In the Orthodox Church, Holy Communion is administered to communicants using a special spoon. Some have asked, doesn’t the 101st canon of the Council of Trullo forbid the use of Communion spoons? And why are the laity not allowed to receive Communion in the hand and from the chalice, as they did at the time of the Ecumenical Councils? Fr. John Whiteford answers these questions about the use of Communion spoons in our Orthodox Liturgy.
The canon in question has nothing to do with Communion spoons. It addressed the practice of some people who, rather than receive Communion in the hand, as was the practice at that time, would make vessels of their own, and would receive Communion in these vessels, thinking it was more pious than to receive it in the hand. Some may also have used these vessels to take some of the Eucharist to their homes. This practice was specifically prohibited by that canon:
“The divine Apostle loudly proclaims the man created in the image of God to be a body of Christ and a temple. Standing therefore, far above all sensible creation, and having attained to a heavenly dignity by virtue of the saving Passion, by eating and drinking Christ as a source of life, he perpetually readjusts both his eternal soul and his body and by partaking of the divine grace he is continually sanctified. So that if anyone should wish to partake of the immaculate body during the time of a Synaxis, and to become one therewith by virtue of transessence, let him form his hands into the shape of a cross, an
d, thus approaching, let him receive the Communion of grace. For we nowise welcome those men who make certain receptacles out of gold, or any other material, to serve instead of their hand for the reception of the divine gift, demanding to take of the immaculate Communion in such containers; because they prefer soulless (i.e., inanimate) matter and an inferior article to the image of God. In case, therefore, any person should be caught in the act of imparting of the immaculate Communion to those offering such receptacles, let him be excommunicated, both he himself and the one offering them.”
The practice of distributing the Eucharist to the laity with a spoon became the norm because of the practical issue of laity accidentally dropping particles of the Eucharist when communing. If you pay attention when people come up to kiss the cross at the end of the liturgy, and receive the antidoron, you can’t help but notice that there are almost always crumbs on the floor. We should of course make every effort to avoid this, of course, even when it comes to antidoron, but when it comes to the Eucharist, this is an infinitely more serious problem.
The clergy still receive Communion in the hand, and drink directly from the chalice—and they have the benefit of having the Holy Table to do this over, so that if something falls, it falls on the Holy Table, and can easily be consumed. However, even in the Altar, and despite the usual care that is exercised, accidents sometimes still happen. Such things are far more likely to happen outside of the altar.
If we believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, we have to believe that when it makes a change, like the introduction of the use of Communion spoons, there is a good reason for it. There are those who selectively advocate some ancient practice be revived because, “this is how they did it in the early Church,” but they usually do not advocate a return to the strict penitential system that they had in the early Church. Those who joined the early Church did so at a time when doing so could easily result in their martyrdom, and they were held to a very high standard, and so there are practices that made sense in that context that do not work so well in the context of a Church in which many people, unfortunately, grow up in the Church with a much lower level of piety.
We don’t have to speculate about the results of returning to this practice in our time. We can look at what has happened in the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican II when they began to allow laity to receive Communion in the hand. The result was not an increase of piety, but just the opposite. I know of a pious Roman Catholic who says more cockroaches receive first Communion each week than people, because particles so routinely drop to the floor—and most people do not seem to be concerned about it, either.
No less than Pope John Paul II observed:
“In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect toward the eucharistic species have been reported, cases that are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful toward the Eucharist” (Dominicae Cenae 11.9).
The wisest course for us is to humbly accept the Tradition as we have received it, and to trust that what the Church has established is for our salvation.
By Fr. John Whiteford