Early Christian Communion in the Hand

As a scholar of the early Church, I was surprised to learn that the practice of communion in the hand is such a hotly debated topic; it came to my attention during the early days of the pandemic, when many dioceses required communicants to receive in this way. Whatever one thinks about the practice today and its reemergence after Vatican II, it is important that our conversation be grounded in an accurate picture of the history of this practice. Receiving communion in the hand was the common practice of the Church in both East and West for the first 800 years of Christianity, and it was certainly considered reverent by the Fathers. 

In North Africa (including Egypt) the practice is mentioned by Tertullian,[1] Cyprian,[2] Augustine,[3] Cyril of Alexandria,[4] and John Climacus.[5] In Jerusalem, we have the mystagogical catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem (or perhaps of his successor, John).[6] In Syria (what we now call Turkey and surrounding regions) it is witnessed by Basil the Great,[7] John Chrysostom,[8] Theodore of Mopsuestia,[9] John Damascene[10] and the Council of Constantinople in Trullo (also called the Quinisext council).[11] In East Syria (what we would now call the Middle East) we have evidence from Ephrem the Syrian[12] and Narsai.[13] In the far-flung regions of the empire—Gaul (modern-day France and Spain) we have the witness of Caesarius of Arles[14] and the council of Auxerre,[15] and in England, we have the Venerable Bede.[16] Liturgical evidence from Rome is always sparser than one would like, but Eusebius preserves a mention of communion in the hand in a letter written from Dionysius of Alexandria to Sixtus I, bishop of Rome,[17] and in a letter of Cornelius, bishop of Rome.[18] Moreover, an early illuminated gospel, the Rosanno Gospels, depicts the last supper as a communion line, where the disciples receive in cupped hands while bowed.[19] This list is by no means exhaustive, and it would be tedious to cite all of these references as a catalog, but let us turn to a few of them to see what the Fathers have to say about the meaning of this practice.

It is clear that this mode of reception was considered reverent and was to be carried out in a reverent manner. Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia liken the practice to that of receiving a king, and both of them note the method of reception was in joined hands (also described in other sources as hands in the form of a cross). First, Cyril:

Coming up to receive, therefore, do not approach with your wrists extended or your fingers splayed, but making your left hand a throne for the right (for it is about to receive a King) and cupping your palm, so receive the Body of Christ; and answer: “Amen.”[20]

Here is what Theodore says:

To receive the Sacrament which is given, a person stretches out his right hand, and under it he places the left hand. In this he shows a great fear, and since the hand that is stretched out holds a higher rank, it is the one that is extended for receiving the body of the King, and the other hand bears and brings its sister hand, while not thinking that it is playing the role of a servant, as it is equal with it in honour, on account of the bread of the King, which is also borne by it. When the priest gives it he says: “The body of Christ.” He teaches you by this word not to look at that which is visible, but to picture in your mind the nature of this oblation, which, by the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the body of Christ. You should thus draw near with great awe and love, according to the greatness of that which is given: with awe, because of the greatness of (its) honour; and with love, because of (its) grace. This is the reason why you say after him: “Amen.”[21]

In an even more elevated tone, Ephrem the Syrian, in a stunning passage, invites the Christian communicant to feel awe at what is placed in his or her hand, since even the Seraph did not take the divine coal with his hand, nor did the prophet Isaiah eat it (see: Isa 6:6). The divine coal is a common image of the Eucharist in Syrian theology.

The [Seraph] did not hold it, and [Isaiah] did not eat it
But to us our Lord has given both . . .
Fire came down and consumed the sacrifices of Elijah
The fire of mercy has become for us a living sacrifice
Fire consumed the offering
Your fire, O, Our Lord we have eaten in your offering
“Who holds the wind in the palm of his hand?”
Come see,
O Solomon, the thing which the Lord of your father
Has done
Fire and Spirit, contrary to nature
Mingle and flow into the palms of his disciples![22]

Of note for the modern debate, both John Chrysostom and the Council of Constantinople in Trullo argue that human beings, made in the image of God and capable of communing with him, are more worthy to touch the Eucharist than vessels of gold and silver. First, Chrysostom in one of his Homilies on Ephesians:

What, do you not see the holy vessels so thoroughly cleansed all over, so resplendent? Our souls ought to be purer than they, more holy, more brilliant. And why so? Because those vessels are made so for our sakes. They partake not of Him that is in them, they perceive Him not. But we do—yes, verily.[23]

The Council’s canon 101 says in turn:

The great and divine Apostle Paul with loud voice calls man created in the image of God, the body and temple of Christ. Excelling, therefore, every sensible creature, he who by the saving Passion has attained to the celestial dignity, eating and drinking Christ, is fitted in all respects for eternal life, sanctifying his soul and body by the participation of divine grace. Wherefore, if any one wishes to be a participator of the immaculate Body in the time of the Synaxis, and to offer himself for the communion, let him draw near, arranging his hands in the form of a cross, and so let him receive the communion of grace. But such as, instead of their hands, make vessels of gold or other materials for the reception of the divine gift, and by these receive the immaculate communion, we by no means allow to come, as preferring inanimate and inferior matter to the image of God.[24]

Most often when speaking of reverence, however, the Fathers emphasize two main things: 1) that every precaution should be taken lest the Eucharist fall to the ground and 2) that communicants should be from serious sin and quarrels with other Christians. With regard to the first precept, Origen of Alexandria cautions,

You who are accustomed to take part in divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost. For you believe, and correctly, that you are answerable if anything falls from there by neglect.[25]

With regard to the second, we have many early witnesses including Paul (see 1 Cor 11:27) and the Didache (see chapter 14). There is also evidence that this was a contested subject (i.e., about what sins prevent someone from receiving), as it would continue to be throughout the history of the Church. For example, Augustine writes,

Someone might say that the Eucharist should not be received daily. Why? “Because,” he says, “one should choose the days on which one lives with more purity and self-control in order to approach so great a sacrament worthily. For one who eats unworthily eats and drinks to his own condemnation” (1 Cor 11:29). Another will say the opposite; he says, “On the contrary, if the wound of sin and the attack of the disease is in fact so great that such medicines need to be postponed, one ought to be removed from the altar by the authority of the bishop in order to do penance, and one ought to be reconciled by the same authority. For this is what it is to receive unworthily: if one receives at that time when he ought to be doing penance. But one should not by his own judgment abstain from or return to communion, as he pleases. On the other hand, if the sins are not so great that a person should be judged to deserve excommunication, he ought not to withdraw from the daily medicine of the Lord’s body.”[26]

How should this evidence be brought to bear on the modern conversation?

On the one hand, I think this evidence precludes describing communion in the hand as intrinsically irreverent. It also rules out arguing for an intrinsic link between a rejection of the true presence and communion in the hand—the Fathers, on the whole, speak of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in highly realistic terms and also received on the hand.

On the other hand, this mode of communion is not anywhere associated with lay involvement or accessibility, nor is it thought to de-emphasize the role of the priest. The practice of communion on the tongue with the use of patens in the West, and in both kinds on a spoon with a drop cloth in the East, moreover, are natural developments from the concern of the Early Church to prevent Eucharistic mishaps. It is not solely the result of some weird “medieval” form of reverence.

These considerations can perhaps help balance our perspective (whether in favor or against the practice of communion in the hand), and alert us to the fact that reverence is a complex phenomenon that, of course, does involve postures of the body, but most importantly, the attitude of the heart. If we follow the example of the Fathers, we will prioritize practices that prevent the dropping of the Eucharist and catechizing communicants not to receive in a state of mortal sin.

It may well be the case that the sudden change in practice after Vatican II decreased devotion towards the Eucharist and belief in the true presence, and it may well be the case that there were bad actors who in fact desired this result. From this brief historical survey, however, we know that this need not be the case, and we can look to the Fathers for a pious example as we seek to foster reverence towards the Eucharist in the liturgy today. We would also do well to teach, as the Fathers do, that reverence is not only about proper reception of the Eucharist, but also about living the kind of life to which the Eucharist commits us. On this point, I will leave you with a beautiful exhortation from the Golden Tongue:

Think of what you receive in your hand and never lift it to strike another and never disgrace with the sin of assault the hand that has been honored with so great a gift. Think of what you receive in your hand and keep it clean of all greed and theft. Consider that you not only receive this gift in your hand, but that you also bring it up to your mouth, and keep your tongue clean of all disgraceful and outrageous words, blasphemy, perjury and all other sins of this sort. For it is a deed fraught with destruction to take the tongue which serve such awesome mysteries, which has become purpled with a blood so precious, which has become a sword of gold and to change its course to abuse, insolence and ribald jests. Have reverence for the honor which God has bestowed upon it, and do not lead it down to the vileness of sin.[27]

[4] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 6.1 and 12.1.

[5] John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent 28.

[6] Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 5.13.

[12] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 10 and Hymns on Virginity 33.7.

[13] Narsai, Homily 17a.

[14] Cesarius of Arles, sermon 227.

[15] See the council of Auxerre, canon 36 (it directs women not to receive on their bare hands, but with their hand covered by a cloth).

[16] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 4.24.

[20] Cyril of Jerusalem, myst. 5.21, trans. Leo P. McCauley FotC 64 (Catholic University of America Press: Washington, DC, 2000 [1970]).

[21] Theodore of Mopsuestia, catech. 6, trans. Alphonse Mingana (Gorgias Press: Piscataway, NJ, 2009 [1933]).

[22] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 10, trans. Jeffrey T. Wickes FotC 130 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2015).

[23] John Chrysostom, hom. in Eph 3, trans. Gross Alexander NPNF 13, ed. Phillip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889).

[24] Trans. Henry Percival and ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace in NPNF Second Series, 14 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900).

[25] Origen of Alexandria, homily in Ex. 13.3, trans. R. E. Heine FotC 21 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1982).

[26] Augustine, Letter 54.3.4, trans. Roland Teske (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001).

[27] John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instruction, 12.15-16, trans. Paul W. Harkins ACW 31 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1963).