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.
In a moment of unprecedented closings and cancellations, how should the Orthodox Church and her members faithfully navigate the risks and complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic? For many Orthodox jurisdictions and individuals, the pandemic is an opportunity to show a panicked world the extraordinary steadiness of the Orthodox faith and of those who uphold it. One of the ways of doing this is by continuing to hold services as we always do, kissing icons and receiving the Eucharist with a common spoon as we always do. The recent directive of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese asking parishioners to venerate icons by bowing before them without touching one’s mouth to them (much as we temporarily refrain from kissing those in the flesh whom we love not only if they’re ill but if we are, or have reason to be concerned we could be) has been received by many Orthodox Christians both within the GOA and outside it as an egregious accommodation to the spirit of fear abroad in the world. In the blogosphere and elsewhere there is indeed much talk of how we are people of faith and not of fear.
The Eucharist or communion is one of
seven sacraments at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox faith. The sacrament takes
place during the Liturgy of the Faithful—the “Anaphora,” which concludes with
receiving communion. Copts consider communion as a “mystery.” They favor the
older verbiage of “change,” meaning that the elements of communion literally turn
into the body and blood of Christ, and avoid terms more commonly used in
Western traditions such as “transubstantiation” (Catholicism) and
“consubstantiation” (Lutheranism). But like many other Christians, Copts believe
in the doctrine of the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
Communion wine in the Coptic Church today, as in most Orthodox churches, is distributed by a long-handled spoon which scoops the wine from the chalice into the mouth. Not too long ago, a Coptic parishioner expressed concern about this shared spoon that might be placed inside the mouths of dozens, if not hundreds, of parishioners during a single liturgy. In response, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Southern United States stated that “[t]he holy body and holy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is a burning fire that purges and cleanses us from all sin. There is no documented evidence of any communicable diseases anywhere in the world stemming from partaking of the Holy Eucharist in this manner.” The Coptic Church is certainly not alone in this position: on the common spoon, the Orthodox Research Institute has also indicated that “from a purely microbiological perspective, the sweet red wine used in communion is typically high in alcoholic content” and therefore “invisible microbes that may enter our mouths from the previous communicant are harmless.”