A Christological Vision:
The incarnation of the Word is the key to understand all things pertaining to the Christian Faith. When John the Evangelist proclaimed that “the Word became flesh and pitched His tent in us,” John was not speaking of a change from one nature to another. Rather, the holy fathers teach us that this was intended to communicate that the Eternal Word of the Father united Himself to human flesh endowed with a rational soul. This union does not change the divinity into humanity neither does it change the humanity into the divinity. Both the divinity and the humanity retain their natural properties without mingling, without confusion and without alteration.
The humanity of Christ does not cease to be a humanity in the incarnation. Rather, it becomes a glorified humanity in which the body of Christ is said to be life-giving because of the hypostatic union between the divinity and humanity in the One Christ. The respect Christ has for matter was highlighted in the incarnation and it stands as a condemnation for our overtly platonic point of view in which we reduce the properties of matter to be either evil or at best less than the spiritual realm. Christianity is innocent of such Platonism which has infiltrated our minds. The sanctification of matter does not entail a change in the substance of matter but rather reclaims to its intended purpose, i.e. being a means of becoming one with God. It is for this very reason that Orthodoxy has no shame using bread, wine, water and oil in its liturgical services. These substances do not become anything they are not. Rather, they are given a grace by which they can communicate spiritual and occasionally physical healing to the faithful (as is the case with the sacrament of holy unction).
On Christ as a Healer:
The healing previously mentioned is not brought to the faithful out of necessity imposed on God. Rather, it comes to be when God intends that the person has a purpose for which they need to remain alive. At the beginning and end of all our liturgical prayers, we recite the Lord’s Prayer which clearly states, “Thy will be done.” Christ can choose not to heal a person if such healing amounts to them living a life of sin. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, there were times when it is written, “Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). If Christ wishes to bring healing, or prevent disease transmission, this is His call. It is blasphemous to suggest that Christ does either of those things out of necessity.
In fact, St. John Chrysostom would say in homily 42 on the Gospel of John,
“A great multitude followed Him beholding the miracles that He did. What is here told marks not a very wise state of mind; for when they had enjoyed such teaching, they still were more attracted by the miracles, which was a sign of the grosser state. For miracles, It says, are not for believers, but for unbelievers. The people described by Matthew acted not thus, but how? They all, he says were astonished at His doctrine, because He taught as one having authority.”
It is imperative that we realize that we, as believers, do not need miracles for us to believe. Christ does not “need” to heal us or prevent the transmission of disease for Him to prove anything to us whether during His earthly ministry or in His Eucharistic presence. Putting an element of necessity on God is a blasphemous idea. God is fundamentally free. Our notion of “if God is good, then He must…” or “if the Eucharist is incorruptible, then He must…” is imposing an element of necessity on the Deity. It is an attempt to dictate for God what He must do for Him to fit the frame or box our fallen minds have created. It is like creating God on an image and a likeness constructed by our minds and unless He is up to our expectations, He is not God. This invites comparison with the shouting at the foot of the Cross, “If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).
On the Doctrine of the Eucharist:
Though the Church with her scripture, liturgical texts and patristic sayings agree that what we partake of on the Eucharistic table is not common bread or common wine but rather the true body and true blood of Christ, they explain this doctrine in various terms. For example, some saints were content with saying that this is the incorruptible, life-giving, and deified body and blood of the Lord. Others used terms that might seem obscure to use today such as St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Maximus the Confessor who say that the body and the blood are the symbol of the bread and the wine or that the body is present under the symbol of the bread and the blood under the symbol of the blood. It is important that one understands the term ‘symbol’ in its Greek origin ‘sym-valon’ meaning to throw or put together. This means that in the bread and wine becoming the body and blood, the bread comes together with the body and the wine comes together with the blood. This invites comparison with the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity in the one Christ, yet neither of them changed into the substance of the other. Likewise, the physical properties of the bread and wine persist. These properties include smell, taste, texture, etc. If the properties of the humanity in the incarnation did not change that Christ truly tasted suffering, was scourged, spat upon, and nailed to the cross in His flesh, then who is to say that the physical properties of the bread and wine must change? If our rubrics have prayers to be said when the Eucharist spills due to the laws of gravity, then why are some assuming that the Eucharist transmitting disease is farfetched?
On the Meaning of Incorruptibility:
Associating the incorruptibility of the body of Christ with disease suggests a confusion about what incorruptibility means. The word ‘incorruptibility’ may be interpreted in various ways. For example, one might say that Christ was not corrupted by sin as He is sinless. However, one may say that Christ’s humanity was corruptible given that He became like us in all things except for sin alone. The word ‘corruptible’ here means the natural corruption or change as Christ’s body submitted to hunger, thirst, suffering, and even death. Citing David’s words, “for you shall not let your holy one see corruption,” some of the fathers said that the body of Christ was left in the tomb for three days only that it may not see corruption. One must say that the Eucharist is incorruptible while simultaneously one does not have to associate this incorruptibility with the possibility of communicating or catching disease.
Indeed, there are occasions where sin and disease are intertwined as we see in the case of the paralytic or the Corinthian unworthy communicants. However, this cannot be standardized across all occasions where Christ performed miracles. Christ healed the woman with the flow of blood and said to her that her faith has healed her without a word about sin. In the case of the man born blind, Christ clearly stated that his sickness was not the result of any sin. Therefore, one must not confuse bodily incorruptibility with regard to disease on the one hand and the moral incorruptibility with regard to sin on the other hand. The body of Christ is incorruptible inasmuch as it is given for the remission of sins and for the eternal communion between God and us. If one partakes of the Eucharist for the healing of the body from diseases, then one has missed the mark with regard to what the objective of partaking of the Eucharist entails. Even the sacrament of the unction of the sick, which is precisely made for healing, the presbyter leaves the healing in the hands of God. Many times, we pray for the healing of a person, yet the person does not get healed or dies. This speaks volumes to the reality that the sacraments being performed with our faith being ultimately in the will of God. It also suggests that if the sacrament of healing may not heal, then God is by no means obliged to heal you or prevent you from getting sick when partaking of the Eucharist. This stance would not compromise the spiritual efficacy of the Eucharist neither would it compromise the incorruptibility of the body and blood of the Lord.
Assuming that has been said does not convince you then the rubrics which the fathers gave us might do the trick. In the horologion:
Τοῖς δὲ τῆς θείας μεταλήψεως ἀξίοις μεταδίδου δωρεάν, ὡς καὶ αὐτὸς ἔλαβες. Οἷς οἱ θεῖοι κανόνες οὐκ ἐπιτρέπουσι, μὴ μεταδίδου, ὡς ἐθνικοὶ γὰρ ἐλογίσθησαν· καὶ ἐὰν μὴ ἐπιστρέψωσιν, οὐαὶ καὶ αὐτῖς καὶ τοῖς μεταδιδοῦσιν αὐτοῖς. Ὅρα, ἐγὼ πρᾶγμα οὐκ ἔχω, σὺ ὄψει, μὴ ἐξ ἀμελείας σῆς, μῦς ἢ ἄλλο τι ἅψηται τῶν θείων μυστηρίων, μηδὲ νοτισθῶσιν ἢ καπνισθῶσιν ἢ χειρισθῶσιν ὑπὸ ἀνιέρων καὶ ἀναξίων. Ταῦτα καὶ τὰ τοιαῦτα φυλάσσων, καὶ σεαυτὸν σώσεις καὶ τοὺς ἀκούοντάς σου.
“Ensure that the worthy receive the Eucharist freely as you received it freely. Ensure that the holy mysteries may be untouched by a mouse or a fly and that it may not rot, be smoked, or be touched by the unclean or unworthy.”
This instruction was given by St. Basil the Great in the 4th century and was preserved in the horologion of the Greek Orthodox Church. The fathers respected the limitations of matter and ensured that the preservation of the Eucharist take place in a manner that preserves the Eucharist. This was at a time when it was common for the believers to take a piece of the Eucharist with them where it was not feasible for them to go to Church as often as they would have liked. This included sailors and hermits. The instruction that it is be preserved from rotting suggests that the possibility did exist. Now if the possibility of the molecules of fungus growing on the Eucharist exists, then who are we to affirm that the molecules of a virus will nott?
Approximately fourteen centuries after Basil, St. Nicodemus the Athonite gave the instruction that at times of plagues, one may look for alternative methods to give the Eucharist. At a time when sanitizers were not yet invented, his suggestion was the use of vinegar to sterilize the spoon by which the Eucharist is given. If St. Nicodemus gave such a concession and St. Basil gave such an instruction, then why are the faithful up in arms against any change in the mode of giving communion at a time when clearly a plague does exist? If there is 1% chance that we might get a disease from communing and might transmit it to others in society, then ought we not walk in the footsteps of the Lord on the pinnacle of the temple and say “you shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:7)?
Some suggest that priests have always been taking communion after all the faithful with the same spoon and they do not get sick. The question then is do priests never get sick? They do. When they do, how do they know they got sick from something other than the Eucharist? Even if such thing was true, the absence of evidence does not amount to an evidence of absence. If we believe that the matter of the bread and wine ceases to communicate disease because they become the Eucharist and the spoon ceases to communicate disease, then how come do Christians in whom the Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16), and that the Father and the Son make their dwelling in the heart of the believers who loves God (John 14:23), still get sick? Given that the Eucharist is historically known as the medicine of immortality, how come do Christians still die? If this is because, as any sensible person would agree, the Eucharist preserves us from spiritual death and grants us eternal life, then why do we not apply the same idea to the notion of incorruptibility? The Eucharist is said to be incorruptible and indeed it is. It is to communicate spiritual incorruptibility to us. And despite that, we still can and do sin. Therefore, even if I were to concede to the notion that Eucharistic incorruptibility amounts to a preservation from disease or communication of disease, then why do we still get sick after consuming the Eucharist from all kinds of sources?
Historically, there were various methods of administering the Eucharist. First, people consumed the body in their hand as we know from St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical homilies while drinking from the chalice. When coming to church proved difficult for some, keeping the body and the blood at home was acceptable. When some used the gifts in superstition and witchcraft, the Church banned such custom. Some Churches developed intinction as a mode of administering communion when the numbers increased. Other Churches gave deacons the role of helping the priest in giving communion as deacons already were giving communion to the sick. Before the sixth ecumenical council, believers thought that having metal straws to receive the Eucharist was a form of piety. The council condemned such practice which condemned the use of any metal object to receive the Eucharist. Another canon would forbid the mixing of the Eucharistic elements insisting that they are to be taken separately. Ironically, a few centuries later, the metal spoon and mixing the bread and wine were introduced despite the canons of the sixth ecumenical council which did not only insist on not using metal objects to receive the Eucharist but also to receive the body and the blood separately. The Church that opposed this development as an innovation was ironically the Church of Rome and refused to take on such an innovative custom. Rome continues to have the believers drink from the chalice though such practice is optional, and one may be content with consuming the body only. The Oriental Orthodox either commune of the body and blood separately, using a spoon for the latter, as Copts, Ethiopians and Eritreans do, or using intinction like the Syrians and Armenians.
The body and blood of Christ are indeed incorruptible and do communicate the divine life to the believers. This incorruptibility is a question of purity from sin and defilements not a question of disease. According to the fathers, the bread and wine continue to be as such and their physical properties are wholly preserved. The molecules of the bread and wine continue to be susceptible to rotting and the growth of other molecules. The mode of administering the Eucharist has been altered over the years. The mixing of the body and the blood while using a spoon to administer them is in fact a direct contradiction of the sixth ecumenical council yet it is the custom of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Finding an alternative method such as the use of intinction or multiple spoons as a temporary measure is by no means a contradiction of holy Tradition. In fact, the common method widely used is what is contrary to the Tradition confessed by the Quinisext council (considered an amendment to the sixth Ecumenical council). Using multiple spoons is not intended as an innovation but rather to be at peace with the government that is doing all it can to preserve the health and wellbeing of citizens. It is our duty now to remember the words of St. Paul who said, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). It is a perfect time to heed these words and use the flexibility within Tradition to be at peace while being able to distribute the Eucharist to the believers amidst such difficult timeas.