Archimandrite Alypius (Svetlichny) on the history and symbolism of liturgical utensils.
What Vessels and Diskoses Were Used for the Eucharist After the Edict of Constantine the Great?
When Emperor Constantine the Great issued his edict that granted Christians equal rights with the pagans, Christian congregations were finally able to worship openly and to build their churches. New liturgical life started, and it required new liturgical items. Provincial prefects and the emperor himself made generous endowments to the churches, including vessels for the Eucharist. We find it mentioned in the biography of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.
The chalices often had the conical shape of the emperor’s cups.
Diskoses resembled plain plates. It was understandable because they would order the usual cups and plates, which rich people used at their feasts.
When the believers multiplied, a new custom to drink the Blood of Christ from a Eucharist jug was introduced in some provincial churches.
Liturgical scholars suppose that the jugs were used by poor congregations as a substitute for cups.
The wine that Christians brought to a church in jugs was used during the Eucharist as the full offering.
The jugs were later made either of semi-precious gemstones with Christian symbols on them, or of precious metals, and less often from gilded copper.
This tradition gained popularity in monasteries because a deacon would carry the Holy Gifts to hermits after a liturgy. A jug was really practical for that, while the sacred Bread was simply wrapped in a piece of clean cloth.
It must be noted that traditionally, almost until the tenth century, the faithful would drink the Blood of Christ straight from the Chalice or from the aforementioned jug, while they received the most pure Body into their hands, later into pieces of cloth on their hands, and they would consume it on their own with awe, but first touching their eyes and foreheads with it.
The tradition of giving the communion to the faithful on a spoon started spreading in the Eastern Churches since the 7th century. However, they would give only the Blood of Christ on a spoon (this tradition has survived up to now in the Coptic Church).
They started dipping the Bread into the cup with the Blood and then distribute the particles of the Body soaked in Blood on a spoon. Roman Catholics would criticize this method in their arguments with the Orthodox. Thus, Cardinal Humbert wrote in his treatise Against the Greek Misconceptions, “Jesus didn’t put bread in a cup and didn’t tell the apostles, ‘Take ye and eat it with a spoon, for this is my Body’… The Lord didn’t offer soaked bread to any of his disciples aside from Judas the traitor to point at the one who was going to betray him.”
Thus, the Latin Christians started to pay attention to the historicity of the Last Supper.
When and Why Did The Tradition of Giving Communion on a Spoon Arise?
Apparently, the tradition of giving communion on a spoon wasn’t related to new concepts of personal hygiene. On the contrary, it reflected a development of a more reverent attitude to the Eucharist and was more convenient when there were too many parishioners willing to take communion. They didn’t need to take the communion in two steps any longer: they received both elements at once.
Additionally, in contrast with the Latin tradition, which emphasized the suffering and death of Christ, and therefore used unleavened bread for communion as a symbol of sorrow and death, the Eastern Church shaped her attitude to the liturgical elements through theology. The Churches of the East regarded the Liturgy as the re-enactment of the Resurrection, and therefore the liturgical bread was ‘live’ – it was leavened bread of joy. Naturally, this theology stipulated that the Body had to be mixed with Blood visibly for the faithful to symbolize the restoration of life, i.e., Resurrection. That was why the Body was dipped into the Chalice and then taken out of the Chalice with a spoon.
The communion spoon wasn’t actually called ‘a spoon’ (κοχλιάριον); rather, it was called ‘tongs’ (λαβίδα), hinting at the burning coal given to Isaiah by an Angel with tongs (Is. 6:7).
Interestingly enough, the first spoons for communion resembled real spoons and were quite big. Until the 18th century, though the spoons became smaller, they remained deep enough to distribute sufficiently large portions of the Wine and the Bread to the parishioners.
There was an alternative method of consuming the Gifts in the middle of the 12th century, when the communion spoons were a new thing: drinking from the Chalice using a special silver straw. This custom saw a widespread adoption in Africa and Spain. However, it didn’t stick, and the silver straws became rare as early as the 14th century. I heard that such communion straws appeared much earlier, possibly even as early as the 6th century, in particular in the Western Church.
Hardly anyone knows that a wine strainer was considered a liturgical utensil in the 4th century, too. It was made of silver or other valuable stuff and used to pour wine into the Chalice.
Treasure found in the Zion Monastery: chalices, censers, a tabernacle, and a wine strainer in the front row
Christians used to bring their own wine and their own baked bread for the Liturgy. The wine wasn’t always high-quality and clean enough. That is why they needed a strainer to filter out possible admixtures.
Jugs were used for the Eucharist along with the Chalice until the 14th century; a mural painting in Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos depicting the Eucharist allows us to see that monks at Mt. Athos might use a jug for communion up until the 16th century.
Therefore, the communion spoon wasn’t universally widespread. Use of a jug implies that the Bread and the Wine were consumed separately.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds
End of Part II