The Method of Holy Communion & the Temptation of Little Faith: A Talk with Prof. Demetrios Tselengides
The Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Demetrios Tselengides, talks to us about the move by some to change the method of Holy Communion and the ensuing temptation of little Faith.
00:35 - Question 1: The use of many lavides ("spoons"), is it blessed and in accordance with Holy Tradition?
02:14 - The "good uneasiness" of the Faithful is a god sign.
03:31 - The Church is led by the Holy Spirit; those faithful who are spiritually "deactivated" are in danger
06:01- The Canons of the Church define what may be done
07:10 - The Church is always caring pastorally for the exactitude of safeguarding [Holy Communion]
10:22 - We commune of the very Body and Blood that defeated death itself, defeated the evil one, defeated sin, and is thereafter a carrier of life.
12:21 - If during this trial, this temptation, we fall into the temptation, we are essentially falling away from the Church
15:03 - There are no testimonies for 2,000 years that any harm has come to priests through Holy Communion.
16:45 - Question 2: So it isn’t correct to say that we separate the spoon from Holy Communion, that the spoon does not participate, and so that it could be a carrier of sicknes?
16:58 - This rationale leads us into rationalism and considering all the Holy Vessels as conduits for illness.
18:02 - The critical and all-important question is not so much what is done as why it is done.
Professor Tselengidis’ depth of knowledge, his education and studies, and his diligent research and labor have made him an internationally renowned academic theologian of Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. His most important offering and characteristic, however, is his work’s fidelity to the Holy Tradition and the Deposit of the Holy Fathers, a faithfulness he acquired by following experiential theologians of our day, such as Saints Paisios of Mt. Athos and Ephraim of Katounakia. He considers himself a humble minister, always emphasizing the absolute interrelation of right doctrine with the right way of life, distancing himself from the creation of a sterile and cold academic discourse.
He is the author countless articles and seven books on Dogmatic Theology, covering a wide range of topics, including the theology of the icon, grace and freedom, critical studies of the doctrine of salvation in Luther and the satisfaction of divine justice in Anslem of Canterbury, the Soteriology of Western Christianity, and the presuppositions and criteria of Orthodox Theology. Through his many lectures, articles, and appeals to the hierarchy on pressing ecclesiastical matters such as the Orthodox-Roman Catholic, and Orthodox-Anti-Chalcedonian Dialogues, the documents of the Cretan council, and the Ukrainian schism Professor Tselingides has given much courage and consolation to the faithful.
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The Method of Holy Communion & the Temptation of Little Faith: A Talk with Prof. Demetrios Tselengides
Interview conducted on June 1, 2020
Fr. Peter Heers: We thank you very much for joining us once again, that we may speak about these issues which are affecting the Church the world over. Many are the faithful that are searching for the answers of the Patristic Tradition to their questions. They have very many questions nowadays and I would say that the faithful, especially those abroad, are crying out with a desire to understand what is now happening in their churches from an Orthodox viewpoint, how to understand it, how to deal with it. These days a text has been circulating abroad, which supports the view that we should change the way we administer holy communion because we cannot be sure that disease is not transmitted through the spoon. Already, in the provinces of the Ecumenical Patriarchate abroad, they have begun to administer holy communion using many lavides, many spoons as we would say, and the faithful are troubled. What is this? How are we to understand this? Why are we doing this? Is it sound? Is it in accordance with Holy Tradition? These are some of the questions that I have received.
Prof. Tselingides: Very well. To begin with, Fr. Peter, I would like greet this uneasiness of the ecclesiastical audience around the world because it is a good uneasiness, and good uneasiness always results in something good. It would be saddening if there was no such uneasiness, in other words, if there was indifference on the part of the faithful. So we are given an opportunity that whoever has something positive to contribute from the experience of the Church can now do so and thus immediate answers can be given. Alternatively this material can be used in the distant future by the institutional expression of our Church [that is, by a council] so that, if perhaps there be something lacking [from the teaching of the Church], the Patristic response may be instituted. This does not mean that the Church cannot do this without us: we wouldn’t say something like that. What we are about to say may, simply, help, for the time being at least, as long as it is in the right direction.
And now let me come to this specific question, which does not concern only the American continent but has already become a matter of concern for many local churches. For the time being, such an issue has not being raised in Greece, although the idea of an alternative solution has been going around. Institutionally the Church of Greece has set this matter beyond all discussion. So I shall respond, as far as my theological knowledge enables me, to your question as follows.
The way in which the Church is to act is defined almost in detail by the Holy Canons and especially by those legislated by Ecumenical Councils. Whatever is not contained in Holy Scripture and in the Holy Canons constitutes the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. As Christ promised, the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, shall guide the Church through Pentecost into all truth (cf. John 15:26, 16:13). This gives us a feeling of safety through the ages, since we know that, just as Christ is present, so His Spirit of Truth will also be present with us. As a result, the Church is in no danger of being diverted from the truth. What is in danger is those faithful that are characterized by a kind of casualness and ignorance, both of which are due to the fact that this relationship in the sacramental Body of Christ is not existentially experienced. In other words, the Kingdom of God is not active in these faithful. Their personal Pentecost, which occurred when they received Holy Chrism, is deactivated.
So, having these things in mind, we can safely say the following. The Canons of the Church define what may not be done, regarding the Mystery of the holy Eucharist. There is, for example, a clear canon, the 28th of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, validating a corresponding canon of the apostles. This canon states that Holy Communion may not be given by means of another object, for example by means of a raisin, which is mentioned in this specific case. When there were people to be communed outside of the church, whether they be sick or of another sort, to whom communion could not be given from the holy chalice, this canon decrees that it be administered in some sacred and reverential way and states that the use of a raisin is unacceptable.
Now, in the history of our Church there is variety. The first Christians, for instance, would partake of the Body of Christ in their hands, just like the priests in the altar, yet they partook of the Blood all together from the common cup. Later on this changed for understandable reasons. That is why we speak of the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit. That is, when the Church increased, when Her faithful became, so to speak, “uncontrollable” at a parish, that is, the people were multiplied and could go from one city to the next and come to partake of the mystery, the safe administration of the Holy Gifts became a problem for the priest. I believe that is why the use of the spoon was instituted, so that each man could receive the Body and Blood of Christ directly into his mouth with complete safety. There are also corresponding canons stating that this method must be safeguarded. In their commentaries various canonists highlight the dangers of having the bread, that is the consecrated Body of Christ, in one’s own hands, given that we are speaking of a different time-period in the history of the Church. They mention that many people might drop the consecrated bread in their carelessness or keep it for other purposes. The Church is always caring pastorally for the exactitude of safeguarding [Holy Communion]. In the present situation, about which we are speaking and regarding which the problem has arisen, we must point out two basic things. First, we must believe beyond all questioning that this is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ, to which we approach “with fear of God, with faith, and with love”, that is, with longing for the unity with Christ and for the transmission of the remission, of the confirmation of the remission of our sins, which remission we have already received by the mystery of repentance and confession, and for the transmission of eternal life. After all, this is the goal, not just that we be forgiven but that we become a new creation, that we partake of the eternal life of the trinitarian God. Consequently, this is not even up for discussion and should not be up for discussion.
The way in which Holy Communion is administered, in this specific situation, contains a fine danger because of this health crisis that has been caused by what is called coronavirus. On the one hand, we cannot use a method that would safeguard, or even nourish, the lack of faith of some of the faithful, who suspect that the spoon with which another, possibly sick, man communed could transmit sickness to them, as well. This is a sign of faithlessness. Such a man apparently does not know of what he is communing. He communes of the very Body and Blood that defeated death itself, defeated the evil one, defeated sin, and is thereafter a carrier of life. Therefore, whatever germs might be there have no power of remaining simultaneously in that Body which is the Body of God and which burns everything that is not God. Consequently, I think that such a thought concerning the supposed safeguarding of these faithful is of the evil one and every attempt at making a so-called “oikonomia” for this lack of faith ends up in a false oikonomia, not in [true] oikonomia, and in nourishing this faithlessness.
So, basing ourselves on the witness of the Church through the centuries, which witnesses that what we mentioned has never been doubted, we should be careful in adopting such methods of safeguarding, for the question here, which remains unstated in a way, is, “Are we doing this to safeguard the Body of Christ or to safeguard the faithful from the Body of Christ?” Both are incongruous, since Christ is He that safeguards us: we cannot safeguard Him. In no possible way are we endangered by Christ, since He Whom we receive is Life Itself. Indeed, I think that this temptation, this trial in our times, is no accident within the economy of God. Every temptation that we pass through leaves us with a bit of experience [peira]: that is why in Greek it is called a temptation [peirasmos]. As a result of the stance that our disposition assumes in the face of this temptation, whether it be a positive or a negative stance, we acquire a kind of experience. Well, the experience of the Church on this matter is what we mentioned earlier. Thus, if during this trial, this temptation, we fall into the temptation, we are essentially falling away from the Church. Why? Because the celebrant, who stands in the place and type of Christ, calls the faithful to proceed “with fear of God.” If someone does not have the “fear of God,” or, “with faith,” which means unshakeable faith, without so much as a trace of lack of faith. For this little faith means to be sinking. Let’s remember the Apostle Peter. He was walking on the waves out of faith, but when he had thoughts of faithlessness he was sinking, which is clear from what Christ said to him: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Because he was sinking, he asked for his salvation from Christ with faith, and he was saved.
So! The part about “with faith” is not some technical detail. In the same way, we must approach “with love”, so that this uncreated love of God may overflow within us, so that we may acquire this love, which is the love that the Father has toward the Son, the Son toward the Father and the Son toward His disciples and towards all the members of His Body. This is the love that he asks of us, without this sort of prerequisites. The prerequisites for approaching Holy Communion are essentially these three, but also before these there must be repentance and purity. This is what safeguards for us what has been believed and experienced for two thousand years up to today without a doubt. There are no scientific or other historical accounts testifying that any priests have been harmed who have been consuming the Gifts from all those holy chalices from which they had communed not only those visibly sick but also those unknowingly sick. There is absolutely no testimony! As a result, we have passed into a stage of temptation. Christ told us about these temptations, how Ηe Himself overcame them, but he also told His disciples what the medicine is. He said, “Pray, lest ye enter into temptation” (Luke 22:46). Prayer here means being committed to, concentrated on, having faith in Him.
Fr. Peter: So it isn’t correct to say that we separate the spoon from Holy Communion, that the spoon does not participate, and so that it could be a carrier of sickness, as some say.
Professor Tselingides: This rationale would lead us to the conclusion that the holy chalice, which is the vessel containing the Body and Blood of Christ, or the paten that bears the Body, all these things, according to this rationale, could also be considered suspect and liable to cleansing before and after their use. The spoon is another sacred vessel that ministers unto the offering of the Body and Blood of Christ. Since the Body and Blood of Christ immortalizes our own selves, then why should it not also immortalize [the sacred vessels] — I mean this in the sense of sanitizing bacteria etc. — why should it not sanitize this area as well?
Fr. Peter: And for at least one thousand years this has been confirmed by experience.
Professor Tselingides: Yes, precisely. As you said, Fr. Peter, we have had experience of the use of the spoon for already one thousand years, and no objection has ever been raised. Changes do indeed occur in the Church. As we said, we have arrived at the usage of the lavida. But the critical and all-important question is not so much what is done as why it is done. In no case whatsoever did the Church, through Her canons or through Her entire life, raise any health question about adopting a different way of administering communion. The only issue was to make sure that Holy Communion be given in a safe way [that is, for the sake of protecting Holy Communion from being mishandled], not in the sense that [the Holy Gifts] could be affected by any sickness.
Fr. Peter: In other words, not in the sense that there is some danger for the faithful.
Professor Tselingides: Exactly!