Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Spoons for miles...

(Orthodox Observer) - Holy Tradition is one thing; long-held Church customs are another. The former is divine in origin, Apostolic and unchangeable; the latter varies throughout time and place in response to varying human considerations. Those who fail to distinguish Holy Tradition from temporal traditions introduce confusion into the Faith, inviting rancor and even schism. 

For example, clergy today employ an applicator for the Mystery of Holy Unction: a stick or brush or cotton swabs. Yet the Apostolic injunction for the anointing of the sick (James 5:14) uses the Greek verb ἀλείφω, meaning “to rub or smear” oil on the body, as ancient athletes used to do after a workout. This was done, not with brushes or swabs, but with bare hands. (Just as clergy apply the Oil of Gladness at Holy Baptism even today.) 

Over time—and no doubt for practical considerations—clergy began to use applicators for the Agion Euchelaion instead of their fingers. This change was an innovation, but nothing spiritual or sacramental was at stake. The same grace of the Holy Spirit was given through Holy Unction, regardless of the instrument used to anoint. And so even today, we experience fully the power and efficacy of this Great and Holy Mystery of healing.  This is stated as if this is the universal practice. It is not. Carpatho-Rusyns continue to use their thumbs for example. 

Some clergy employ a single applicator for all parishioners, while others use disposable swabs, one for each person. This variation in practice has existed for many years. No one ever deemed it a cause for division in the Church or grounds for accusations of heresy.  No one ever suggested that individual swabs either impugned the sacredness of the Mystery or implied that Holy Oil could convey corruption. Regardless of the applicator used, the Apostolic Tradition of anointing the sick was maintained unchanged, while being administered in a variety of ways. I'm not sure who he has spoken with. I have had several discussions and overheard more about the use of disposable swabs and on people giving away holy oils from used swabs and cotton balls to non-Orthodox in the misguided belief that they are being friendly and doing nothing wrong.

So it has been also for the Mystery of Holy Communion. The Lord’s command to receive His Body and Blood has been followed unchangingly in the Orthodox Church for 2000 years. Even so, the method of distributing the Holy Gifts has changed several times. At first, the Holy Body of Christ was placed directly into the hands of the communicant, as the Lord most certainly did for His disciples at the Mystical Supper. Thereafter, a common cup was shared by sipping from the same chalice (much as a bride and groom do in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony even today). This is where you try to apply the malleability of one aspect of a thing and claim similar mutability to another. So it is well to begin by making square mirrors and then decide to make oval mirrors, or to go from unframed looking glasses to great gilded things, but it is another thing entirely to go from reflective mirrors to clear glass and claim that removing a primary aspect of a mirror is just another alteration.

We learn from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (Mystagogical Catechesis, 5.21-22) that these practices were still in place in his time. Only much later did the practice develop of using tongs or spoons. From other sources we know that the Eucharist was sent home with laypeople so that they might commune themselves daily or provide the Gifts to others unable to attend the Liturgy. (Cf. Tertullian, Second Letter to His Wife, 5; Pope Damasus, Inscription for Saint Tarcisius; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 6, chapter 44.) A vestige of this is the practice of retaining antidoron for the week and consuming a bit every day.

The Church has since ceased all these earlier methods for distributing the Holy Gifts for practical and pastoral reasons. Nevertheless, the sacred deposit of the Faith remains unchanged, as day by day we celebrate the Eucharist and receive the Lord’s Body and Blood.  

Consider the possibility of multiple spoons for the Eucharist. Would these not be preferable to a common spoon, with the “drop” technique of distribution that some now favor? No. First, many of our communicants are senior citizens. For sixty years or more, they have closed their mouths on the spoon, just as they were taught in childhood. Try as they might, simple muscle memory will take over. They will close their mouths on the spoon despite their best intentions. This mishap will make the act of communing a cause of embarrassment for them, and not the joy it should be. And what of very young children, whose impulse will always be to close their mouths on the spoon? Moreover, their mouths are often too small for the priest to drop in the Holy Gifts without spillage. I communed several older people last Sunday. No mishap. I don't rush people through the process. If an older person needs more time to receive, he gets it.

Second, some parishioners cannot open their mouths wide for the drop technique due to arthritis or TMJ disorders; others cannot tip back their heads adequately due to balance problems. In such cases, the Law of Gravity applies to the Holy Gifts just like everything else in the world. The Gifts will fall—hopefully onto the napkin, but possibly onto the floor. Again, this mishap is a cause for embarrassment and even shame for our elderly. I have been dropping communion in the mouths of people for quite a while. I've communed children a month old and women that are a hundred years old. In much the same way you prepare for any event, you prepare for communion. 

Why not switch to multiple spoons, which parishioners can securely close their mouths on? Some say that this practice would impugn the dignity of the Holy Gifts. But we contend that it would safeguard the Gifts even better. When the laypeople have no fears about closing their mouths on the spoon, they will receive the Gifts with a confidence that makes spillage less likely. More spoons will make for fewer spills. We should all be in favor of that. Another argument that takes what the author desires and finds supposedly universally attractive merits to garner support. No, I don't favor any such thing. I have served at several churches of all different jurisdictions. Let me say that the plating on several of those spoons was lacking. I hold out no great hope that a parish that can't care for one spoon is going to find a way to do so with God-knows-how-many spoons. In fact, I don't see spoons surviving very long if we go with this new method. We'll be communing in the hand before the next decade.

Some will object that multiple spoons cater to weakness of belief: if people have sufficient faith, Holy Communion cannot possibly harm them. But then what of our parishioners whose faith is weak in this regard? They may fear contagion, not from the Holy Gifts, but from some residue left on the spoon by a parishioner before them. Must they be excluded ever hereafter from the Holy Chalice for their doubts? When the father of the demoniac boy came to Christ, he cried out: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) And the Lord most certainly helped him in his unbelief. Must we now make fear of contagion the ultimate criterion for judging whether a parishioner is worthy of the medicine of immortality? Or does a quaver of doubt consign him forever to excommunication? Where is the fatherly kindness in any of this? Is not the whole mystery of the Incarnation God’s way of condescending to humanity’s weakness of faith? I find that changing my behavior to suit the fears of people actually strengthens their fears, not lessens it. If a parishioner is SURE that he is going to be hit by a meteor, my constantly looking up and saying "My God, what is that?!" doesn't help him at all. It exacerbates his delusion. Let us not invite modern ideas of sterility into the discussion. Have we not learned enough from the ill-effects of hand sanitizing our children into all manner of problems when what they needed was more time making mud pies and getting their knees skinned?

If our salvation depends on our own strength of faith rather than the unqualified mercy of God, which of us should ever dare commune again? Remember that the great and holy Apostle Peter had faith enough to step out onto the surface of the sea to join Christ, but thereafter his faith wavered and he sank into the waves (Matthew 14:22-33). And what about our people, who might come forward with the fear of God, faith, and love; but then with the precious Gifts already in their throats, hearing their neighbor cough or sneeze, lose courage? Will one’s faith protect him from contagion in that case? A false argument. If I support multiple spoons, then I am saving someone from illness and death. If I do not, then I don't care if people get ill, die, or lose faith. Again, no gymnast grows brave by his coach constantly lowering the bar on every exercise. One might as well take up thumb wrestling - with gloves on of course.

We note also that St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, in his commentary on the 28th Canon of the Quinisext Council, allowed for innovative methods for distributing Communion. These methods were designed to forestall the spread of contagion. In other words, his approach in time of plague is NOT to say, “Your faith will keep you from getting sick in the act of distributing the Gifts.” Rather, this holy Father advises practical and hygienic measures to achieve a spiritual end. 

Some also claim that multiple spoons will cause a rift in the worldwide body of the Orthodox Church. This objection is sheer casuistry: there are a myriad of ways in which liturgical practices differ across the various autocephalous churches of Orthodoxy. We use different kinds of liturgical chant, color schemes for vestments forms of the Burial service, and so on. The Orthodox Church of Finland even celebrates Pascha on a different date from the rest of the Orthodox world! None of these variations in liturgical practice disrupts the unity of the Faith. Holy Tradition remains unchanged, even as our customs for practicing it vary. A modest Q-tip or extra spoon cannot disrupt the unity of the Faith that is truly One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. 


  1. What compounds the concern over this new practice is that its totally unnecessary in our current situation.

    We haven’t changed any of our practices here, we still venerate the cross, the icons, and take our clergies’ blessing, we commune with the same spoon, and we have blessed bread as usual.

    No one has gotten sick here, no one has died, not even our elderly or immunocompromised (we have an elderly parishioner with cancer who is still communing, thank God). And CV19 is very much present in our city, just like the normal flu bug and so many other diseases.

    I realize that from a scientific standpoint one case does not prove a point, however it should say something that if we were under a jurisdiction we would have completely altered our practices, by decree, for no reason.

    These measures only make sense if you actually believe the media that told us that 30,000,000 would die by April 30th, and that this virus had a 4% mortality rate, and that hospitals would be overwhelmed. That Georgia would be devastated for reopening, that Liberty University’s students would all die for going back to school after spring break, that protesting the lockdown was dangerous to public health. The same people who then said protesting for BLM and looting does not spread CV19.

    They’ve been wrong and deceitful at every turn, yet some bishops continue to follow along as if there is nothing to evaluate or reconsider.

    But people have made up their minds at this point, they’re either all in for the new normal or they’re not. Not a lot of analyzing going on.

    Looking forward to the election being over to see how much of this magically disappears once voting season is over vs what they’re really willing to enforce for the long haul.

  2. Two things:

    1) Assuming the logic of the author of the article - when will priests and deacons begin to commune from a separate cup? How could someone who is afraid to share a common spoon be fine receiving communion from the cup which the priest(s) and deacon(s) drank from? How far out do we extend this logic?

    B) What of the sanctity of the Eucharist? I've seen two examples of some practices that have evolved: one being multiple spoons and the other is dipping the spoon in alcohol in between communicants. A priest licks the Eucharist off the floor when it is spilled yet these practices suggested provide ample opportunity for the Eucharist to be profaned and/or carelessly spilled. I can provide a link to a video where multiple spoons were used and after each use the priest just kind of chucks the used spoon at the altar server. What if some of the blood remained on the spoon?

    This goes against common sense and reverence for the mystery of the Eucharist. If someone is fearful then either do not commune or receive the Eucharist in the same manner as someone who is sick and must be given the tinctured Eucharist.