In the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words, “Approach with Fear of God and with Faith”, but how close should one approach? In the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic liturgicon, we read the following rubrics just before holy communion: “The celebrant takes the chalice back from the deacon. The faithful come forward to receive communion from the priest. The deacon may also give communion to the faithful if need be.”
How is Holy Tradition and our theology of the Eucharist made manifest with regard to the role of the priest and the role of the faithful in the act of receiving communion? Does the priest’s reception of the Body and Blood of Christ at the altar mean that those who are not ordained should receive Christ outside of the altar? Does this include those boys and men who serve behind the Holy Doors, or should those altar servers receive communion behind the Holy Doors? Strictly speaking, the non-ordained includes any who have not yet received major holy orders in the Church, even if the minor orders would perhaps also be included as those who are distinct from “the faithful”. And so, with the question of altar servers, we would initially think that altar servers would receive the Eucharist just as do the rest of the faithful. As I understand, most parishes in the Orthodox Churches would tend to give communion to the altar servers outside of the altar, and after the rest of the faithful have partaken. In contrast, most Byzantine Catholic parishes tend to give communion to the altar servers inside the altar, before this mystery is given to the rest of the faithful. Exceptions exist in both jurisdictions, but nevertheless this is a general rule that forms the basis of this eucharistic reflection. Below, I aim to explain the mentality underlying this difference in praxis, and then offer some arguments in support of the current practice that is more common among Byzantine Catholics.
Despite not having a consistent practice with the administration of the Holy Eucharist, among Byzantine Christians there is a unified belief that bishops, priests and deacons should receive communion by approaching the holy table. But what does this say about altar servers? In terms of their ontological status, it is also uniformly agreed that altar servers are not officially ordained for the service that they give to God and His Church. That is to say, they have not received their vocation by the mystery of the laying on of hands by a bishop. To those who call upon their altar servers to receive outside of the holy doors, this distinction between ordained and those who are not ordained appears to be foremost in consideration when administering the Eucharist with altar servers outside of the holy doors.
One opposing argument to this structure could come from Nicholas Cabasilas’ A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy. In section 37 we read, “When he has summoned the faithful to the sacred banquet, the priest gives the sacrament to himself, and afterwards to all those of priestly rank and the altar-servers.” This sounds more like the practice of altar servers receiving communion from within the holy doors, and it would not be after the rest of the faithful. In this context, the altar servers are approaching the table as near as possible, as they share in the role of the ordained, while not being ultimately ordained.
However, it could be argued that in the historical context, altar servers are actually deacons and subdeacons, in which case our modern notion of an altar server as an unordained boy or man is not included in this citation. If Cabasilas did have unordained altar servers in mind however, it seems quite clear that the altar servers would rightly receive before the rest of the faithful. For as faithful, they are still unique in their service at the altar, just as there are faithful who stand in a unique position when they serve in the choir or in other unique duties.
Another important consideration is the admonition given just before communion, which makes for the title of this post. If we are told to “Approach with fear of God and with faith”, what should that mean? If we as Byzantine Christians are able to grasp the idea of an unordained boy or man approaching the holy table in liturgical service to bring incense or carry candles, why would the same altar servers not come to receive the Body and Blood of Christ as near to the holy table as they do when they serve at the altar? They are coming closer to the holy table than would I as a layman who do not serve at the altar.
As a parallel, I have observed two priests at the mystery of confession standing not before an icon of Christ, but before His Throne itself, the holy table. Surely, an icon is “good enough” for this mystery to be carried out, but these instances of a priest confessing his sins to his spiritual father at the altar itself have a beautiful message. This message speaks to the further depth of Christ’s presence that can be seen through opening one’s heart in confession at the same altar where those priests have prayed that the Holy Spirit would come down to make the holy gifts truly the Body and Blood of Christ during the divine liturgy. So, like so many other spiritual matters, a Byzantine Christian is not offended by the concept of altar servers receiving communion outside of the holy doors. No bare minima are transgressed. But if the altar servers’ normal course of service includes approaching the holy table to bring the incense or the zeon, one could argue that this also can include bringing themselves to receive the body of Christ, and taste the fountain of immortality, from within the holy doors.
Therefore, a key to accepting this “closer approach” of receiving the Eucharist may be rooted in the same thinking that allows us to accept altar servers’ support of our clergy at the holy table. Just as we see this as a reflection and partial participation in the mystery of the clergy’s reception of holy orders (which raises a separate message about the appropriate gender of an altar server, an entirely different discussion), so too I think we can see that an altar server who receives the body and blood of Christ can do so from within the holy doors. They are approaching the holy table as close as is proper and normal for them to do.
If, however, the tradition is clear that the dichotomy between clergy and faithful is more strict for altar servers at the moment of communion, then the practice of communion outside of the holy doors would make sense, and I would hope that Byzantine Catholics would more consistently follow that practice. Until this distinction is articulated more clearly, however, I will continue support the praxis that I observe most frequently, where altar servers receive from within the holy doors.
May we all continue on the journey to approach communion (and God Himself!) with the fear of God, with faith, and with love.
O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!