“Wherefore it is necessary to understand the marvel of the mysteries, what it is, why it was given, and what the benefit of the action is. We become one body, and members of His flesh and His bones… This is effected by the food which He has freely given us, desiring to show the love which He has for us. On this account, He has mixed Himself with us; he has kneaded His body with ours, that we might be a certain one thing, like a body joined to a head.” Saint John Chrysostom wrote these words in the fourth century. He prompted every member of the faithful towards knowledge and understanding, to delve deeper into union with Christ and His Church. Knowledge is the only way to freedom, for “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32).
With the aim of seeking knowledge and understanding, Watani has sought the help of scholars and researchers. Among those is Dr. Ramez Mikhail, who holds a doctoral degree (PhD) in Theology and Liturgical Studies from the University of Vienna (Austria) and is now a researcher in the Department of Liturgical Studies in the University of Regensburg (Germany), who explains here some features of the ritual of communion in the Early Church and Coptic tradition.
Dr. Mikhail writes: “There has been much interest recently in the mystery of the Eucharist in the Christian tradition, especially in the manner of distributing the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ according to the faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This interest on the part of the Christian community was occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spread throughout the world and has resulted in the cancellation of public worship services in the churches of Egypt and the world for months. This has resulted in much debate in ecclesiastical circles concerning traditional liturgical practices that are feared to be causes of spreading the virus among attendees of church services, such as hand greetings at the time of the liturgical kiss of peace or the veneration of icons, besides the manner of receiving communion.”
“Naturally, a large part of this debate involves the historical dimension, with its interest in analyzing the origins of ritual practices in historical sources, such as the writings of the Fathers of the Church, historical accounts, and liturgical manuscripts. With trust in the wisdom of our ecclesiastical leadership in making appropriate decisions for every time and place, I wish to provide here some historical information on the evolution of the communion ritual in the Eastern Churches generally and the Coptic Orthodox Church in particular, in an effort to spread awareness of this important topic in the history of the Church’s rites. This is because thorough and objective knowledge of the facts of history forms an important and sensitive aspect in the current debate. However, at the same time, I must emphasize that the historical dimension is, in the final analysis, only one tool in the hands of the Church in facing contemporary challenges and is by no means the only consideration. It is important therefore not to take history in isolation from other important aspects of this issue—the theological, pastoral, and even the human aspects— all of which are critical in discussions of changes in ritual, which occupies a central place in the life of the Coptic community.”
In the Early Church
In many cases, rituals throughout the Christian world differed in the early centuries from norms accepted today. Many aspects of ritual took considerable time to be shaped and to settle into their present form.
Historical sources are generally unanimous that the Early Church and until the ninth century in some places, the Body of Christ was given in the hand of the communicant, followed by drinking a small amount of the Holy Blood directly from the chalice, that is, without the use of a spoon.
St Cyril of Jerusalem (d. AD 386) in his fifth homily on the mysteries wrote: “Do not approach with your wrists extended or your fingers spread, but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King” (Myst. cat. 5.21). Cyril of Jerusalem is not clear about the method of receiving the Blood, instructing the communicant not to stretch his hand in order to receive, but rather to make a small bow and say, “Amen.” This may indicate that the communicants were given the chalice rather than took it themselves. At any rate, Cyril never referred to the use of a consecrated spoon for Communion. This fact is also supported by a number of remarks in the homilies of John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century (d. AD 407), such as his homilies on the Gospels of Matthew and John, on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and on the Nativity of Christ. Perhaps the clearest of these remarks on the people’s reception of the Body directly in the hand is his advice to the newly baptised: “Think of what you receive in your hand and never dare to strike anyone” (Ad illuminandos catech. 2.2; PG 49:233–4).
… In the Coptic Church
As is frequently the case, historical evidence from Egyptian sources is rather scarce. Yet, two stories give the impression that communicants received the Body directly in their hands.
Rufinus’s ca. 5th century Historia monachorum tells of monks during a vigil, which usually ends with Communion before dawn, and how demons would tempt them in their spiritual and bodily discipline. The text reads, “When they stretched out their hands to receive it, [demons] came first to some of their hands and placed coal there” (Historia monachorum 23.1). The second story is in a manuscript from the Monastery of St Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun (Codex Tischendorff XXIV, frag. 2, Cairo 104), informing of a Eucharistic miracle in which a pagan youth entered the church secretly to receive Communion with the Christians. When he saw the Body, “he found that it had taken the form of a son of man in his hands,” which ultimately resulted in the youth’s conversion. Although the historicity of such miraculous accounts cannot be demonstrated, the purpose is to point to the practice in the time and place when they occurred. Several remarks of a similar character appear in the writings of the Fathers of the Church in the East, pointing to the practice of receiving the Body of Christ in the hand. The scholar of Byzantine liturgy Fr. Robert F, SJ mentions many such references in his analysis of this topic, from the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th c.), Narsai (5th c.), Philoxenus of Mabbug (6th c.), John of Damascus (7th c.), and others.
Administering the Blood
Regarding Communion from the chalice, the topic of more importance today, most of the evidence appears in the homilies of John Chrysostom, which point to the ritual in 4th-century Constantinople. The saintly bishop speaks more than once of God, “giving into your hand the awesome chalice” (Ad illuminandos cat. 1.1; PG 49:223).
A large number of 7th and 8th-century metal spoons were discovered near Antioch and Syria. But it is difficult to assert that these were Communion spoons; it is possible they had other uses. A few of these spoons discovered in the treasure troves of ancient churches were donated together with Communion chalices, which increases the likelihood but not the certitude of them being related to the Eucharist.
The oldest unequivocal evidence for the use of a Communion spoon goes back to 6th-century Jerusalem. The Miracles of Sts Cyrus and John attributed to Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem, cites an instance of giving Communion to a sick person, where both the Body and Blood were placed in the chalice together. From this, we can infer that a spoon may have been used to administer both together, which is the practice today in the Byzantine tradition (Narratio miraculorum Ss. Cyri et Iohannis, PG 87:3457). The same is encountered in another Greek text, the narrations of Abbot Anastasius of Sinai (8th c.), which should be taken to represent the Antiochene practice. The story tells of a solitary saint receiving Communion on top of his pillar, mentioning that the attendant clergy and servants raised the chalice and spoon together to the saint to self-administer the Eucharist (Narrationes utiles animae 43).
The later Antiochene tradition likewise attests to the spread of the use of a Communion spoon. In a treatise on the Eucharist, John, Metropolitan of Dara (9th c.), writes, “Why the spoon placed on the table of mystery? The spoon symbolises the Holy Spirit by means of which we receive the Body of God the Word” (De oblatione 2.28; CSCO 308, p. 38). To this, Bar Hebraeus asserts that in his time in the 13th century only the so-called “Nestorians” did not use a spoon in Communion, indicating that the Communion spoon had become a fixed and accepted tradition in the majority of Eastern Churches.
In the Coptic tradition, the masteer appears to have become a well-known Eucharistic vessel around the seventh and eighth centuries, at least in Upper Egypt. An 8th-century wall painting in the Red Monastery near Sohag represents an angel carrying a number of altar vessels, including a paten, a chalice, a frame for the chalice (i.e. chalice throne), and a spoon.
A graffito from the Monastery of abba Apollo in Bawit attests to the use of spoons. The graffito was discovered in the early 20th century and goes back to the sixth and eighth centuries. Unfortunately, the graffito did not survive to the present day, but the French scholar Jean Clédat reproduced it by hand in his report on the discoveries at Bawit. The drawing depicts what appears to be a priest giving Communion from the chalice using a spoon.
Bearing in mind that religious art tends to represent traditional scenes from the perspective of its intended audience, it is possible that the use of a spoon for Communion was already a well-established custom among the Christians of Sohag and Bawit when the Coptic artist depicted the rite of Communion on the walls of these respective monasteries.
The Second Millennium
With the coming of the second millennium, the use of a spoon for Communion had become a firm tradition in line with other Churches of the Christian East. An anonymous work of the 13th century, The Order of the Priesthood, emphasises that the laity receive Communion with a spoon, while the clergy receive it from the chalice directly. Likewise, the spoon appears in later Arabic writings on the Coptic tradition, such as The Lamp of Darkness of the presbyter Abū-l-Barakāt ibn Kabar (14th c.), The Precious Jewel of Yūḥannā ibn Sabbā‘ (14th c.), and The Ritual Order, which was prepared and disseminated under the supervision of Pope Gabriel V (d. AD 1427).
It can thus be said that the use of a spoon for delivering Communion goes back at least to the eighth century if not before, though it must be noted that wall paintings do not indicate whether the spoon was used to administer the Blood alone or the Blood and Body together.
None of the sources addresses the reasons for use of a spoon for Communion. Perhaps it was simply to assist the clergy and people, especially in places with large numbers of communicants. In such cases, Communion may have taken a long time or, worse, the Blood may have been depleted if the clergy did not use a small spoon to regulate the amount given to each communicant. With the increase in number of Christians, it may have been perfectly natural for Church leaders to prefer the use of a spoon in order to regulate the process, avoid spillage, and give each communicant a small amount of the precious Blood.
Communion by Dipping the Body in the Blood (Intinction)
The custom of dipping a particle of the Body in the Blood to give to the communicant has been also attested for centuries in Coptic practice. The Ritual Order of Pope Gabriel V gives the choice to the priest to administer Communion in this manner, without specifying the reason to opt for it. The Ritual Order represented an attempt at the time to unify and organise ritual practices for presbyters. This was obviously successful, since the majority of the manuscripts of the Euchologion produced after the time of Pope Gabriel V include the text of this work verbatim as ritual instructions for the priest, who would use the Euchologion at every eucharistic service.
The practice today in communing the sick and imprisoned is mentioned in the Euchologion of Hegumen Abdel-Massih Salib al-Baramousi, published in 1902. In this work, the scholarly author writes that in the case of offering the Body and the Blood together, the priest is to say, “The Body and Blood of Emmanuel our God. This is in truth, amen” (p. 416). This famous Euchologion, known among scholars for its exceptional attention to explaining and documenting ritual practices, did not indicate that this method is restricted to giving Communion to the sick or outside the context of the public liturgy. So meticulous was Hegumen Abdel-Massih’s work in compiling this Euchologion that in preparing it he consulted ca. 32 ancient manuscripts from the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun and the Patriarchal Library as well as previous editions of the Euchologion (Euch. 2015, p.1010–20). This edition of the Euchologion is today considered the official source for the rite of the Eucharist, based on a decision of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church on 14 June 1997.
Perhaps what is most important in this journey through the sources is that all the changes that took place throughout history in the rite of Communion likely happened gradually and without a centralised decision by the Patriarch of Alexandria or the Holy Synod. This is at least based on the available sources. For it is known that many practical matters of ritual that do not touch upon core issues of the faith and the mysteries differed from one region to another and from time to time, without the need for overarching unification in all the dioceses of the Church of Alexandria at the same time.
This is not the situation today when the Coptic Church has spread worldwide, increasing the need for unifying ritual practice in order to avoid overt differences that may lead to disturbance or confusion. “Nonetheless,” Dr Mikhail writes, “the historical record as I have overviewed it remains a witness to the fact that the manner of administering Communion was never in itself the essence of the mystery of the Eucharist. Rather, it is more likely that the use of a spoon came about for purely practical reasons, unrelated to the theology of the Eucharist in its scriptural and patristic tradition.”
– Abū al-Barakāt ibn Kabar: Paris BnF Ar. 203 (AD 1363–1369), fol. 206r.
– Yūḥannā ibn Sabbā‘: Paris BnF Ar. 207 (14th c.), fol. 171r.
– Pope Gabriel V: Paris BnF Ar. 98 (17th c.), fol. 70v.
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10 July 2020