When I was received into the Orthodox Church in 2015, my godfather half-jokingly told me that I was now prohibited from speaking about the faith for seven years. The stereotype behind the joke is that converts to Orthodoxy--especially Evangelical converts--often tend to become insufferable know-it-alls to their new, "cradle" Orthodox brethren. In that spirit, I have dutifully refrained from publicly voicing my thoughts and opinions on various hot topics within the Church, partly out of respect for my cradle brothers and sisters, but also as an exercise in humility. After all, the very fact of my decision to become Orthodox speaks to a reality that should mark all of our behavior, our thoughts, and our words as regards matters internal to our lives in the Orthodox Church: there is always much to learn. But having offered this disclaimer, it also needs stating that silence isn't a virtue unto itself. Oftentimes we must learn by speaking. In doing so, we can open ourselves to needed correction and so continue our journey of spiritual learning. Alternately, we can bless others with a different perspective, and God willing, to their edification. I pray that what follows does not run afoul of that goal, and I invite any clergy to rein me in if my observations miss the mark.
A pandemic is sweeping the globe. Depending on whose numbers you believe, nearly half a million souls have been lost to this world thanks to COVID-19 just in the first five months of 2020, and the end to this scourge is not yet in sight. Suspending for now the toxic social media information wars about precisely how fatal the disease "truly" is, let us agree that we have been faced with a new danger, that countless people have died who wouldn't have otherwise, and that these circumstances have justifiably forced our Church's hierarchs to consider various safety measures for the sake of their flocks. The latest would-be measure coming out of the rumor mill (and in fact is already in observance in some parts of the U.S.) is a move from the long held Orthodox practice of the shared Eucharistic spoon to a "multi-spoon" method of distributing Holy Communion. Notwithstanding the unlikelihood of such a change actually becoming a universal mandate, the reception of this idea by many Online Orthodox has verged on a level of foreboding that hearkens Galadriel's opening monologue in The Fellowship of the Ring:
The world has changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it.
And here, we have arrived at an issue that seems to have long plagued the Orthodox (pun not intended): the blurred line between "small T" tradition and "capital T" Tradition. The reasons for this blurring are many, and they range from the Orthodox Church's segmented constitution (which leads to the development of a host of local and regional traditions that are not shared universally) to a crisis of catechesis at the archdiocesan level. The Common Spoon practice doesn't fit the regionalist category because it is a universal practice throughout the Orthodox Church and has been for many centuries. But it is nonetheless a "small T" tradition in that it was not bequeathed to us by the Apostles, and was in fact not practiced for many centuries prior to its institution.* But while this is no basis for abandoning the practice (even temporarily) per se, it does render a de facto, permanent continuation of the practice more difficult to insist upon. What's more, it undermines theological arguments for dogmatically requiring it. And finally, it absolutely should not become a flashpoint for judging the quality of one's faith against another's.
To that end, there is a petition circulating social media right now which purports to educate the hierarchy and the Orthodox "academic class" about the true theological necessity of the shared spoon, and further, what even a temporary abandonment of the shared spoon would imply. I won't address the petition line by line, but I will address its central logic (as I understand it), which is expressed in this passage regarding a short paper by Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, a now retired theologian in the Greek Archdiocese of America:
Does Father Calivas not shatter the Orthodox understanding of theosis with his following rationalistic claim, to wit: "The communion spoon is an imperfect material object. It does not share in the incorruptibility of the risen and deified Body of Christ, which is really present to us through the eucharistic elements. On its own, the spoon is simply a spoon, a utensil..."?
Thusly, the crux of our problem comes into focus: a failure of catechesis, and not as regards spoons, but as regards theosis and the Eucharist itself. Something one reads throughout the Church Fathers and also in contemporary Orthodox Theology is that, to borrow the phrasing of a deacon from my own parish, "The Eucharist is not a talisman." We call "Holy Mysteries" that which is contained in the chalice for a reason: we do not, as Orthodox Christians, venture rationalistic claims as to its mechanism or its effects. Therefore, the charge that Fr. Calivas' rhetoric regarding spoons is rationalistic is precisely backwards: he is expressly avoiding rationalistic claims about the Eucharist. "To wit", the writer of the petition is engaging in rationalism by purporting to ascribe absolute, physical quantifiability to the effects of the Eucharist where the universal Church never has, and likely never will. To assert as the petition's author asserts, is to succumb to the same rhetorical temptations that led to the Roman Catholic Church's insistence on a doctrine of transubstantiation, which the Orthodox Church ostensibly repudiates.
This is to say nothing of the misplaced association of the common spoon with the concept of theosis. For as icons of Christ, are we humans not continually in danger of both physical and spiritual corruption despite our partaking of the Eucharist? Do we not still need the sacraments of Unction and Confession? Are we not continually to be mindful of the demons and to be ever vigilant in our spiritual lives despite our sharing in the Chalice? Will not all of us eventually face death, whether or not we have received Christ's Body and Blood? Why, then, must we deify a spoon?
I don't want to belittle the concerns of those who fear that a suspension of the common spoon could portend undesirable change in the future. After all, the Orthodox Church has long prided itself on its resistance to change, and how that resistance has insulated Her from many developments that have led to crises in other Christian traditions. Additionally, the infrequency of notable change in the Orthodox Church understandably results in alarm on the part of the minority of faithful who happen to live through such events. But we cannot allow our resistance to change to become an article of faith unto itself. We cannot needlessly back ourselves into irrational corners. We cannot permit our suspicion about development to lead us into folklore, and we must take all care not to fall into the trap of post-hoc theologizing in an effort to dogmatize that which the Church has not. We serve neither each other nor the Church's witness in the world when we engage in such paranoia. Such a state of affairs not only compounds our internal catechetical shortcomings, but also erects barriers between the Church and the earnest inquirers at Her doorstep.
I love the common spoon. I love it as an enduring "small T" tradition and as a liturgical act of solidarity on the part of Orthodox Christians everywhere. But whether or not this change comes to pass, I pray we can see this non-dogmatic issue, in a time of global crisis, not as an opportunity for spiritual muscle flexing or pious alarmism, but as an opportunity for different acts of solidarity: prudence in the face of crisis, humility in the face of history, and charity for the most vulnerable among us. ☦︎
*I am, for the record, aware that there are more criteria for distinguishing "small T" from "capital T" traditions.
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