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Ancient Church Doctor lays out why laity should never touch Holy Communion with bare hands

St. Ephrem the Syriac compares the Blessed Sacrament to the hot burning coal that touched the prophet Isaiah's lips and so purified him
Wed Jul 22, 2020 - 12:18 pm EST
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July 22, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – I was honoured to be included in one of the videos created by LifeSite of people affirming their intention to receive the Holy Eucharist only kneeling and on the tongue. There are many ways of approaching the issue. John Henry Westen has approached it with a piece titled 5 reasons why Catholics should only receive Holy Communion on the tongue; also worth reading on this website is Peter Kwasniewski’s response to the suggestion by Fr Dwight Longenecker that reception on the tongue is somehow indicative of self-righteousness. 

I would like to open up another avenue, a historical one. It is constantly reiterated by the proponents of reception in the hand that this is what the early Christians did. This is often put forward as part of a historical narrative that goes like this. As with many doctrines, the early Church had a very basic and common-sense understanding of the Blessed Sacrament, which was turned into something much more elaborate and extreme by the theology and devotional practices of the Middle Ages, which established the term ‘transubstantiation’ and the practice of Eucharistic reservation and adoration. The Protestants reacted against these extreme ideas with some justification, and Vatican II rowed back from them as well in the interests of getting back to the pure doctrine of the earliest Christians.

While it is true that theological terms became more precise, and devotional practice did develop, it is demonstrably false to suggest that Christian authenticity requires us to repudiate the more developed teaching and practice of the Church. 

On the matter of the practice of reception, the earliest reference to the reception of Holy Communion on the Tongue we have is made by the Doctor of the Church St. Ephrem the Syriac, who died in the year 373. He draws a parallel between the Reception of Holy Communion and the vision of Isaiah in the Temple (Is 6:6-7), in which the prophet’s lips are touched with a burning coal by an angel. Christ speaks in St Ephrem’s writings: ‘Isaiah saw Me, as you see Me now extending My right hand and carrying to your mouths the living Bread.’ (Sermones in Hebdomeda Sancta 4, 5).

The parallel with the burning coal is very interesting. In his vision Isaiah had acknowledged his sinfulness, saying that he was ‘a man of unclean lips’. The burning coal symbolises the inner purification which is the necessary preparation to proclaim God’s message to His people. It is an apt parallel. The Blessed Sacrament has a purifying power, but this power is so great that, like a hot coal, we lay Catholics should never touch it with our bare hands. This is something which Christ, in His priest, alone should do.

It is true that other writers in this early period attest to the practice of reception in the hand. The earliest of these is St Cyril of Jerusalem (Mystagogical Catechesis 5, 21f). St Cyril died in the year 386. It is not at all surprising to find different liturgical practices in different parts of the Christian world. What St Cyril writes about the reverence appropriate for the Blessed Sacrament is nevertheless even more emphatic than St Ephrem’s, saying that we should have more care for the tiny fragments of the Blessed Sacrament than we would have for gold dust.

Does he really, then, want the Faithful to pick up the Host in their fingers? Actually, no: that’s not what he says. His instructions are that the Faithful place their left hand under their right hand, because they are not going to pick the Host up with the fingers of their right hand but lift it to their mouths. Furthermore, St Cyril and others discussing Reception in the Hand insist on ritual washing of the hands, and sometimes the use of cloths to be placed over the hands. 

In the same way, they may not have insisted on kneeling, but have a look at what early authorities suggested instead. The liturgical scholar Josef Jüngmann collected examples of instructions to approach Communion barefoot, genuflecting, making a three-fold bow, kissing the ground, or kissing the priest’s foot. 

We might ask those pushing Communion in the hand and standing as an ‘ancient practice’ whether they would like to adopt the other ancient practices which went with it. Perhaps kissing the priest’s foot before reception could make a comeback? 

There is no evidence that reception in the hand is the older practice. What we do see is a process of discussion and development before the present practices in East and West became universal: in the West, the key date is 878, when the Council of Rouen enforced what was by then presumably the dominant practice of reception on the tongue. This discussion and development took place in the context of an enormous respect for the Blessed Sacrament, which is why reception kneeling and on the tongue was, in time, accepted by everyone as the best way to receive with reverence.

All the references cited here and much else on this topic can be found here.


  catholic, communion in the hand, communion on the tongue, cyril of jerusalem, holy communion

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