Thursday, March 12, 2020

Holy Communion and the Coronavirus - A Pastoral Response

Dear Parish Faithful,

"In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!"

Threatened with the spread of the coronavirus, there is understandable anxiety about how this new virus spreads and what precautions we can all take to limit that threat in our own lives and in the lives of our families and communities. This anxiety has led to some concerned questions about our own Communion practices within the life of the Church.

I believe these concerned questions can be formulated in this way: Is the reception of Holy Communion, especially among the laity as we use one chalice and one Communion spoon (though now two of each in our own parish practice) one more possible source of spreading this virus? Is it safe, therefore, to receive Holy Communion in the manner in which we do within the Orthodox Church at a time like this?

Not much by way of guidance on our communion practices has yet emerged from the various Orthodox jurisdictions about this issue. Though the recent set of guidelines from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America simply states that Holy Communion will continue to be administered as according to normal practice.

In offering my own pastoral perspective on this issue and our age-old practice, I would like to broaden the overall approach and place this into a much wider context, covering the manner in which Holy Communion - the Eucharist - is prepared and received and fully consumed at each and every eucharistic Liturgy. In the process, I may be describing some practices that some of you may not be that aware of, or of which you may have only a vague notion. With this in mind, hopefully this will be educational as well as essential for addressing our immediate concerns.

For the parish, the Divine Liturgy begins with the exclamation "Blessed is the Kingdom..." and it unfolds from there, culminating in the reception of Holy Communion. Yet, the Liturgy actually begins with a short service known in the Greek as the Proskomedia. This can be loosely translated as "The Liturgy of Preparation." This starts about twenty minutes before the opening proclamation of the Kingdom as just described. It takes place on a special table to the left of the altar table, unseen behind the iconostasis. The presiding priest, assisted by a deacon if there is one, as in our parish, is basically "preparing" the bread and wine that will eventually be consecrated and "become" the Body and Blood of Christ during the Liturgy.

On the practical level, the priest must make an assessment concerning the parish as to how many communicants on a given Sunday to anticipate. He must "know" his parish. The priest will therefore cut the Lamb out of the center of the prosphora (baked loaf of leavened altar bread) especially prepared and "offered" for the Liturgy (prosphora is from the Gk. verb "to offer") and place it on the paten. Preparing and baking the prosphora is an essential ministry in every parish. The size of the Lamb is thus determined by how many communicants are anticipated. The priest or deacon will then pour wine into the chalice, again the amount of wine determined by the anticipated number of communicants. This is certain not an exact science, as it is based on approximation. But the priest must make sure that the size of the Lamb and the amount of wine will be "enough" when it comes time for Communion. In my near forty years as a priest, I have never underestimated what was needed!

At the Great Entrance, the paten with the prepared Lamb and the chalice with the prepared wine are carried in a solemn procession, accompanied by prayers and commemorations, to be then placed on the altar table. This bread and wine will be consecrated as the culmination of the Anaphora. The priest will pray: "And make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ; Amen." He then prays "And that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ; Amen." And then: "Making the change by thy Holy Spirit. Amen. Amen. Amen." This invocation of the Holy Spirit "upon us and upon these Gifts here offered" is called the Epiclesis. It is central to our liturgical celebration. Thus, the mystery of the Liturgy, as the bread and wine have "become" the very Body and Blood of Christ. This is Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Holy Gifts.

"There may be no way to "test" this, but there is no indication whatsoever that anyone ever gets sick because of our communion practices."

The consecrated Lamb is then "fractured" into four separate portions. One portion is immediately placed into the chalice. One portion is reserved for the clergy; and the final two are reserved for the communion of the assembled laity. Very hot water - called the zeon- is also placed into the chalice from a cup designated for this. Both blood and water poured forth from the crucified Christ on the Cross, which this signifies. And the accompanying prayer while this is done refers to the "the warmth of faith, full of the Holy Spirit." The clergy receive Holy Communion first in the sanctuary. As the choir sings a Communion Hymn I, as the priest, having received Holy Communion, will further prepare the two portions of the Lamb reserved for the laity by cutting them into very small pieces which are then placed into the chalice. (At right is an image of the stamp on the prosphora and how the four parts of the Lamb have the Greek letters for "Jesus Christ, Conqueror" - IC XC - sealed into it).

This brings us to the reception of Holy Communion on the part of the laity, and the primary purpose behind this pastoral reflection. Everyone partakes from the one chalice by means of the one communion spoon. I again add that we have two chalices in our parish as Dn. Johnothon and Dn. Paul have the bishop's blessing to distribute the Eucharist. Many parishioners receive Holy Communion by taking it right off of the spoon (as I did my entire life before becoming a priest); while others receive it by having me "drop" it into their open mouths. Both practices are fine and I know what to expect by now from each parishioner as he or she approach the chalice. There may be no way to "test" this, but there is no indication whatsoever that anyone ever gets sick because of our communion practices.

But the question now is: As I make sure that enough Holy Communion is prepared so that all can communion, as described above, what then happens to the portion of the Eucharist invariably remaining in the chalice? According to the Liturgy Book, the priest or deacon, at the end of the Liturgy "consumes the holy Gifts with all reverence and awe." Thus, I have been doing this for almost forty years now. (Dn. Johnothon and Dn. Paul now do this for the most part as I am making the post-Liturgy announcements.)

"The Eucharist is 'life-giving' and never 'life-threatening'. It is indeed the very Body and Blood of Christ."

So, after the communion spoon has been touched by many lips; and after that same spoon has been dipped in and out of the chalice, perhaps as much as a hundred times, the clergy will nevertheless "consume" the remaining Eucharist after each and every Liturgy. And it must be totally and completely consumed without a trace remaining in the chalice. The chalice is then carefully cleaned with warm water and thoroughly dried. So, it may be "cold season;" or it may even be "flu season;" and now we are threatened by the coronavirus, but this must be done regardless by the clergy.

And yet I am convinced that in these last forty years I have never become sick because of this practice.

This is my experience and the experience of all of the members of the clergy that I know and have met throughout the years. And I believe that that is also true concerning the laity. I repeat, for obvious reasons this has never been tested; and really cannot be tested; but all indications are that the clergy and the laity have never become sick due to our communion practices.

This has never been proclaimed as a "dogma," but it is the living experience of the Church. The Eucharist is "life-giving" and never "life-threatening." It is indeed the very Body and Blood of Christ. We confess our belief in this in the Pre-communion Prayer right before we receive the Eucharist. We receive the Eucharist "for the healing of soul and body." I therefore encourage everyone to continue to do so as this unites us as the one Body of Christ.

I hope that this is helpful. What I have written above has been done with pastoral love and concern for our entire parish community. It was meant to be reassuring and perhaps in the process it was also somewhat educational. If - or as - the coronavirus continues to spread into our area, each and every one will make a decision about coming to church and then about receiving the Eucharist. Approach this prayerfully. I urge that we also use good old "common sense" when making our decisions. Any symptoms that we may be showing should of course keep us at home. The sanitizing of our hands is essential, etc. We will have sanitizing lotion available in the narthex of the church. I, for my part, always carefully wipe down the icons before each and every service, and will be all the more vigilant in doing so at the present moment. If you would rather simply bow before the icon, that is your decision and is perfectly fine. The same is true for the hand Cross held at the end of the Liturgy for veneration.

At this point I will simply say feel perfectly free to contact me with any further questions or concerns that you may have.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven