Approximately 1300 years, there was a major debate in the Eastern Orthodox Church regarding the use of icons. On the one end of the spectrum, some had superstitious beliefs regarding icons. It wasn’t clear whether they understood the difference between worship and veneration of icons or not. Some would go as far as scraping the paint off icons and place them in the chalice. On the other end of the spectrum were those who thoughts icons were a return to demonic idolatry and that use of any image is contrary to the faith. They deemed it a religious duty to destroy icons. Those came to be known as iconoclasts. Between these two extremes, we find the Orthodox resolution asserting the use of icons being orthodox given that one understands veneration in its proper use not in terms of worship or sacrilegious use in communion. Those came to be known as iconodules. While this resolution seems like the obvious answer today, it was not so obvious then. In fact, it took a century, two waves of iconoclasm, a few opposing and contradictory councils, few non-canonical ordinations, and numerous theological treatises from all sides to come to the answer now deemed as “obvious.”
All Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the Coptic, Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches from the Oriental Orthodox communion use a spoon in administering the Eucharist. Today, with the rise of COVID19, we see a similar spectrum with the use of spoons to that of icons. On one end of the spectrum, some cannot see the Eucharist being administered by any means other than the spoon. To them, the spoon could never communicate disease. On the other side of the spectrum, some hold that the spoon is an outdated method that must be changed for people not to get sick.
Upholders of the spoon bring forward the following arguments:
1- No priest got sick due to the consumption of the Eucharist after the whole congregation has communed using the same spoon. Some priests came forward and said that themselves.
2- The deified and incorruptible body and blood of the Lord would never communicate the corruption of disease, a sign of the fallen nature.
3- Citing the prayers of the consecration of the vessels, the spoon is declared by the bishop to be sanctified by God. How can what is sanctified by God be a cause of disease?
4- Disease is a result of the corruption of nature that emerged due to sin. The Eucharist is given to heal our nature. Therefore, it is impossible for it to communicate disease.
Anti-spoon camp presents the following arguments:
1- If the Eucharist prevents the communication of disease and it has an impact on bodily health, then why does it not also heal the communicants from already existing sicknesses. If it doesn’t, why would we assume that it will stop the disease from being communicated?
2- Historically, the pre-sanctified gifts began rotting in Coptic Egypt due to the heat that the patriarch had to ban the practice of pre-sanctified liturgies and introduce more frequent liturgies during the week especially during fasts. If microorganisms made their way into the presanctified Eucharist that it began rotting, then who’s to say it wouldn’t carry a microorganism like the virus and get communicants sick?
3- Nikodemus, a nineteenth century Eastern Orthodox saint, asserted that modifying the manner of communing during plagues and pestilences was permissible. Why shouldn’t we do the same thing?
4- There is no way to tell whether priests got sick or not as a result of consuming the Eucharist after the faithful. No one actually tested the theory. This is not about catching a cold that one might catch because they wore a summer cassock during winter. This is about a deadly virus.
Of course, there are more arguments on both sides. This is merely a sample.
There is merit to the arguments on both sides. So where is the issue?
1- The general assumption each side has in possessing the fullness of truth about a complex matter like this. I think admitting that we do not know might be great. A bit of apophaticism here might be needed.
2- Spoonodule camp declaring the other group faithless while spoonoclasts declaring the other group superstitious. I wonder how this helps anyone. If your theologizing lacks love, it’s demonic. It is literally that simple. The fathers begged even the heretics to return to the true faith before they condemned them as heretics. Maybe learn something from that. Also, if you are a lay, you have no power to declare anyone a heretic.
3- The spoonodules equating the spoon, a mere tool, with the Eucharistic elements in terms of necessity and efficacy. The Eucharist saves. The spoon does not. The spoonoclasts dismissing the spoon as an outdated method and trying to innovate new methods like multiple personal spoons rather than use previously used methods that would be safer such as intinction.
If you are a spoonodule, try not to become like those who scraped icons and put them into the chalice. Don’t fall into superstition. It’s easy to get there.
If you are a spoonoclast, try not to forget the sanctification of matter. The incarnation is precisely about that. Don’t fall into platonic dualism similar to those who saw the use of icons (matter) as idolatry.
Extremes on either side will never be the answer.
I must say I am thankful I am not a bishop or a priest and thus do not have to make this decision. However, it is important that decision makers remember the words of Paul, “If I please men, I am not a bond servant of Christ.” This is not about pleasing one of the aforementioned two camps over the other neither is it about those in the Church vs those outside the Church. This is about discerning a method faithful to tradition and feasible in the current circumstances. It is imperative that the faithful relax, breathe and leave room for theologians and clergy to discuss this. Shouting your opinion from the rooftops of social media forums regardless of where you fall on the spectrum won’t make you the new Athanasius or Chrysostom. It simply makes you a person with internet connection. The debate is valid. There’s a need for dialogue and discussion in the Church. Name calling won’t solve the problem.
What might help is prayers for guidance, and consideration of the world around us. Society is impacted by the decision we make. If Christ gives Himself up for the life of the world, I believe the Church celebrating precisely that act of giving up could and should give up a seemingly risky method for another safer and a traditional method. And before you say the world is irrelevant and the Church is outside the world, remember that there is a difference between the Church not being of this world vs not in this world. The Church is in the world but goes beyond it. In being in the world, the Church serves and missions to the world. In not being of this world, the Church is not compelled or forced to put on the garments of the world. The Church comes into the world to make people into kings and queens in the kingdom of God, the Church. If in doing so, the Church dismisses those she is called to mission to, then is the Church really doing what it was intended to do?
The current debate is not about faithfulness vs faithlessness so much as it is about practical yet traditional discernment that puts safety as a top priority while not being a stumbling block for the faithful. At the end, I invite you to remember that rites were made for man not man for rites just as the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.
Ps. Spoonodules and spoonoclasts are used as distinguishing terms only. I do not think nor intend to accuse holders of either positions of heresy.
Pray for the peace of the Church.