On the Prayer before Holy Communion
After the confession in the mass, directly before the congregation begins to queue up for the Eucharist, you may have noticed members of the assembly opening up their Agpeya or pulling out their phones and generously passing them on to their neighbours once they are done reading the “Prayer Before Communion,” as it’s titled. The Coptic Church has held this beautiful tradition of praying this Prayer Before Communion, with a feeling of reverence and unworthiness; we pray this prayer from the depths of our hearts. Maybe you yourself are a part of this customary ritual and routinely pull out your Agpeya to read the words scribbled out on the pages to prepare yourself for the Eucharist. Once communion is complete and we’re back in our seats putting our shoes on, we complete the once-a-mass routine by again opening our Agpeya to read the “Prayer After Communion.” The church in its abundant wisdom places these prayers to fulfill a certain purpose in the process of communion and subsequently, the cycle of repentance. Have you ever really taken the time to read, and more than that, understand the significance of these beautiful prayers though? Or like me, do you find yourself reading blindly without an appreciation of what these prayers mean? To truly understand the value of these prayers, we have to explore the Gospel of Luke and see where the words of these prayers originate from and the context in which they were written. For the sake of utmost appreciation we will first try and investigate the meaning behind the Prayer Before Holy Communion.
Prayer Before Communion
Very recently, whilst reading chapter 7 from the Gospel of St Luke, a certain phrase struck me as being very familiar. This phrase was uttered by a very famous biblical character, and our Lord Christ Himself spoke highly of this charact. Upon walking into Capernaum with His disciples, Jesus was met with elders of the Jews who were sent to meet Him by a centurion whose servant was sick and dying. They implored Him to come and heal the servant and obliging, He followed them to the house. When He was not far off from the house, He encountered friends of the centurion who were instructed by him to say these words to Christ on his behalf:
“Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word and my servant will be healed.” (Luke 7:6-7)
It’s this profound quote that struck me for a couple reasons. Firstly, like Christ Himself, I was astonished by the level of faith shown by this man in a country that lacked conviction in their belief and hope in Christ. St Ephraim the Syrian even comments, “What an honourable level of faith it is when God, the Son of Righteousness, ‘marvels’ at a human being.” But the second thing that stood out to me was the stark similarities this quote bears with the opening of the Prayer before Holy Communion. In this introduction we read:
“Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof because I am a sinner, but only say the word; ‘your sins are forgiven’ and my soul will be healed.”
When we read these words, we are drawing from the faith of the centurion who believed with utmost conviction that the Lord was able, with just a word, to heal his dying servant. In the same way we believe that, in spite of our wickedness and tendency to fall into sin, Christ can heal us of all our iniquities with just a single word. This ‘word’ of Christ has proven powerful on more occasions and in different circumstances aside from the healing of this centurion’s servant. With just two words, “Talitha, cumi,” which is translated “Little girl, I say to you arise,” (Mark 5:41) Jesus was able to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead. With the powerful cry, “Lazarus, come forth,” (John 11:43) Christ brought back Lazarus from the pit of the grave amidst his stench of death. And at the end of Luke chapter 7, which is most pertinent to this prayer, He says to the adulteress woman who washes His feet the words “Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” (Luke 7:48; 50) freeing her from her captivity to sin and granting her a new life with Him. “As You did not stop the adulteress from kissing Your feet, please do not prevent me from coming near You to receive Your Holy Body and Your sacred blood.” Sound familiar?
Isn’t this the reason we partake of the Eucharist? That we can be freed of our past oppression to sin and renew our relationship with Christ bearing a new and loyal Spirit? Yes. Is our faith then not enough? That a single word from the mouth of Christ is able to resurrect our souls? There is just a little bit more to it.
The words of the centurion, while they encourage us to call upon our Lord with a stronger, renewed level of faith, also help to draw our attention to the event that immediately follows the healing of his servant. The following day, Jesus and His disciples were walking through the city of Nain, when they noticed a large crowd carrying the body of a widow’s son outside of the city to be buried. When Christ saw the widow mourning, He comforted her, walked towards the coffin of her deceased son and “touched the open coffin,” (Luke 7:14). And following the words, “Young man, I say to you, arise,” the boy rose from the coffin, no doubt cueing huge celebrations amongst the previously mourning multitude and restoring the joy of the grieving widow of Nain. But, the question still remains? Why did Christ feel the need to touch the boy? He’s proven before on countless occasions that His ‘word’ is sufficient enough, why then did He go and touch the body of the widow’s son? Christ was trying to make us aware of the redeeming power in touching His body when we come into contact with Him at Holy Communion. His word and His touch break the chains of confinement to our old lives of sin and corruption. We need the touch of Jesus in the same way we need oxygen in the air. If we lack either of these things we will die. One of them an earthly death, the other, eternal.
St Cyril of Alexandria comments on this miracle in Nain with a beautiful contemplation on the touch of Christ saying:
“How was not a word enough for raising him who was lying there? What is so difficult to it or past accomplishment? What is more powerful than the Word of
God? Why then did he not work the miracle by only a word but also touched the bier? It was, my beloved, that you might learn that the holy body of Christ is productive for the salvation of man. The flesh of the almighty Word is the body of life and was clothed with his might. Consider that iron when brought into contact with fire produces the effects of fire and fulfills its functions. The flesh of Christ also has the power of giving life and annihilates the influence of death and corruption because it is the flesh of the Word, who gives life to all.”
More than just saving us from an eternal death, the touching of the body of Christ in communion has the capacity to grant us everlasting life. Father Anastasy from St Antony’s monastery in California says, “we must touch Jesus in secret conversation with Him and contact with the human members of the body of Christ, which is the church, in the mystery of the Lord’s Supper.” His touch is salvation for our souls, and protection for the church as a whole.
So, next time we read the prayer before Holy Communion, may we consider what we are really requesting of our Lord as we approach His Holy Body and Blood at the altar. As I come towards the altar, about to partake of the Eucharist, may I be reminded that I am not just coming to touch the Lord, but He also is coming to touch me. In a series called “A Dialogue with the Savior,” Father Anastasy also declares, “We must not suppose that we have touched Jesus because we have drawn near to Him, but there are privileged moments when a kind of ineffable shutter, a sort of irresistible evidence, which if authentic, cast us into the depths of humility and make us cry out, ‘I have just touched Jesus,’ or better, ‘Jesus has just touched me!’”
May we then humbly come closer to the altar of God, where lay His body and blood, and boldly plead with Him to come and touch us, freeing us of all our tyranny to sin, healing us of all our brokenness, cleansing us of all our impurities and granting us a new life walking in His presence and experiencing His touch all the days of our lives.
+ Glory be to God forevermore Amen. +