unfortunately, in many places the return to frequent Communion has not been accompanied by the practice of preparation for Holy Communion. Today far too many Orthodox Christians approach the Chalice to receive the Body and Blood of Christ with little or no preparation, and sometimes without even knowing that they should prepare. St Paul warns against this carelessness when he writes, “whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord…. [He] eats and drinks judgment to himself.”
One essential aspect of this preparation is the Mystery (or Sacrament) of Repentance, which we generally call Confession. The link between Confession and Communion is found in St Paul’s instruction that prior to Communion a man must “examine himself.” The word examine here means to test or prove a thing, the way one might inspect a building’s integrity or test the safety of an automobile. St Paul uses it to describe how a Christian must judge himself to see if it is safe for him to partake of Christ in Holy Communion. His point is clear: to approach the chalice without having thus examined ourselves leads to condemnation.
What, then, should we do? Isn’t this, in fact, the very reason that people quit taking Communion frequently in the first place, because they feared to approach unworthily? Is it better, in the face of the twofold reality of Christ’s holiness and our sinfulness, to not Commune at all? The good news is that there is a way out of this predicament, and St Paul gives it to us: “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” That there is a judgment is a given. The question is, will we judge ourselves now or wait for God to judge us later? Confession is the opportunity to do the former, to place ourselves now, in this world, prior to our death, before the judgment seat of Christ and to say to Him, “These are my sins. I blame no other. Have mercy on me.” And the amazing thing? He does! God loves nothing so much as a prodigal come home! “I say to you that…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15.7) Furthermore, as Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou writes:
The question remains, however, if we are going to “judge ourselves” as St Paul instructs us, by what measure do we do so? Far too many of us approach Confession as if it were a little bit of self-analysis, saying things like, “This is what is bothering me…here’s what is going on in my life.” But if Confession means to place ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ, then Christ is not only the judge but the standard. To quote Fr Zacharias once again, “The judgment in this present time is always to examine ourselves in the light of [Christ’s] commandments.” The commandments of Christ are not only a self-revelation of God but they also serve to reveal us to ourselves. Or, to use another metaphor from the fathers, the commandments of Christ are the mirror into which we look to truly see ourselves. Only this manner of Confession, seeing ourselves in the light of Christ, can truly save us.
With love in Christ, Fr John