In this brief editorial, I try to explain what underpins the widely spread belief that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted through the communion of the holy Gifts.
This belief is based on the assumption that the Body and Blood of Christ constitute an absolute good, while the virus is an evil infection. Good, therefore, cannot transmit evil.
However, the virus is an infection only for us, and even not for all of us, because most people will get over it without even noticing it. Per se, this virus, as any micro- or macro-organism, is a part of God’s creation. As a physical reality and a part of nature, the virus is ontologically “good”, like any creature (see Gen 1:21). We consider floods, volcanoes, typhoons to be evil, but they are natural processes, and as such are not ontologically evil. The snakes and spiders that bite us are also deadly to us, but by their nature they are good.
Together with other viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, the COVID-19 is part of the ecosystems created by God. I will not now go into the question whether these ecosystems have been created directly by God or emerged through the laws of evolution laid down by God. I’ll just say that some parts of these ecosystems are helpful for us, and some are not. However, regardless of this, they are all a part of God’s creation. Moreover, COVID-19, together with other creatures, is included in the “recapitulation” described by Paul in the Ephesians: “To unite (ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι) all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). Maximus the Confessor explains this in his Ambiguum 7: “And He recapitulates all things in Himself, for it is owing to Him that all things exist and remain in existence, and it is from Him that all things came to be in a certain way and for a certain reason.” Not all things, which are to be recapitulated in Christ, are currently at peace with one another. Some of them kill each other: humans kill other organisms, including human ones, while some organisms, both macro- and micro-, including COVID-19, kill humans.
The resurrected Body of Christ was ontologically the same body as ours. According to St Athanasius of Alexandria, “the Word, since he was not able to die—for he was immortal—adopted a body able to die, that he might offer it as his own on behalf of all and as himself suffering for all” (On Incarnation 20). Because our bodies and the body of Christ fully participate in the common human nature, the same micro-organisms that live in our bodies lived in the body of Christ. There are no reasons to believe that they disappeared from his body after its resurrection. The difference of Christ’s body from our bodies is that those microorganisms could not kill him.
However, they can kill our body, because it is not yet risen. Moreover, they can be transmitted through the Eucharistic Body of Christ, because they are not ontological evil, but constitute a part of God’s creation. The same applies, for example, to penicillin. Priests know well: the Eucharistic Body of Christ can become moldy. But this mold is not corruption, which indeed does not apply to Christ’s humanity. That one is the corruption of sin and death. Penicillin is not sin or death, but a living organism, which by the way turned out to be life-giving for us. Once considered a “corruption”, the mold of penicillin turned out to be a life-giving antibiotic. Its ontological status has always been the same: good, as a part of God’s creation.
Now let us go back to those who believe that the virus cannot be transmitted through the Eucharist. Their mistake, firstly, is docetic, because, like ancient docetists, they believe that the Body of Christ is exempted from the laws of nature. A docetist text from the Nag Hammadi collection stated about the body of Christ: “Jesus… ate and drank in a special way, without excreting his solids. He had such a great capacity for continence that the nourishment within him was not corrupted, for he did not experience corruption.” (Valentinus, fr. 3).
The docetists, and later the Eutychians, also believed that the humanity of Christ was ontologically different from ours, even though it appeared to be like ours. In fact, Christ’s humanity was no longer our human nature, but something else. Secondly, those who think so about the Eucharistic Body, fall into the mistake of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was a dualistic doctrine that divided the physical world into good and evil parts. A Manichaean psalm survived in Coptic in the Medinet Madi codex, states: “When the Holy Spirit came he revealed to us the way of truth and taught us that there are two natures, that of light and that of darkness, separate one from the other from the beginning” (Ps. 223).
Dualism holds that some parts of the world around us are substantially (ontologically) evil. Many imply that the COVID-19 is such an evil. Therefore, they believe that it cannot be transmitted through the Divine Gifts in the Liturgy. Such a view, however, stems from either conscious or subconscious dualistic outlook.
Evil is not and cannot be embedded in nature, which is ontologically good. As Dionysius the Areopagite explained, “Evil has no place either amongst things that have being or things that have not… Qua evil it neither has being nor confers it… Evil is non-existent. Neither inherits evil in existent creatures” (On Divine Names 4).
Evil is rooted solely in human freedom: evil happens when human beings make wrong choices. Such a choice is to ignore the danger of infection. Perhaps the true evil turns out to be not the virus, but when a person, instead of showing love to the neighbor, chooses to disregard the laws of nature, and instead of staying home comes to the congregation and infects other people.
Cyril Hovorun is Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.