March 10, 2020

Why We Use a Common Spoon for Holy Communion

By John Sanidopoulos

The communion spoon is a long-handled liturgical utensil of the Orthodox Church by which the Holy Gifts of bread and wine, believed to be the Body and Blood of Christ, are transmitted to the congregation during the Divine Liturgy. This utensil, along with the lance, sponge and asterisk, though older, belongs to the minor liturgical utensils, the use of which is clearly later than that of the paten and the chalice. The Roman Catholic liturgical tradition does not have a corresponding liturgical utensil, with the exception of the fistula or calamus, which is used only when the pope celebrates the Mass.

The original provisions of the Divine Liturgy did not require the use of a spoon, since the Holy Gifts were directly transmitted to the hands or mouth of the communicant by the celebrant. When the bread began to be consumed separately from the wine, then did the need arise for a way to transmit the wine to the communicant. The intake of the wine through the spoon was meant to prevent the spilling of the sacred content from the chalice.

Partaking of the Holy Gifts without the use of a spoon was the common practice up until the 8th century. We have multiple testimonies that validate this, such as the Apostolic Constitutions, Dionysius of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus. The use of a spoon before this time does not exist in Christian literature or the liturgical practices of the church.

The 101st Canon of the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod of 691 suggests the use of a vessel for the reception of the Holy Gifts, which some people would fashion out of silver or gold, but this practice is condemned in this Canon because the common practice of the Church at the time was to receive the Holy Gifts directly into the hands. In the 8th Canon of the Synod of Carthage of 397 it was allowed in exceptional cases to receive Holy Communion through a third vessel, besides the chalice and the paten. The Synod of Rouen which took place around 880 prohibited in the West the placing of the contents of the Holy Gifts directly into the hands of the communicant, but ordered for the Holy Gifts to be directly transmitted to the mouth.

In the 8th century, Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople used the Greek word lavida (tong) to describe the hands of the cleric which holds the Body and Blood of Christ, according to the image of the tong used by the angel to place a burning coal on the tongue of the Prophet Isaiah (Is. 6:7). There was no utensil at this time called a lavida. When the word lavida (λαβίδα) did describe a liturgical utensil, it was the name for the spoon (κοχλιάριον). Therefore, technically the spoon should be called a tong or lavida, which is the name for the spoon in Greek to this day.

The first appearance of the tong as a liturgical utensil is not clearly known. There are two main theories:

(a) The tong first appeared in the ecclesiastical provinces of Palestine and Egypt. This theory is substantiated by the testimony of Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem in the 7th century, who in his Life of Mary of Egypt seems to describe the use of a tong when Elder Zosimas communes Saint Mary of Egypt. This can even be seen in icons of Saint Mary of Egypt receiving Holy Communion. According to this theory, the use of a tong by the churches of Palestine and Egypt gradually expanded throughout the Eastern Churches after the 10th century, thus marginalizing the previous tradition of receiving the Holy Gifts either directly into the hands or the mouth.

(b) The second theory holds that the use of the tong dates back to the time Chrysostom in the 5th century. Renaudot and Goar are the main proponents of this theory. This theory is accepted by those who favor the use of a tong before the Synod of Chalcedon in 481. This speculation is based on how Pre-Chalcedonian Churches, such as the Nestorians and the Monophysites, used a tong in their worship. It is therefore believed that when the Chalcedonian Churches separated from them, the common use of the tong remained in use.

However, both of these theories appear to be wrong based on the evidence. A number of researchers believe that the tong is first mentioned only at the Synod of Constantinople in 861. Furthermore, in his commentary on the 101st Canon of the Penthekti Synod cited above, Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes: "The present canon contradicts those who assert that the divine Chrysostom invented the tongs. For the custom of taking the holy bread in the hands remained among Christians after Chrysostom, for at least four hundred years, as becomes plain also from the present Synod and from John of Damascus." He then goes on to explain his theory based on past testimonies of how tongs came to be used for receiving the Holy Gifts:

"The cause which led to invention of the tongs was the fact that some men, either feigning to be Christians, or being heretics, or superstitious, when taking the holy bread in their hands, either let it drop or hid it, or used it in magic or other wicked devices. Hence, through the invention of the tongs, by which the holy communion could be administered directly into the mouth of the recipient, every cause and reason and excuse for such flouting of the mystery was obviated. But some other persons have conjectured also another reason that is more plausible, viz., convenience, or facilitation of administration, because in olden times nearly every church had also its deacon. Hence, in accordance with the Apostolic tradition, the priest would give the divine body, while the deacon, standing near with the holy cup, would serve out the divine blood. But owing to the fact that deacons later became scarce and disappeared from most churches, as we can also see for ourselves by actual experience, where they are lacking, and especially in the villages and in the poor churches, and there ensued a difficulty which made it hard for the same priest to administer them separately, each by itself, in a very economical and expeditious manner, the tongs were invented, in order that, after the union was effected, he might administer them easily, and especially to infants."

Symeon of Thessaloniki in the 15th century gave the tongs as a liturgical utensil a symbolic character when he associated it with the tong used by the angel to transfer the burning coal into the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah. He writes:

"And when the deacon shouts out for the faithful to come with the fear of God and faith, so that those who are under penalty will not partake, the bishop gives to those who come forward to receive from the tongs. This takes place in accordance with the vision of Isaiah, and also because, as we said, the divine and awesome mysteries should not be partaken by all at once. Also because we must all be reverent and cautious when we approach the divine. And if the Cherubim were reverent, even more so must we be reverent, in as much as we behold the truth itself and not the type, as they do."

The contemporary use of the tong is widespread throughout the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its use from when it first began to be used until now can be summed up in one word - safety. The tong safeguards the Holy Gifts so that it does not fall, or spill, or is mishandled or misused. It remains under the control of the liturgist administering the Holy Gifts for its safe reception by the communicant. It is also the safest way to administer for all ages and in all circumstances. If you are old with feeble hands or even near death, or an infant with no ability to feed yourself, or handicapped, the tongs are a perfect way to receive the Holy Gifts. The risk of spillage or of the mystery being dishonored greatly increases without the tong.