Although there are many differences between the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, the Eucharist remains central. However, the Byzantine Churches follow traditions about the Eucharist that are now unfamiliar in the West. Let’s explore these traditions in this week’s article.
Receiving Communion in the Eastern Rite
When I went to my first Divine Liturgy, what surprised me the most about receiving communion is that you cross your arms over your chest to receive the Eucharist. In many Roman Catholic Churches, crossing your arms means that you are asking for a blessing because you cannot receive the Eucharist that day. After years of crossing my arms because I hadn’t received my first communion (or confession) it felt very strange to go back to that practice. Particularly since the meaning had reversed!
In order to receive a blessing in Byzantine Churches, one may bow their head as they approach.
Body and Blood
In Byzantine Churches, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are served with both species together in the chalice. The priest or deacon uses a spoon to take out a piece of the Body of Christ, which is saturated with His Blood.
There have also been times that Roman Catholics received communion mixed together. However, there have been many changes to how communion has been distributed in the Latin Rite. In fact, even now, communion on the hand is a practice that has been approved for many but not all countries.
The history of infant communion is related to the matter of how the laity receive the communion. In the early days of Christianity, baptism, communion, and confirmation were always celebrated together, just as it is in the Byzantine Churches now. In the West, it was later decided that infants should receive the blood of Christ only. This was because people feared the Eucharist would be desecrated if the infant did not swallow it. However, this meant when the laity were excluded from receiving the Precious Blood, that children could no longer receive.
Thankfully, in the Byzantine Churches, the tradition of infant reception is continued. If you want to read more about the history of infant communion in the west, check out https://preachersinstitute.com/2012/12/08/infant-communion-the-ancient-western-tradition/.
Although I was most surprised by the crossing of arms to receive the Eucharist, others may be more confused by the use of risen or leavened bread. Perhaps the word risen gives you a bit of a hit about the tradition of the East. Indeed, this use of risen bread in Byzantine Churches symbolizes the resurrection of Our Lord. This view comes from a theology that focuses on the Eucharist as the Heavenly Banquet. In the West, the theology centres around the Eucharist as it represents the Last Supper. Neither of these views exclude the other. They merely show how the focus shapes the tradition.
Byzantine Churches view the yeast in bread as symbolic of the soul in the body. Therefore, since Jesus is the living bread, it makes sense to use a leavened bread in this tradition.
It may be surprising to hear but in the Early Church, leavened bread was used for the Eucharist in both the East and the West. In the West the tradition developed towards the use of unleavened bread; however, in 1439 the Council of Florence decreed that the use of either forms of bread were valid. There is then the question of which is licit, to which the Council agreed that each church should follow their own traditions.
“The body of Christ is truly confected in both unleavened and leavened wheat bread, and priests should confect the body of Christ in either, that is, each priest according to the custom of his western or eastern church.”
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Thank you for checking out this article from TheByzantineLife.com. You may also be interested in reading our articles about other Byzantine Traditions, such as Why an Iconostas?, flowers for the Dormition, and how to celebrate a Praznyk!