In his article of May 25, 2020, “A Note on the Common Communion Spoon,” Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas attempted to provide some justifications for eliminating use of the common spoon for Holy Communion. What he ultimately presented were the values of the world or the reasoning of Western Christianity under the cloak of Orthodox theology.
Orthodoxy has always been flexible, but it has also been uncompromising in certain areas, including our core belief about Communion and our Orthodox phronema, our mindset, which is distinct from all other Christian groups. Isolated examples of past historical practices and rational arguments were utilized to justify eliminating the common communion spoon in the article. But the same types of arguments can be employed to justify or rationalize eliminating virtually every traditional practice and moral position of the Church. A greater threat exists than Covid-19: the undermining of our convictions and damage to the faith. What we need from our hierarchs and our priests at this moment is spiritual leadership, rather in than presenting “logical” arguments which surrender to the “slavery of our human reasoning,” as the communion prayer to the Theotokos states.
We know that originally all of the faithful received the Body in their hand and drank the Blood directly from a common chalice. The article suggested that because use of a common spoon was not always the practice of the Church, a local church can decide on its own initiative to substitute some other practice. The article noted that use of the spoon was instituted about a thousand years ago to protect the Holy and Precious Body of the Lord from being dropped carelessly by the faithful and to facilitate reception of both elements when only one priest was liturgizing. It is important that we realize the rationale for the introduction of the common spoon: it protected the sacrament from desecration and facilitated its effective distribution. That change reinforced in the minds of the faithful the extreme sacredness of the Holy Gifts. But these new methods suggested as possible substitutes for the common spoon – such as multiple spoons or disposable spoons – do not follow that phronema at all. Rather, they are being proposed to alleviate the fears among some of the laity, when doing so would actually inure to the detriment of the faithful by affirming their fears that Holy Communion can convey illness. The Church has always held that Holy Communion can never be the source of illness and to undermine that core belief is more dangerous and more deadly than Covid-19 because nurturing such doubts impacts our eternal salvation. The evil one is dancing with delight because by allowing the inference that Communion can convey disease through the spoon, the Church itself is instilling doubt, doubt which the devil will cultivate and will eagerly seek to extend to other areas of the faith.
The article noted that the Penthekte Synod’s canon 101 forbade the faithful from bring small gold receptacles to receive the communion rather than receiving it directly onto their hands. People thought they were honoring the communion by placing it on a “precious” material like gold. The canon forbade that practice, not because the council was affirming that we should not use a spoon or some other “instrument.” The phronema behind the canon was to affirm that nothing is more precious, a more worthy receptacle of holy communion, than the human person. Christ is not honored by our gold or our spoons but when we receive him with the right attitude, “with the fear of God, with faith, and with love,” as the call to the chalice reminds us.
The canon affirmed the supreme value of the human person. For us God actually became man, therefore Holy Communion can never be an agent of illness, whether it is received on a spoon, or in the hand, or directly from the chalice. God became man – not simply to die on the cross or to rise from the dead. He became man to become flesh and blood so that we could physically receive His very Flesh and Blood. It is impossible, impossible, that we could become ill either by communion itself or through the instrumentality by which we receive it. When God became man, He sanctified our human nature by uniting it to His divine nature. His divinity was not altered by its union with the humanity. How can the spoon which communes the faithful not also be sanctified? If we human beings, with our sins and failings, are sanctified by receiving communion, how can the spoon an inanimate object with no sins not be sanctified and be an agent of disease?
The article, however, attempts to distinguish the sacrament itself from the instrument used to deliver the sacrament to the faithful. Fr. Calivas defends the doubtful or fearful believers, saying that these people do not question the sacred character and identity of the Holy Gifts, “only the reliability of the instrument” used to deliver them. But if they believe in the sacred character of the Holy Gifts, as he maintains, let the clergy lead them, let the theologians encourage them, to take one more step: to have confidence in the spoon as well. But instead, some clergy and theologians are encouraging doubts which no human measures will ever entirely eliminate.
The article portrays as insensitive those who defend the Orthodox faith by supporting the common spoon. He describes them as “dismissive” and presenting “an air of superiority” because we insist that Communion cannot convey illness because Communion is “the medicine of immortality.” Fr. Calivas admits that it “may be true” that Communion cannot convey disease, but “the medicine of immortality” and similar statements “are not sufficient to calm the fears and concerns” of some people. But those are not recent statements by rogue individuals exerting an “air of superiority.” Such statements are what the Church, the holy Scriptures, the Fathers and the saints, have always taught and what our communion hymns declare: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” “Receive the Body of Christ. Taste of the fount of immortality.” “I will drink from the cup of salvation. I will call upon the name of the Lord.” Our communion hymns are not merely poetic sentiments to be discarded as meaningless because some people are afraid. Our assertion that Holy Communion can never be the vehicle for transmission of disease, regardless of the method by which it is received, has been proven true through the 2,000 year history of the Church. That is what is being “dismissed” here! What should the Church encourage? On what should the Church take its stand? On faith or unbelief? On Holy Tradition or human fear?
Fr. Calivas unfortunately suggests that receiving Communion could convey disease, “as if the act of communing is void of…. the limitations of the created order,” he writes. The article expresses sympathy for people who do not want to be exposed to “unnecessary risks” and that “people want to feel safe, listened to, and protected by their Church.” Human fear is real and we should be sensitive to people’s concerns. The Church always cares about and wants to protect the faithful. The churches were closed for weeks and we are continuing to follow hygienic practices, such as wearing masks and social distancing, but the Church will never alleviate all fears nor should we ever compromise our holy Faith in a misguided effort to do so.
The article attempts to distinguish between the sacrament itself and the manner in which it is received, suggesting that one cannot become sick from the sacrament but possibly from the spoon. Are we to believe that the One emptied Hades of the dead is incapable of prevailing over a virus because it is on a spoon? What nonsense is that! Whether it is received on a common spoon or not, the most sacred Mystery of the Church can never be the vehicle of illness. At the very institution of the Eucharist, Christ was certainly aware of viruses and germs. He knew that there would be pandemics and plagues in the future, but nonetheless the Lord – apparently recklessly, without love or concern for humanity, and against all scientific advice or rational thought – dared to pass around a common cup! That was how Christians received the sacrament for hundreds of years before the use of a common spoon.: one chalice.
After the faithful have received the Holy Gifts, that which remains in the chalice is consumed by the priest. Fr. Calivas noted that he has consumed the remaining Communion thousands of times in his over sixty years as a priest. By this he undermines his very argument: he has never become sick from that practice even though he consumed the chalice after administering communion to thousands of people with a common spoon. In fact, there has never been a single case in which a person can be demonstrated to have contracted any illness from Holy Communion. On a few occasions, I have watched my husband lick communion off the floor of the church when a drop inadvertently fell. I have even seen him vigorously suck a drop of communion up from carpet when the church floor was carpeted – the floor, on which hundreds of shoes had stepped, shoes which had been out in the germy world. Imagine that! There is the priest, in his vestments, on his knees, sucking the carpet or licking the communion from a hard floor. He never became ill. That is not just an act of sentimental piety but an act of faith and reverence, a faith which we need to encourage and support at this time, not seek alternative procedures which would undermine it.
This issue arose not long ago during the 1980s when concerns were raised about the transmissibility of the AIDS virus. I recall the discussions we had in the Church at that time. I recall lectures by epidemiologists who had researched the question of whether Holy Communion has ever been known to transmit disease: they said it never has. We knew very little about AIDS and it was 100% fatal back then. Everyone had concerns, but no one eliminated the common spoon because people were afraid. How much has our faith diminished and our secular attitude increased just since that time! If our decision is to be based on hygiene or science, why aren’t the scientific studies cited? No, instead, we respond to and act in fear. His Eminence Metropolitan Nicolaos Hadjinikolaou of Mesogaia and Lavreotiki, a Harvard and MIT educated scientist and founder of the Bioethics Institute in Athens, issued an encyclical as a bishop of the Church and scientist that communion cannot convey disease. He astutely observed that the real danger in the world today is not a contagion but “the virus of impiety and a lack of faith.”
Fr. Calivas is incorrect when he writes that “a local Church in its collective wisdom and authority is free to adapt, modify, and manage the method by which Holy Communion is distributed.” It is the very antithesis of Orthodox phronema for a single, local church on its own initiative to make a change on such a significant matter as the reception of Holy Communion by altering what has been the consistent practice of the Church throughout the world for hundreds of years.
The article trivializes those who support the common spoon as reacting with “anxiety” over “change.” Let us remember that it was the simple faith of ordinary Orthodox Christians that sustained the Church and preserved the Faith even when most people were completely uneducated. Too often the theologians and hierarchs were on the wrong side of history. The attitude of “superiority” which the article attacks is found rather among those who consider themselves “educated,” “scientific” and more knowledgeable than the rest of us, who arrive at clever interpretations to justify their position. “And thinking themselves wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). Those who oppose abandoning the common spoon are not experiencing “anxiety” over change but are concerned over the loss of our priceless Orthodox phronema, our adherence to Tradition which has preserved our faith for generations through countless unimaginable dangers and attacks numberless foes. Shall we be the ones to undermine our own Faith rather than recognizing that this moment is a test of our faith? Our forefathers and foremothers faced countless dangers, including torture and martyrdom rather than deny Christ and would we deny him by accusing Him of allowing the Church to use an instrument – the spoon – which would bring us disease?
The article asserts that eliminating the common spoon is acceptable because using a common spoon is merely a practice and is not is a violation of the sacred dogma of the Church. But this is incorrect. It is not the change itself that is the violation of sacred dogma but the reason for the change that is a violation. The suggestion that one could become ill from partaking of the sacred and sublime Mysteries is indeed a violation of the sacred dogma of the Church on the deepest and most profound level. To assert that the common spoon is “not dogmatic” reveals the superficiality with which this issue is being treated.
Not only would the change from a common spoon be making a dogmatic statement about the nature of Holy Communion itself, but what the use of the common spoon represents is also deeply dogmatic, something that a liturgist should know. There is a theological reason for one spoon: it unifies us in the same way that the common cup does and the common loaf. So while Father Calivas said that changing this practice does not violate any “dogmas” it in fact violates the essential Eucharistic practices in Orthodoxy which express the oneness of the Church: one loaf, one cup, one altar, one liturgy, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
The article stated that the spoon is “an imperfect material object” which “does not share the incorruptibility… of the body of Christ.” Obviously, the spoon is not equal to the Body of Christ nor is it incorruptible. But it is also not simply a “utensil,” the “dignity” of which is “derived from its use” in communion, as he wrote. It is the means by which communion is given to the faithful. Canons 72 and 73 of the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles strictly forbid the sale or melting of sacred liturgical objects or cloths and forbid appropriating church objects for profane use. This is denounced as “sacrilege” in the canons and the penalty is excommunication. Why would profaning the spoon be “sacrilege” if the spoon were merely an “instrument “with “dignity”? It has become a sacred object and, as such, by faith, we accept that it will never convey disease.
St. John Chrysostom said in Homily 25 on the Gospel of John, “For nothing is worse than to relegate spiritual things to human reasoning…We ourselves are called ‘faithful’ precisely for this reason: in order that, having put aside the weakness of human reasoning, we may come to the sublimity of faith, and that we may entrust the greater part of our welfare to the teaching of faith.”
The Church has never made decisions based on fear, only on faith. The Church also does not make decisions or reach theological conclusions based on human reasoning. But let us follow the line of human reasoning that Fr. Calivas employs and see where it would eventually take us. The priests, bishops and deacons receive from the chalice before the faithful are communed. Water is added to the wine twice – once during the proskomide (Service of Preparation) and once during the Divine Liturgy. Is there enough alcohol remaining in the chalice after adding water to kill the virus? Are we going to begin to entertain that fear as well? At what point will we be uncomfortable with that? The priest also receives communion directly from the chalice before offering it to the congregation. At what point will we be uncomfortable with receiving from the same chalice as the priest and capitulate to that fear? Shall we have separate chalices for everyone? This is ridiculous reasoning, but it is a logical extension of the arguments made for rejecting the common spoon. A number of Orthodox priests have contracted Corona virus. Did any of the faithful who received communion from the same chalice after those priests had communed become ill with the virus? Certainly not!
St. Gregory the Theologian commented on compromising the faith to conform to the values of this world: “For we are not as the many, able to corrupt the word of truth, and mix the wine, which makes glad the heart of man, with water, mix, that is, our doctrine with what is common and cheap, and debased, and stale, and tasteless, in order to turn the adulteration to our profit, … and, to gain the special good will of the multitude, injuring in the highest degree, no, ruining ourselves, and shedding the innocent blood of simpler souls, which will be required at our hands.” (Or. 2.46)
All of us will die a physical death, but will we voluntarily die the Second Death, death of the soul? Covid-19 is not a very deadly disease compared to the terrible diseases which have afflicted humanity in the past. We never compromised our faith in difficult times even when those diseases were more deadly and we did not have modern medicine that we have today to help assuage our fears and heal us. How ironic! Now that we have modern medicine to help cure us and extend our lives physically, that is no consolation. Medical and scientific advances cannot help our spiritual ills since now we have more doubt, more fear. There is something worse than Corona virus: the instilling of doubt among the faithful by corrupting the phronema of the Church. Even the slightest suggestion that the Holy Mysteries can bring illness, is a terrible distortion of the Orthodox Faith and potentially affects the eternal salvation of countless innocent souls.
St. Paul gave instructions to the Corinthians about Holy Communion. He reminded them about what he had taught them regarding the sacred character of the Eucharist. They were not reverent during the divine service, “not discerning the Body and Blood,” thereby they were consuming in an “unworthy manner.” He wrote, “This is why some of you have become ill and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29). This is an amazing statement! If one can become ill and even die from not discerning the Body and Blood, what does that say about us and our situation, our lack of faith, our fears? All of the “disposable spoons” or “multiple spoons” or other methods mean nothing if we can still become ill. By our very attitude we prove ourselves unworthy to receive.
If someone is afraid, let them not receive. We should not seek to alleviate the “fears” of a few while undermining the faith of countless others. To change what has been the universal practice of the Church around the world for hundreds of years is to introduce a far worse virus: conforming to the mentality of “the world.” Today it is Corona virus. Tomorrow it will be some other illness or some other excuse to dilute the faith. The Church has weathered countless pandemics. The fear comes from our weakness, our fallenness, our brokenness, which the Church and the Holy Mysteries exist to heal, not to perpetuate.
May the All-Holy Trinity have mercy on us and enlighten us all.