By Dimitris Keramidas*
The recent pandemic and the consequent restrictive measures in mass gathering raised the issue of the closure of the churches and the suspension of the services. It was a reality that coincided with a period of the liturgical year where a large number of believers traditionally participate and popular reverence is manifested in a more spontaneous way. This disturbed, as expected, the religious consciousness of many. There were several objections from those who believed that neither the Holy Communion of the Holy Bread and Wine nor services in the presence of the faithful were primary sources of infection and, therefore, the suspension of the services and the adherence of the faithful to these instructions was an act against the Christian faith itself!
The gradual lifting of restrictions has halted relevant discussions. But what will happen in the future if this or another pandemic occurs? How should the Orthodox communities of the diaspora react if they are forced by governments to ban the Holy Communion with the same spoon? Some Orthodox dioceses in the US and Europe have already provided alternative forms of distribution of the Holy Communion, either with individual disposable spoons or with separate Holy Communion, etc. Other Churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, disinfect the spoon every time a believer receives the Holy Communion. Being full aware of this delicate pastoral issue, the Ecumenical Patriarch sent a letter to the other Orthodox primates asking them to take a position on the issue.
It is obvious that in the event of a new health crisis or the tightening of health measures in places of worship, the church leadership and the theological community will need to do a courageous and careful analysis of what the axiom “the Church exists through the liturgy” really means. This presupposes the solution of an equation: Can the Church exist without Eucharist? If not, then did the Church cease to exist in the period of pandemic?
On the one hand, no one can deny the premise that “Eucharist is an essential part of the Church.” Without the Holy Communion, we reduce the Church to a gathering of individuals who pray privately and do not share the common supper of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is not something that any believer offers to himself, but a state of unity and communion that is established by the loving and prayerful – that is, the Eucharistic – meeting of the many members of one body of Christ.
It is not wrong to think that “the Church is part of the Eucharist,” as the gathering is the embodiment of the Eucharist. There is no Holy Communion outside the Church, only from and to the Church. Disregarding the ecclesiastical nature of the Holy Communion leads to the autonomy of the latter and inevitably to the view of the Holy Communion as a magical “moment” that is not subject to the laws of the world (and therefore to the transmission of viruses). At this point, however, we are dealing with an implied monophysitism, where anything material is lost so that only the spiritual remains, contrary to the divine and human substance of the Church.
We, therefore, need to see the Mystery of the Eucharist as an act of the body of believers which reveals the Church as the preeminent event of the Kingdom of God, where the One who preached it on earth prevails. The Eucharist is performed “in relation to someone,” not to itself. This is not unrelated to the discussions of recent weeks. Ignatius’ of Antioch phrase that the Eucharist is a “medicine of immortality” was construed by some almost literally as an antidote to the virus. So it is forgotten that in Holy Communion “immortality” is not a divine-human transaction (after all, no human being is immortal by nature) but the making of the believer-Christ relationship perceptible. In other words, the Eucharist is not given as a cure for diseases but as a gift that makes the believer’s relationship with Christ immortal.
Of course, the faithful receive the Holy Communion according to the way He showed us, and we know from the relevant evangelical pericopes that the origin of the Eucharist is the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. This form, handed down by the Lord, evolved historically and acquired the structure known to all of us, which in Byzantine liturgies is reflected in the exquisite texts bearing the names of the two great Fathers of the Church: Saint Basil the Great and John Chrysostom.
But the way we perform the Mystery of the Eucharist was not the only way the first Christian community had in mind. The pericopes of chapters 6, mainly, but also 21 of the Gospel of John on the multiplication of the loaves and the appearance of Jesus on the lake Tiberias are indicative. These two chapters show us that there was a communion with Christ not only through “supper”, “bread” and “wine”, but with faith in the messianic nature of Jesus, which is manifested in the loving relationship with Him.. In John 21.7 Peter runs to meet the Lord up close, while in John 6: 2 “a great crowd of people followed” Jesus. In this “Eucharist” the faithful (Peter, disciples, people) openly confess the one they recognize as their Lord and turn to him lovingly. The Lord does not remain indifferent. In one case, he blesses and multiplies the bread to feed his people, while in the other he fills the nets of the disciples-fishermen with fish. In the end, Christ does not leave his faithful without a teaching: in John 21:15 he gives Peter the command to care, teach and spiritually feed those who follow His teaching – the responsibility, so to speak, of the mission that continues the liturgy after the Liturgy.
The parable of John’s references does not aim to display any “other” liturgy to replace the one that is already being performed. However, exploring the texts of the first Church shows us the extent of the faith that His disciples had with Christ, an unconventional faith in the eyes of the world and the perceptions of the time. Perhaps today’s health crisis will help us realize that the sacred Eucharistic Gifts are what we first offer as part of ourselves to someone else, because we know our perishable limits and want to accept a donation that leads us to something greater than the dimension of the world. This offering is centered on one person: Christ. May our liturgical ethos be strictly directed to the Lord and to the goods of faith in Him: in love and sacrifice “for many”, even this sacrifice means temporary abstinence from receiving the Holy Communion.
*(Professor at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (PUST), Angelicum, lecturer at the Hellenic Open University, member of CEMES)