by Archbishop Job of Telmessos, Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches and renowned Liturgical theologian
It is the merit of the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1920 to have introduced the concept of “koinonia (communion) of Churches” in the ecumenical vocabulary which ought to become a key concept in the theology of the 20th century.
Subsequently, Eucharistic ecclesiology has underlined the correlation between the Church and the Eucharist. This was not a new theory since we already find it in the New Testament. It is remarkable that St. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, speaks of Christians as being members of one body, the body of Christ, (1 Co 12:12-30) right after having spoken about the institution of the Eucharist (1 Co 11:23-26). And prior to that, the Apostle pointed out that “we being many are one bread, and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Co 10:17). The unity of the ecclesiastical body has always been manifested in partaking from one bread and one cup. For this particular reason, the Orthodox Church does not share the Eucharist with persons who are not in communion with her for matters of faith (in cases of heresy, schism or rupture of communion) and considers the eucharistic communion as the supreme manifestation of the unity of the Church.
“A Church that does not serve the Eucharist ceases to be a Church” has reminded us recently the Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas. In fact, the Church never ceased to celebrate the Eucharist since, even during the recent period of lockdown due to the pandemic of the coronavirus, the Eucharist continued to be served, although in a restricted way behind closed doors, either at the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or in monasteries, and even in some parishes, with a considerably minimized number of people. The pandemic has shaken up our practice and will still do so since many of us were not able to attend church services in the past months and our practices ought to be reviewed in the months to come. Certainly, many of us have been able to follow the church services online, and this has been a consolation for us all in this period of trial. Nevertheless, it is impossible to partake in communion online, not only because we cannot consecrate bread and wine online, but above all, because the eucharistic communion is not an individualistic act since it presupposed the gathering (synaxis) of all in one body.
Now that in several countries the churches are gradually allowed to reopen and to start their celebrations once again under the conditions of “social distancing”, several challenges are facing us in celebrating the Eucharist. Indeed, “social distancing” is a paradox, or at least an antinomy, in serving the Eucharist which implies sharing the same bread and partaking in the common cup. While some Christian Churches, such as the Anglican and the Roman Catholic, seem to avoid, at least at this point, sharing a common cup, and while receiving the body of Christ in the hands is raising some hygienic issues for them, the Orthodox Church is confronting debates regarding the use of the common spoon used for the communion of the faithful.
One has to keep in mind that the communion rites have evolved throughout history and that this is not the first time that the Church has confronted such debates in times of epidemic. Perhaps, experiencing such a pandemic may help us to understand why in some period of history communion became not as frequent as we used to experience it in the last decades, and why, for some practical reasons, partaking to the common cup has been forbidden for the laity in the West in the past centuries and the leavened bread has been replaced by unleavened bread, while in the East receiving the bread in the hand and partaking to the common cup was replaced for the laity by receiving a piece of bread soaked in the chalice through a spoon.
Therefore, one should not be surprised nor scandalized by the discussions and the hygienic prescriptions concerning the communion rites, since the matter of discussion is not the sanctity of the body and blood of Christ, “the remedy of immortality”, but the instruments being used, that is to say the practical means of its distribution that can be affected by the virus. May St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, who lived on Mount Athos in the 18th century, comfort those who are appalled, since he himself gave the instruction to priests giving communion to contagious ill of sterilizing the communion spoon after its use with vinegar in his commentary to canon 28 of the council in Trullo in his edition of the Pedalion published in 1800. If this was admitted in exceptional cases in his epoch, proper hygienic measures can be found today when we are confronted with the coronavirus.
As His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stressed in his message regarding Covid-19 last March, “that which is at stake is not our faith, it is the faithful. It is not Christ, it is our Christians. It is not the divine-man, but human beings”. We may add: it is not the Eucharist, but the way we receive it for the wellbeing of both our soul and body. The communion spoon has never been a matter of faith but only an instrument used for the distribution of the Eucharist. May the challenges we are facing now in our participation in holy communion due to “social distancing” hygienic principles be the opportunity to consider and to reflect on the importance of the Eucharist for our spiritual life as well as for the communion of the Church in constituting the one body of Christ by being partakers of the same bread and of the common chalice.