Coronavirus and the Chalice: can we get infected or not?

To take communion or not because of the coronavirus is a matter of faith and the Christian conscience of the believer.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, some believers increasingly ask the question: Does God work "wonders by default", prevent the virus from spreading in the church or not?

In recent days, the newswires of both global and national media have been flooded with coronavirus reports. We will not consider conspiracy theories according to which these reports appeared at the same time and in almost all information resources, but we will touch upon another topic – how the coronavirus epidemic affects our religious worldview.

In the previous article on the subject, we spoke about the fact that the Church, in principle, has never opposed hygienic measures designed to stop the spread of dangerous infections. Moreover, the Bible was the first source from which one received information on how to counteract epidemics. In so doing, the Holy Scripture emphasizes the direct correlation between moral purity and the absence of disease. That is, the cause of diseases is most often the sinfulness of man, and their healing should begin with repentance. This does not mean that the believer in God refuses medical care. On the contrary, he/she accepts it and treats the doctor with due respect as a tool of God's Providence. However, medical treatment cannot be thought of in a religious perspective without spiritual correction.

Today we see an interesting picture in church and would be-church environment when people try to find out whether coronavirus (as well as other infectious diseases) can be transmitted through the Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. This question, given the current situation, is not idle by any means, not only from the medical point of view but also, first of all, from the religious point of view. That is why the believers in attempts to give an answer to this question have been divided into several camps.

Traditionalists: Communion cannot be contagious. A different point of view is blasphemy

Representatives of the first camp (the majority), let’s call it "traditionalists", believe that the Body and Blood of Christ cannot be the cause/source/transmitter of the disease. On the contrary, in the prayer for the Holy Communion we hear the words: "O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, let not the communion of Thy immaculate and life-giving Mysteries be to me for condemnation nor let it make me sick in body or soul...".

The logic of the traditionalist camp is simple and clear – Christ Himself is in the Chalice, and therefore one cannot fall ill from contact with Him. On the contrary, the Bible says that the Lord healed lepers who were suffering from various illnesses, and even touching His clothes gave them health. Otherwise, if the Body and Blood of Christ can transmit infection, then Holy Communion is nothing but a "fiction", a beautiful rite, which is also "unhygienic" and in some cases even harmful.

We already live in a secular society, where moral guidelines are almost lost, and faith in God is like a hobby on Sundays. And if we level out the effectiveness of the Sacraments now, the Church will have no other function than psychotherapeutic. In other words, the Church will not be able to offer a person real, true, not illusory unity with Christ. The words of Protopresbyter Alexander Shmeman that "the Church is the walls built around the Communion" will lose their relevance. After all, if there is no Communion, then there is no need for the Church either – psychoanalysts are enough.”

One of the most irreconcilable positions on this issue was expressed by the Holy Synod of the Cyprus Orthodox Church, which considers it blasphemous "to think that the Body and Blood of Christ can transmit any disease or virus. The Synods explain: "Based on centuries of experience in Christianity, there is no evidence of such transmission. The priests who served in infectious disease hospitals and gave the Eucharist to these patients eventually received the rest of Holy Communion themselves using the same spoon. No priest was infected in these cases.”

It is emphasized that "the Sacrament of Holy Communion is attended with faith, which protects against any danger. Participation is voluntary. No one is forced. If someone feels that they want to abstain from the Sacrament at this time, they are free to do so”.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, in its encyclical concerning the situation with the coronavirus outbreak, recalled that "in times of epidemic, the Russian Orthodox Church has always carried out its testifying ministry, not denying anyone spiritual care and full participation in its Sacraments”.

The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece makes it clear that "the faithful will continue to receive the Holy Communion as usual" because it "could never become a cause of disease transmission because receiving the Holy Communion, even in the midst of a pandemic, is a manifestation of the love that overcomes everybody and perhaps its justified fear". However, the Holy Synod "does not condemn those who are afraid of participating in the Holy Communion, but it clearly states its faith and calls on ‘the public debate participants’ to respect this faith and the free choice of the people to continue participating in the Mysteries of the Church".

Similar positions are held in the Bulgarian and Georgian Orthodox Churches, as well as in the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

"Liberals." Communion can be contagious

Representatives of the opposite camp, let's call it "liberal", are convinced that the opposite is true – the common cup from which all those who wish to partake can cause the spread of the disease.

Thus, according to the Director of the St. Thomas Aquinas Institute, the Catholic priest Peter Balog, "Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ under the guise of bread and wine, which have all the properties of these products without exception. It means that they can be spoiled, inedible, poisoned, or actually carry bacteria or viruses.”

He basis his statement on a theological argument: "Some say that the Communion cannot transmit disease or viruses – it is, classically speaking, monophysitism, that is the heresy of the first centuries of Christianity when some did not believe in the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, or even if they did believe in the Incarnation, they claimed that the human nature of Christ was absorbed by His Divine nature and that the different human manifestations of the Personality of Christ were only an illusion.” After all, he compares Communion with a sandwich: "Communion with a virus can be infectious in the same way as a sandwich or juice with a virus. In addition, Balog gives several examples of how the Pope was poisoned through the Chalice and even priests and monks died during the plague.

An associate of Peter Balog in this matter is a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church, Cyril (Govorun), who is also sure that viruses can be transmitted through the Communion. However, unlike his like-minded fellow, Govorun believes that those who deny the contagion of the common chalice are not monophysites but docetes: "Yes, the virus can be transmitted through the Chalice. Thinking differently is a docetic attitude to the Sacraments. Anyone who partakes should clearly understand this and make a decision: to commune or not to commune – based on this understanding." (understanding that the virus is transmitted through the Chalice – K.Sh.). The archimandrite stresses that "to deceive people and oneself by referring to faith and promising that nothing will happen is theologically wrong, as well as irresponsible and may even be criminal”. At the same time, he himself does not refuse to take the Sacraments: "I, for example, am well aware of this, and yet I take the Sacraments after all.”

Ex-Priests of the UOC Georgy Kovalenko also expressed a similar point of view. According to him, "God should not work as a water purifier for Baptism or as a disinfector during a pandemic.”

It is not surprising that the same stance is shared by the ROC archdeacon Andrei Kurayev, who cites as proof for his point of view the words of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite. Thus, interpreting the 28th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, St. Nicodemus writes: "During the plague, both priests and bishops should use for the communion of the sick such a method that does not contradict this canon. They should put the holy Bread not in the grapes but in a sacred vessel, from which the gravediggers and the sick can take it with a communion spoon. The vessel and the spoon should then be immersed in vinegar and the vinegar be poured into the altar well. Or they can commune in any other, more reliable way that does not break the canon.”

However, these words of St. Nicodemus do not shed any light on the problem, because, 1) it is not clear what grapes we are talking about; 2) why priests put the holy Bread (in the original written "agion Arton") in these very grapes; 3) why should the Bread be put in a vessel separate from the grapes, and not in a chalice with the Blood of Christ? Especially since St. Nicodemus gives all this rather complicated scheme of actions during the plague in the interpretation to the 28th Canon of the Sixth Council, which directly prohibits to combine the grapes with the Bloodless Sacrifice: "Since  we  have  learned  that  in various  churches  when grapes  are offered at the sacrificial altar, in accordance with a certain custom which has gained prevalence, by affixing them to the bloodless sacrifice of the offering (or oblation), the ministers thus  distribute both to the laity, we have seen fit to decree that no one in holy orders shall do this anymore; but, on the contrary, for the purpose of vivification, and remission of sins, they shall impart to the laity of the oblation only…”

It turns out that St. Nicodemus opposes this custom only during the plague, and on other days combining the Holy Bread with the grapes is allowed? Or maybe, in this case, it's more about Arton rather than Eucharistic Bread? Anyway, the quote given by Father Andrei leaves more questions than answers.

The cautious: All by faith.

As we can see, the arguments of Catholics and "liberals" are not convincing and rather balance on the verge of blasphemy. At the same time, the traditional approach to the Sacrament of Holy Communion excludes even the idea that it can be a source of infection. On the contrary, traditionalists believe that through the Body and Blood of Christ man is healed.

There is also a third point of view. Its supporters believe that everything depends on one’s faith. In other words, if one believes that they can be infected, it means that they should either abstain from partaking from the common Chalice or ask to take communion with a teaspoon brought from home and used exclusively for this purpose by a single person (this is the idea expressed by the Synod of the Romanian Church).

Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis of the Constantinople Patriarchate says that "Holy Communion requires faith. There is no magical Holy Communion. Depending on our faith, it does no harm. But who can measure faith? If you have great faith, you can walk on waves from Alexandroupolis to Samothrace. And if not? We must accept Holy Communion with faith, not as an act of boasting. The sanctification goes to the soul. And if God wants to test us?"

The Albanian Church has also been rather cautious about the existing problem, which suspends all daily services except Sunday Divine Liturgies until the beginning of April, calling on believers to pray at home or on their own in churches, which for this reason will remain open during the day.

So, who is right after all?

To take communion or not?

Frankly speaking, it is very difficult to answer this question. Simply because the modern man is too weak to accept what is said with all the responsibility. Yes, we lack faith, we have an increasing number of spiritual problems. And so, as for taking communion, we give everyone the right to decide for themselves. There is the teaching of the Church, there are traditional and opposite points of view – it’s up to you to choose. As for our position...

There is a great deal of evidence that the Sacrament of Holy Communion cannot be a source of infection. Many priests perform their ministry in places that, to put it mildly, are not very well served in terms of hygiene or medical standards. For example, for 10 years Father Alexander Klimenko had to give communion to prisoners of the Berezan’ correctional colony, where there were people with HIV and open form of tuberculosis, and after all the partakers – to take the Holy Sacraments (that is to eat the Holy Communion left in the Chalice). He did not get infected with HIV or tuberculosis.

Archpriest Alexander Ovcharenko, a spokesman for the Zaporozhye Eparchy, counted that during the years of his ministry he took the Chalice about 2600 times.

The priest says: "As you know, quite different people with many diseases come to the church. On average, twice a year in Zaporozhye there are epidemics of influenza and acute respiratory diseases. I have never fallen ill after taking the Eucharist! I was ill if I either got frozen or sat in a draught or turned on the air conditioning. Holy Сommunion is the spiritual fire that burns not only human sins, take my word for it!

Deacon Irinej writes about this problem simply and convincingly: "During every liturgy whatever sick people receive communion. After each liturgy, the communion spoon is put into the Chalice. And the rest of the Sacraments are taken (eaten) by the deacon. As for the opportunity to be infected through the Communion, I will say very simply as a deacon, we (deacons) simply would not exist. We would have died out long ago like mammoths."

There are a huge number of different viruses in our world, which are transmitted both through saliva and airborne droplets. And we are talking not only about tuberculosis, hepatitis, syphilis, to name but a few. Given this, the Church should have long ago used such forms of communion that would protect people from various diseases: disposable cups, disposable spoons, personal wipes (preferably also disposable), disinfectants for hands and icons – all this would be in the Church if the infection were transmitted through the Chalice.

Yes, no one has ever dared to suspect the Holy Sacraments of possible infection transmission before, because even suspicions of icons could end up badly. The Orthodox priest Ilya Soloviev gives a historical example of how people treated the shrine during the terrible plague:

"The situation with the plague epidemic in Moscow in 1771 comes to mind. The scale of the disaster was so great that the city was surrounded by new large ‘plague’ cemeteries that appeared around the Kamer-Kollezhsky Val: Pyatnitskoye, Danilovskoye, Kalitnikovskoye, Vagankovskoye, Dorogomilovskoye, Miusskoye, Rogozhskoye... Their total area was over 76 tithes. It is known that in order to prevent mass congestion of people, Archbishop Ambrose (Zertis-Kamensky) removed an icon from the Kitai-Gorod wall, around which many people gathered for prayers. All this aroused indignation among the ignorant crowd. The bishop was persecuted, he had to take refuge in the Kremlin first, and at night he was taken down in a basket from the Kremlin wall and transported to the Donskoy Monastery. But even here he could not escape from the furious crowd. On learning about Ambrose’s stay in the Donskoy, a multi-thousand crowd began to break into the monastery. Dozens of fists drummed at the monastery gates. Having broken through, people who lost their human look rushed to the cathedral. Finding here the Reverend who took refuge in the choirs, they dragged him out into the street, behind the fence and ... tore him right at the entrance to the monastery. It’s terrible to even remember this event."

And of course, nothing like that will happen again today. On the contrary, you and I will rather witness the opposite – how the "educated" crowd will tear apart a priest daring to give communion to people during the coronavirus epidemic. The fear of this disease is so strong that even the majority of Orthodox Greeks (71% of the population) agreed not to receive communion so as not to fall ill.

Already in some ways, we can say that the faith of modern man loses to technology, the world and its "values". Communion is no longer perceived as a cure for the body, and if so, its medicinal properties for the soul will soon be questioned. What will remain for the modern man? What can the Church offer him then? A tradition? It is unlikely that this approach can convince anyone that their life needs to be changed for Christ's sake. After all, if there is no Communion, then there is no Church.

Finally, accusations of monophysitism and docetism of those who deny the infection of the Body and Blood of Christ are completely groundless. Simply because "as Orthodox Christians, we believe that the Holy Eucharist is the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ".

According to St. John of Damascus, the Body of Christ the Risen has become “immutable, impassionate, subtle" able to pass “through locked doors, not tired, not in need of food, sleep and drink”. But it is still a human body, “which is described”. After all, by eliminating “corruption”, that is, “hunger or thirst or sleep or weariness or such like", the resurrected Lord “laid aside none of the divisions of His nature, neither body nor spirit, but possesses both the body and the soul”. And then he continues: "I say this, not destroying the nature of the Body, but wishing to show the vivification and divinity of it.”

Through Holy Communion, we become, according to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, consanguineous to Christ the Risen, which gives us hope for personal resurrection. In the Gospel, we read the words of Christ: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me." (John 6:54-57)

At the same time, people who do not want to receive communion put themselves outside the life that Christ gives them: "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53)

Thus, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is simply necessary in order to achieve unity with Christ and salvation. Without it, our life loses its meaning and turns into an eternal pursuit of the "niceties of life", interrupted by periods of fear and horror at seeing what is happening around us. The coronavirus in this sense is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing is to stop being those who strive upwards but remain only food for worms.

Well, it's up to each of us to take communion or not. And no one will make that decision for us.

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