“Remember, O Lord…”: Liturgy, History, and Communion Spoons in a Time of Pandemic

by Daniel Galadza | ελληνικά | ру́сский

Receiving communion with a spoon

In recent weeks, Church authorities have been looking for historical precedent to find ways of continuing ministry to the faithful and maintaining worship in churches during a time of global pandemic—because, as others have pointed out, closing houses of worship and ceasing to serve the Liturgy is not an option for the Church, even if certain saints were able to attain holiness without a regular sacramental life or participation in communal worship.

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.

The Divine Liturgy of St. James was the local Eucharistic liturgy of Jerusalem and its environs in the first millennium, until it gradually fell into disuse and disappeared from practice around the twelfth century, replaced by the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great that were served in Constantinople and elsewhere, and which we know today in the Byzantine Rite. The reasons behind this are complex but can be explained by the phenomenon of “Byzantinization”—the decline of Jerusalem’s liturgy during Islamic occupation and the growing influence of Constantinople. The Liturgy of St. James’s most notable characteristics, which we can surmise from manuscripts as old as the eighth century, include, among others: a longer Anaphora with elaborate commemorations of the living and the dead in the Diptychs introduced by the phrase “Remember, O Lord…”; an Old Testament scriptural reading; and numerous variable hymnography.

With regard to Communion, these manuscript sources—which, it must be stated, are not any older than the most ancient witnesses of the Liturgies of St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom—say very little about how Communion was distributed to the faithful. Their rubrics are minimal throughout. We can, however, gather from other sources that Communion under two species—the Body placed in the hand and the Blood consumed from a common chalice—was the norm in the Liturgy of St. James, as it was in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom, until the eleventh century, when the use of spoons for Communion became widespread. Communion spoons were in fact likely first used in the region where the Liturgy of St. James was celebrated—that is, in Palestine—already in the seventh century.

It was only through the Greek revival of the Liturgy of St. James in the nineteenth century by Archbishop Dionysios Latas of Zakynthos, and followed in the early twentieth century through its Slavonic edition by Hieromonk Philip (Ivan A. Gardner) that rubrics were added and elaborated, at times revealing the fantasies of creative editors who had studied biblical archaeology and Late Antiquity. Among the new rubrics were the once universal practice of Communion in the hand and from the common chalice.

In fact, the Constantinopolitan Council of Trullo (A.D. 691/2), which is the earliest textual witness attributing the Divine Liturgy of Jerusalem “to St. James, the brother, according to the flesh, of Christ our God” (can. 32), also specifies that at the end of the seventh century there was only one way to receive Communion—in the hand (can. 101)—at all Divine Liturgies, whether of James or Basil or Chrysostom.

Liturgy’s history is used in many ways, whether by clergy studying it in order to preserve past precedents of Orthodox Christian worship or scholars examining the at times “imagined past/s” of liturgical practice, whether in the prescriptions of rigorous rubrics or the descriptions of magnificent services with vast numbers of clergy and faithful. However, liturgical history is informative, not normative; the way things were done once in the past does not bind the way things are done today. Relying on inaccurate or incomplete history can be deformative to liturgical prayer and practice.

The declaration of some Church authorities concerning Communion in the hand is a commendable attempt to respect directives from physicians and civil authorities by appealing to liturgical precedents from Church tradition. (Incidentally, another particularity of the Liturgy of St. James is the “Hymn for Hand Washing,” a variable hymn equivalent to a troparion or sticheron, sung while the clergy would have washed their hands before they transferred the Gifts to the altar at the Great Entrance; will we also see its revival during this time of increased concern for hygiene?) But is it necessary to justify the practice of Communion in the hand by appealing to incomplete liturgical history? And is Communion in the hand—perhaps less shocking for Byzantine Rite Catholics familiar with contemporary post-Vatican II Roman Catholic practice but foreign for Orthodox faithful—the best option today for the Orthodox Church? I have been told that Communion in the hand and from a common chalice was the practice at New Skete when it was Byzantine Rite Catholic monastery, but ceased at the behest of ecclesiastical authorities when the community was received into the Orthodox Church in America.

During great social disruption and the longing for a return to normalcy, liturgical worship is an essential service the faithful look to for support and familiarity. A familiar method of receiving Communion should be encouraged, one that is theologically, historically, and medically sound. Methods that suggest taking, rather than receiving, Communion to distribute the Eucharist raise theological questions and change the meaning of what happens in the Divine Liturgy. Methods of intinction and placing Communion directly in the mouth of the faithful avoid a spoon can be messy. Methods that introduce other vessels, such as disposable paper cups or wooden spoons, create unnecessary waste, are unsustainable, and go against the canons of the Church (cf. Trullo, can. 101). Methods that use chemicals to clean a common spoon are complicated to implement effectively and introduce foreign substances into the chalice. Methods that use liturgical history for justification (i.e. Communion in the hand) but do so selectively (i.e. withholding the common chalice) lack authenticity.

Instead of distorting history, ecclesiastical authorities should act in the spirit of Church tradition, but do so honestly, being mindful that these decisions and changes might remain in force for some time after the pandemic has passed. Thus far, the best method, which was already put forward within the Patriarchate of Romania and the Orthodox Church in America, seems to be the use of individual metal Communion spoons for each communicant that are sterilized later, after every service—a method that is both familiar and sound. I am aware that Byzantine Rite Catholics in Hungary introduced such a method a century ago during another pandemic, and there are likely more examples elsewhere.

Ironically, some Roman Catholics in Austria, for whom Communion in the hand is ubiquitous, are introducing a spoon to commune the faithful in order avoid direct contact between the hand of the priest and the communicant.

All these diverse examples go to show that in times of crisis, it is up to wise and zealous pastors to decide how to best minister to the faithful, and for liturgists to assist them by informing them and reminding them of history.

Deacon Daniel Galadza is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Advanced Studies “Beyond Canon”, University of Regensburg.