Byzantine Liturgy and Holy Communion

(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?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Byzantine Liturgy and Holy Communion

  1. Brian says:

    I’m no theologian, but with respect to “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,” I fear that this potentially removes the sense of the Real Presence. I’m not saying that communion doesn’t have a communal aspect to it, but if it is just a sacrament of our communion with one another, then the idea that we are receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ can go by the boards. Protestant churches have communion, but only in the sense of communion with one another. Is this really true of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom?

    Yours ignorantly,

  2. Todd says:

    Brian, thanks for commenting. If we were to take theological propositions as either/or, we would have been adrift at Nicaea, pondering Christ as truly God *or* truly human.

    Taft seems to indicate a distinction between communion with and communion in. I don’t read him as suggesting an exclusivity. I’d certainly think that God is powerful enough and so intimately present that communal and “substantial” realities both exist at the same moment.

  3. Liam says:

    In the Eastern tradition, daily communion during Easter or Bright Week makes special sense because daily liturgy was not the normal practice during ordinary feria – especially during Great Lent – and every day of Easter week is treated as a Sunday.

    It’s interesting that the scholar cannot verify if the laity actually received thusly in the 12th century. I would be curious to know the tides of frequent lay communion over the epoch from the Persian Wars of the age of Heraclius (before the Arab onslaught) through the Arab onslaught, the Iconoclastic Controversy, the Macedonian renaissance of the 9th into the 11th centuries, the Comneni period, the Crusdades and then the afterglow of the Paleologoi. And if practices in urban centers like Constantinople and Thessalonika were different from the rural areas. That is, despite Arab and eventually Seljuk onslaughts, these were epochs in which the East was vastly more prosperous and populous and vibrant than the West. Indeed, it may boggle the mind for Westerners to realize that Kiev before the MOngol onslaught was a greater city than Paris, one of the greater cities (along with Palermo and Toledo, et cet.) of the High Middle Ages of the West.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Brian,

    Thanks for responding to my post. I think that I would respond differently than Todd – I would not speak of distinct “communal” and “substantial” realities that can subsequently be held in tension.

    Perhaps the best place to look (other than 1 Corinthians, that is) is St Augustine’s brilliantly concise Sermon 272, which can be found here (BTW, I don’t know anything about the group that sponsors the site).

    St Augustine clearly says, “the bread is the body of Christ, the cup the blood of Christ.” But what is the “spiritual fruit” of this understanding? He goes on to say (my emphasis), “[I]f it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent.”

    So the sacrament is “the sacrament of unity.” Just as the bread that is truly the body of Christ is visibly made from many grains, we are likewise called to (my emphasis again), “Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”

    So the “communal” and the “substantial” in the Eucharist are one and the same – the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ because we too, who receive it, really are called to be the Body of Christ (Augustine sends us to 1 Cor 12:27) dwelling with “one heart and soul in God.” In fact, I would say that one can’t speak of the “communal” without the “substantial” and vice versa.

    To return to the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, I could recommend Archimandrite Ephraim Lash’s “Liturgy at Elsinore” in New Blackfriars this year. Lash is clear that we receive not as individuals concerned with “personal piety and devotion” but as members of the Church sharing the meal that is the Mystical Supper. Looking at the consecration and invocation texts, he is quite clear that “To put it somewhat crudely, the purpose of the consecration of the Bread and Wine is to be eaten and drunk, not to produce the ‘real presence.'” The consecration is for “communal participation.”

    Finally, it is incorrect to say “Protestant churches have communion, but only in the sense of communion with one another.”

    Thanks again for writing. I’m no theologian, either. I’m not even close, so please feel free to correct me if something seems wrong or incomplete.

    I hope this helps.


  5. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again for writing. I would think that you are right about Easter Week.

    Regarding your desire for a presumably detailed study of “frequent lay communion over the epoch …” and in “rural areas,” what sources would you suggest? My sense, after reading Fr Taft’s work, is that they simply do not exist.

    It should be noted that there were non-communicants – the non-baptized and the unworthy, and there was a degree of moralism regarding the Eucharist (see Chrysostom). But, again, there does seem to be “broad lay participation,” at least in the great centers. So says Taft.

    Fr Taft does note that “what the great German Byzantinist Hans-Georg Beck called ‘das byzantinische Jahrtausend – the Byzantine Millennium’ is now a major object of sympathetic study throughout the academic world. And the monuments of its religious art and architecture occupy a disproportionately large percentage of the art historians at work in the USA and elsewhere.” So, I don’t think that it is correct to say that well-read Westerners would be surprised by claims of Byzantine vibrancy any longer. And that’s a good thing.

    Thanks again.


  6. Liam says:


    But Taft only vouches for such participation into the late 6th century. Beyond that, there is speculation at best, it seems, mere hope otherwise.

    Oh, I wasn’t talking about historical specialists being surprised – they would not be. But ordinary college-educated Westerners would be, I have no doubt; the eastern boundary of their exposure to medieval European civilisation still hews closely the eastern border of the Carolingian empire.

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