Orthodox England

Excerpt from: Volume 9 Issue 3 Date 1st March 2006

Question & Answer

What is the origin of the way in which Orthodox take communion? And can you say something about the early form of the Western Eucharist?

D. T., Exeter

As you say in your letter, at the first Eucharist, known as the Last, or Mysterious, Supper, communion of the Body of Christ was separate from communion of the Blood of Christ (Matt. 26 etc). This practice continued in the first centuries. Only between the seventh and eighth centuries did it cease for laity, though in the Orthodox Church it continued and continues among the clergy, as you can see at any Orthodox liturgy on Easter Night. Personally, as an Orthodox priest, I fear taking communion in my hands and would rather take communion as laypeople do. It is difficult for me, but it must be terrible for the obsessive. They must feel that after communion, they can no longer do anything with their hands.
Historically, both in East and West practices changed after mass Christianisation. Mass Christianisation began in the fourth century, but took many centuries to complete. The reason for change of practice was the abuse of communion: people coming up for communion with dirty hands (most people worked on the land), drinking of the Blood of Christ from the chalice negligently or excessively, spillages etc. Thus, in the West, the laity began to take the Blood through a liturgical straw, but continued for a time to take communion in their hands. In the East, again for reasons of piety, mainly during the eighth century, laity began to take communion of both the Body and Blood together, with the help of a liturgical spoon. This is still the practice of the Orthodox Church today.
Thus, in both East and West, practical solutions were found – the spoon for the Body and Blood together in the East, and the liturgical straw for the Blood in the West, though the Body continued to be given in the hand for a time. No doubt this would have changed, except for the fact that, in many places in the West, even before the eleventh century split from the Church, leavened bread was replaced by unleavened bread, or biscuit-like wafers, in the Eucharist (leaven signifying the Risen Christ). At this point therefore they stopped giving communion in the hand and began placing the wafers, or ‘hosts’, in the mouth. At the same time they withdrew the chalice from the laity, despite the Gospel’s commandment: ‘Drink ye all of this’. After the Schism, when Roman Catholicism developed, this practice became universal in the West and continues today, also, I believe, among Anglicans who take communion. As one Roman Catholic priest friend said to me: ‘At catechism the children are quite happy to believe that bread and wine become the Body and Blood, what they cannot accept is that the wafer is bread’.
As you know, later in the West, Roman Catholicism also ceased to give communion to children. This was because with the spread of scholastic rationalism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the sacrament of confirmation was gradually separated from baptism. In more recent and faithless centuries, as both many Orthodox and Roman Catholics became nominal in their faith, communion has also become rare, often only once a year.
It is true also that since the 1960s, there have been revivals in frequent communion. Some of these reflect an increase in piety and zeal. Unfortunately, however, both among some Orthodox and some Roman Catholics, the basis for frequent communion seems to be disbelief. I have come across both Roman Catholics and even a few convert Orthodox, under Protestant influence, who take communion at every Eucharist, but do not believe that this is actually the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore do not observe any liturgical fast. As regards the modernist revival of giving communion in the hands among some Non-Orthodox, this also often happens among those for whom Communion is not a sacrament anyway, but merely symbolic. I cannot see integrated Orthodox accepting this practice, because communion is so sacred.
Although this revival is usually justified by the words: ‘This was the practice of the Early Church’, there is a lack of logic in this argument. First of all, in the early centuries, the Orthodox Church (that is what the phrase ‘the Early Church’ means) was a Church of Saints. Therefore it really sounds like a form of spiritual pride to compare ourselves with the Orthodox of those days. Secondly, if the Church decided to change practices, surely there was a good reason for this? As Orthodox, we understand the Church as the Bearer of Tradition, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we do not change without a spiritual and edifying reason. Most Orthodox find communion daunting in itself.
Regarding your second question about the origins of the Eucharistic service, I would suggest you have a look at The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix (London 1945), which is still the standard work on the history of the Eucharist. You will see from it that all forms of the eucharistic liturgy are ultimately the same, because they have common roots in the Last Supper and the worship of the Temple. What is different, of course, is the beliefs or inner content, which surround the form of the Eucharist celebrated.

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