(This is Neil.) I’m sure that many of you have read Fr Robert F. Taft, SJ’s book, Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It, published last year. Fr Taft’s “Abschied von Byzanz” is rewarding in many ways – for one thing, it corrects many common misconceptions. Some of these misconceptions are “Liturgical-Movement clichés,” such as the “notion that eastern liturgy was traditionally more spontaneous and relaxed, sort of Southern-California-laid-back, in contrast to the putative ‘narcissistic legalism’ of the Latin West.” Some misconceptions have other sources. The learned Fr Taft also tells us, “This business that everything Eastern goes back to the apostles is sheer mythology, absolute nonsense for anyone who’s ever read a manuscript.” And he reminds us that, whatever we might think, St John Chrysostom depicted the reception of communion in Antioch like this: “We don’t approach for communion with awe, but kicking, striking, filled with anger, shoving our neighbors, full of disorder.”
I would like to post twice on the book. Tomorrow, I will try to summarize Fr Taft’s final lecture, “The Meaning of it All.” Today, I will quickly share a few interesting points from his discussion of Holy Communion in Byzantium, something that will probably be of some interest to some of our readers. Needless to say, a blog post cannot exhaust even Fr Taft’s short discussion. For instance, he discusses the communion of the emperor, who was believed to occupy a “middle-ground between the laity and clergy,” considered “equal to the apostles” and a “bishop ad extra.” I will not. However, I would like to discuss three things:
1. Fr Taft discusses the complex Byzantine communion rites. The details might be of less interest than his concluding paragraph (my emphases):
There was, of course, a point to all this seemingly ritualistic minutiae, one long forgotten in modern western self-service clergy communion rituals: Holy Communion is a gift received, not something anyone – not even the presider – just “takes.” And since liturgy is supposed to say ritually what it means, this receiving was symbolized – and not just in Byzantium – by having everyone, even the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, receive communion from the hand of another as from Christ’s. For Eucharistic communion is not the sacrament of one’s private communion with the Risen Lord. It is the sacrament of our communion with one another in the one Body of Christ, a body at once ecclesial and Eucharistic. This was the original meaning of eucharist koinonia.
2. Fr Taft (with the aid of an extraordinarily long footnote referring to Greek, Syriac, Latin, and secondary sources) discusses the practice of lay communion in the hand:
As for lay communion, occasional attempts by self-styled “traditionalist” Catholics to undermine the force of the historical evidence because of dissatisfaction with the return in the Roman rite to the practice of giving the laity communion in the hand in the wake of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II are in vain. The proof that throughout the Late Antique period, and in some areas well into the Middle Ages, the laity in East and West once received both species separately, and in their own hands, is overwhelming. From these accounts it is evident that the minister of the sacrament placed a piece of the Sacred Body in the communicants’ right hand. After consuming the host, the communicants then drank of the Precious Blood directly from the chalice offered by another minister.
At the end of the patristic period, St John Damascene (ca. 675-ca. 753/4), sometimes called “the last of the Greek Fathers,” still witnesses to the continuance of the same practice, when he admonishes: “Let us approach him [the minister of communion] with ardent longing, and with palms touching the eyes, the lips, and the brow, let us receive the divine coal …”
Prior to the eleventh century, sources for the rite of Constantinople continue uniformly to reflect this old tradition of communion under both species separately, and in the communicant’s uncovered hands. And when communion of the two sacred species together, via intinction using a spoon, was eventually introduced into Orthodox usage around the turn of the first millennium, it was condemned as an unheard of innovation – which indeed it was. For the ancient tradition – and here goes another cliché – was not communion under both species, as one heard so often repeated, but communion under both species separately, as I have already shown elsewhere. As late as the first half of the twelfth century, communion via a spoon was apparently still viewed as an innovation in need of defense, if one can trust the letter attributed to Constantinopolitan Patriarch Michael II Kourkouas (1143-1146).
3. Fr. Taft tells us that the Byzantine laity went to communion frequently, and, apparently, in large numbers:
Presbyter Eustratius’ eulogistic Vita et conversatio 78 of Patriarch Eutychius (552-565, 577-582), composed shortly after its subject’s death in 582, describes the crowds at the liturgy Eutychius celebrated in Hagia Sophia feting his return to the capital from exile on October 2, 577. The account claims the distribution of communion at the liturgy took three hours: “and having completed the unbloody sacrifice, he gave it to the lay faithful, beginning from the third hour until the sixth (i.e., from 9:00 AM until noon), because everyone yearned to receive communion from him.” The same Vita 94 has Eutychius celebrating the eucharist on the Easter before he died, and again giving communion in the body of Christ to all the faithful. Even allowing for the inevitable hagiographical hyperbole, one can conclude that in Constantinople at the end of the sixth century there was still broad lay participation in the reception of the mysteries.
A century later, still in Constantinople, the legislation of the Quinisext Council in Trullo (AD 691/2) seems to imply that the faithful communicated daily during Easter Week. Canon 66 says the people spend the whole week in church unceasingly attending the services “and delighting in the holy mysteries” – though the same council also felt the need (canon 80) to impose such extreme penalties as excommunication on the laity, and reduction to the lay state on clergy, who miss Sunday eucharist three weeks in a row.
In his letter to Macharas, St. Theodore Studites (759-826) recommends frequent communion to even this lay correspondent. Indeed, as late as the end of the twelfth century, Byzantine canonist Theodore Balsamon (ca. 1130-40-d. after 1195) still envisaged daily communion for everyone, monks, clergy, and laity, provided they were worthy and prepared. To what extent this ideal was realized in practice is of course moot.
Do these points challenge any of our misconceptions?