In the Roman Catholic Church, individuals may not receive Holy Communion without having fasted from everything except water or medicine for at least an hour. That can be reduced to 15 minutes if you’re ill or have another important reason (see canon 919). It used to be that one needed to fast from midnight the night before, but that was relaxed back in the 1950s so that Catholics could receive Communion more often—especially with the introduction of evening services.
In the Orthodox Church, things are still pretty strict. If you want to receive Communion on Sunday, you need to spend the whole week getting ready. You are expected to study God’s word, fast from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday, strenuously strive to avoid sin, and on Sunday you are forbidden to eat or drink anything unless medically necessary until the Divine Liturgy.
In both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, there is an expectation that a potential communicant will be free of serious sins before coming to the altar rail. Sacramental Confession is offered as a way of reconciling both the penitent individual to God and also healing the division that a grievous or mortal sin has created between the individual and the Church. Gathering at the Lord’s Supper is about gathering in the unity that he offers us.
There’s value in preparing for something as important as Communion. The next time you’re in the pew, stop and ask yourself what you did to get ready. I hope my answer will be something more substantial than “I brushed my teeth” or “I reviewed my sermon.” We shouldn’t come to the Communion rail burdened by sin or distracted by worldly concerns. If not literally fasting before Communion, we should at least spend a moment acknowledging our dependence on God alone and our hunger for salvation. We should recall our sinfulness and seek forgiveness. And, if we are so burdened or distracted that we cannot rightly discern the importance of this sacramental moment, we should probably refrain from receiving.
Imagine, though, what was going through the disciples’ minds the first time that they shared this meal together right after Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me.”
I like Mark’s version of this story. He doesn’t identify Judas in this moment. There is no description of how Satan entered into him as there was in yesterday’s gospel (John 13:21-32). Instead, Jesus drops that dinner-party bomb and then moves right on. It’s like announcing to your family at Thanksgiving Dinner that you have been diagnosed with cancer and have two months to live and then asking your son-in-law to pass the rolls. There’s no opportunity for conversation. There’s no chance for them to figure out what Jesus means. They say, “Is it I? Did I do this?” and then they go through the rest of the meal not really sure whether they are the one who somehow, inadvertently betrayed their master.
Why would Jesus do that? Why not wait until after he invites them to share bread and wine in remembrance of what he would do for them? I’m kind of surprised they even remembered to do it after he was gone. Or at least why not identify Judas and chase him out the door as the black sheep, the son of destruction, who is unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Jesus? Why? Because Communion is not a meal for the perfect. It is a sacrament for those in search of redemption.
Yes, we come to his table conscious of our brokenness and earnestly seeking new life. Yes, we try to leave behind the distractions of the world as we gather in Jesus’ name. Yes, we focus so intently on his sacrifice for us that everything else fades away in the background. But we are not perfect when we come to his table. Instead, we are broken sinners in search of perfection. We are in the process of being redeemed.