Coronavirus and Communion

by Will Cohen | Ελληνικά | ру́сский | српски

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.    

With regard to the Eucharist itself, the GOA, like other jurisdictions and local churches here and overseas, has indicated that there will be no change in how the gifts are distributed to the faithful. There are various lines of argument put forward in support of this decision. One is that inasmuch as for Orthodox Christians the bread and wine in the chalice are the body and blood of Christ, given to us for the healing of soul and body, it is not possible that disease could be communicated via the spoon we share. It is sometimes suggested according to this argument that those who have concerns about someone with COVID-19 possibly communicating the virus to them or others by sharing the same spoon with them either do not hold the genuine Orthodox faith or are weak in their faith. A genuine and faithful Orthodox Christian at least overcomes all such worldly anxieties by recalling that illness and death cannot come from Christ, but only healing and regeneration. 

It is true that for Orthodox Christians there is an almost inexpressibly profound dissonance in the thought that the sacramental act of the very communion with Christ to which he himself calls us in the Eucharist—take, eat, this is my body, and drink of it all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant—could do any of us any harm. I think this profound dissonance is what many of us, myself included, have gotten caught on in recent days, leaving us to imagine we must choose between courageously and faithfully accepting Christ’s call to be united with him in his body and blood at whatever perceived risk and rejecting his call out of worldly fear. If that is indeed the choice we must make today, I side with those who urge that we overcome our fear and, with faith and love, draw near and receive the one who offers himself to us.

But is this the choice we must make? Every Christian certainly knows that he or she may someday face a moment in which fidelity to Christ can be maintained only at risk of losing his or her life. The question is whether such a stark either-or indeed faces us now with the coronavirus pandemic.  It does not seem, to begin with, true to our understanding of the Eucharist to say that nothing it comes into contact with could possibly be or remain a conductor of illness. The Eucharist, after all, enters into our own bodies, yet it is not always the case that any communicable disease we have been carrying ceases to be communicable once the Eucharist has entered into us. This is certainly not a teaching of the Orthodox Church. One can believe that the air surrounding the eucharistic gifts could potentially carry pathogens that a communicant might breathe in to his or her harm. So too the chalice or the spoon could transmit something beyond the pure healing properties of Christ. Indeed the Orthodox Church does not hold the belief that the bread and the wine themselves cease to be bread and wine upon being changed into Christ’s body and blood. Here it is important to note that in addition to making an argument purely from faith, those who insist on the safety under all circumstances of receiving communion in the Orthodox Church often point out that chemically speaking, bacteria and viruses are inevitably killed by the alcohol in the chalice. This, however, is an argument from science, which admits that there is an empirical question about whether and how long germs may remain in the chalice, and there is scientific disagreement on this.

In the context of the present pandemic, in which tests have not yet become widely available and carriers can be asymptomatic for days after contracting the virus, I can tell myself that there is no way God would ever allow a pathogen in me to get into the chalice or onto the spoon and then make its way into the body of anyone else, especially of one of the elderly people in our parish. But I cannot be sure in telling myself this and going ahead and receiving communion with my fellow parishioners that I am doing the charitable thing. The thought of not receiving communion in order to play it safe (even if not chiefly for myself but moreso for others) causes me intense distress; that is also sure. The Eucharist is where I receive God’s gift of himself to me most palpably. But in recent days I have come to the conclusion that Orthodoxy’s false shepherds, of whom, God knows, there are perennially many, have exploited (often unwittingly, for most are misled themselves by others and just following a herd mentality) this inner distress which so many of us cannot but feel at the thought of eschewing communion out of caution in the face of the pandemic. 

A very different pastoral approach has been taken by Archbishop Alexander Golitzin of the OCA’s diocese of the South: “Everyone in the parish or mission, other than the priest (and deacon), a reader, a server, and no more than two (2) chanters or singers (all of whom are physically strong and at low risk for COVID-19), should remain at home, even at the time of the Divine Liturgy. The holy body and precious blood of our Lord can never be a source of disease, it is after all for the healing of soul and body, but the COVID-19 virus can still be passed through the congregation. Out of love for our neighbor, we must do everything we can to protect the vulnerable by slowing the rate of infection not only in our parishes, but in the greater community, and thereby allowing the hospitals and medical community to more adequately care for those most at risk.” In this kind of pastoral leadership, the archbishop takes the burden upon himself – showing a path that is loving and that reduces the inner distress referenced above – rather than only further intensifying that distress and thereby placing a burden virtually impossible to bear on the consciences of the faithful. 

Short of recommending that most stay home, and especially once this critical moment passes in which limiting the pandemic’s spread depends on the social isolation widely recommended by epidemiologists, there would seem to be a commonsensical solution to the otherwise excruciating dilemma about communion and coronavirus. The Orthodox bishops in the United States could issue a directive asking that each communicant have the Eucharist placed in his or her mouth by the priest on a disposable bamboo spoon that is then discarded properly (i.e., by burning). This would not diminish the wholeness of Christ whom we receive. It might only diminish a sense some of us may have when we go ahead and receive in these anxious times that we have withstood a test of our faith. I wonder if some of us prefer to have to be faced right now with such a tremendous test and to show the world that we can pass it rather than admit with so much less fanfare that we can perhaps actually have it both ways, and rather mundanely—receiving Christ in the Eucharist and taking a reasonable and “worldly” precaution.  How are we sure it is not God himself who offers us this gracious solution, which it would then be an act of highest charity on the part of the bishops to offer to the faithful, sparing them the torment of having to take a stand and of finding themselves ever more sharply pitted against one another?

If it were so (and there is no authoritative Orthodox teaching that has said it is not) then it would also be an act of love toward the world, a way of being church with humility and in solidarity with those outside the church whom we wish to make every effort we can, consistent with our faith, to avoid putting in harm’s way. Others are sacrificing tremendously to try not to let this disease spread farther and faster than it must.  Should we not also do our dutiful part for everyone’s sake? We ourselves know our church buildings are not immune to the pathogens and we accept the advice to wipe surfaces and cough into our sleeves, because we know we are human like others. We do this even in the knowledge that God can perform miracles to protect anyone he wishes anytime he wills, because we do not presume upon him to miraculously preserve us when there are mundane things we can do so as not to put him to the test. Using disposable bamboo spoons would seem to be another such mundane thing we could do in humble recognition of our frail humanity, to lower the temperature and tension in our churches, and to exercise wisdom in responding to a public health crisis we should not presume to be certain we could never exacerbate by our spiritual pride. 

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Scranton. 

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.