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.
When Archbishop Elpidophoros submitted an encyclical
regarding COVID-19 to his faithful on behalf of the Holy Synod of the Greek
Orthodox Archdiocese of America, what I found more scandalous and tragic than
the pandemic itself was the judgmental and self-righteous voice from so many
“faithful” (both clergy/hierarchs and laity) who spoke against those who were
afraid to approach the chalice because of fear of catching a disease or
Among the most troubling comments I’ve seen are: “If you believe that you will get sick by partaking of Holy Communion, you are in sin and should not approach.” And another: “How can you believe that the Body and Blood of Christ can make you sick?”
Are these really the kinds of comments that lead us to God? Is the pandemic some sort of spiritual contest where we need are going to prove to the social-media world just how much more faith we have than others?
The global COVID-19 crisis has ignited a number of difficult
discussions among Christians. The method used to distribute Holy Communion is
fiercely debated. In the Churches that remain open, many Protestants and
Catholics are withholding the cup, so faithful are receiving in one kind only,
the body of Christ. In Orthodox communities, clergy and laity are discussing
the possibility of trying new methods for distributing Holy Communion that
prevents the spread of disease through a common spoon. This issue has generated
emotional statements claiming that it is impossible for the Eucharist to make
anyone sick because of the true presence of the Incarnate Christ. Most Orthodox
synods have issued guidelines on how to maximize prevention of infection in
church, and the Churches are in agreement on communion: it is impossible for
the body and blood of Christ to make anyone sick. The corollary to this defense
of the faith is that no changes to the method of distributing communion are
permitted, with two exceptions. The Romanian Church permits faithful to bring
their own spoons from home, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine allows clergy to
administer communion to laity via intinction, hand-to-hand.
In the remainder of this essay, I will test both assertions by pointing to a selection of historical antecedents. My investigation will demonstrate that the Church has used numerous methods for distributing Holy Communion, and that her steadfast belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements does not come with the promise of guaranteed protection from illness.
St Mary of Egypt, it is said, received Holy Communion
exactly once after she fled to the desert to repent: on the day of her death.
17 years of life in the wilderness were spent deprived of Body and Blood of
Christ in the eucharist. This was not normal practice at the time for nuns,
monks, and ascetics. Early monastic rules required even anchorites—those living
in caves or huts apart from the monastic community—to come together with the
others for Sunday liturgy to commune with God and unite with their fellow
monastics in the Cup of the Lord. Yet St Mary was nourished only, as she told
the elder Zosimas, by “the word of God which is alive and active.”
The spread of COVID-19 has forced Orthodox leaders to make difficult decisions about how and whether to hold church services. Some have advised that most people simply stay home from Sunday liturgy for the foreseeable future, especially the older and immune-compromised, as well as those who are sick. For most, this will mean obligatory fasting from Holy Communion.