Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orthodox Church has found itself in an existential crisis. The situation has challenged our traditions and even the way that we receive Holy Communion. One of the points of disagreement that has arisen concerns the manner in which Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful from the common cup by means of a common spoon.
The experience of the church tells us that Holy Communion by the common spoon never became a vector to transmit disease. Many priests have consumed a Consecrated Lamb that had molded due to natural conditions. In addition, every priest, after distributing communion with the spoon to the people, has consumed the remaining Gifts with that same spoon at the conclusion of the Liturgy; yet priests who have served in hospitals specialized in infectious diseases can tell you that no one ever got sick- from tuberculosis, AIDS, herpes, influenza, and even Ebola (as we hear from our brothers who serve in Africa).
Nevertheless, many of the faithful have always been fearful or disgusted by the common spoon. We can spend countless hours explaining sociologically the reasons behind it, but that is not our purpose today. We just need to accept this reality. So, the question is how do we continue to minister to people who struggle with this fear? Do we throw them out of the Church, admonishing them for their lack of faith? Or, do we follow the path of the Lord and embrace them? Are we not called to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one which is lost and who tells us “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13) and that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)”?
The Orthodox Church and scientific knowledge typically parallel each other. In the event that a reconciliation appears unreachable between the Church and science, it signals that it is time to reconsider past traditions in light of current scientific evidence. Science cannot in any way dictate Orthodox theology, but rather provides a contribution to the theological aspects of the Church and to society in general.
As a Greek Orthodox living in the Western world and experiencing this new “Corona era,” one feels that Orthodoxy needs to decide today, globally and locally, on the following: to what extent do we, as Orthodox Christians, truly believe that Christ is the Son of God, the Son of Man?
For what we have been seeing and experiencing the past several weeks, alongside the turbulence caused by a frightening virus the spread of which was quite early identified as pandemic, is a totally novel thing. And those among us who were lucky enough to serve as the “necessary personnel” in empty, locked churches experienced an ultimate ambiguity, at least.
On the one hand, we read and chanted Services consisting of hymnological and liturgical artifacts of a unique, terrific treasure, a treasure containing the quintessence of the Orthodox life, experience, tradition, doctrine, theology, mysticism, and art, visual and audio-visual, and all that simultaneously assumed by the unparalleled, incomparable, and irreplaceable daily Services of the Holy Week and the Easter.
Despite everyone’s desire to return to normalcy, this is currently impossible in most regions. For example, in Germany, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Augustinos has informed the faithful that, despite the reopening of churches for worship, government regulations make it impossible to give the faithful Communion from a common spoon. In neighboring Austria, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Arsenios has found a solution to this problem by removing the spoon from the equation and communing the faithful in the hand, guided by historical precedent and “the liturgical and canonical tradition of the first millennium and the time-honored and proven Communion practice of the Divine Liturgy of St. James the Brother of the Lord.”
Finding a solution to provide the Eucharist for the faithful is commendable; however, one might ask if such a justification is necessary, since it manipulates liturgical history to fit today’s difficult circumstances. In order to better understand why, I will provide a summary of what is known about the history of the Divine Liturgy of St. James and the use of Communion spoons.