Customs on Receiving Holy Communion in 4th-Century Egypt

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Without seeking to extract any implications from this as to modern discipline, I share this for interest’ sake.

St. Basil writes:

“It is good and beneficial to communicate every day, and to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ. For He distinctly says, He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. And who doubts that to share frequently in life, is the same thing as to have manifold life. I, indeed, communicate four times a week, on the Lord’s day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath, and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any Saint. It is needless to point out that for anyone in times of persecution to be compelled to take the communion in his own hand without the presence of a priest or minister is not a serious offense, as long custom sanctions this practice from the facts themselves. All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes. For when once the priest has completed the offering, and given it, the recipient, participating in it each time as entire, is bound to believe that he properly takes and receives it from the giver. And even in the church, when the priest gives the portion, the recipient takes it with complete power over it, and so lifts it to his lips with his own hand. It has the same validity whether one portion or several portions are received from the priest at the same time.” (Letter 93)

3 thoughts on “Customs on Receiving Holy Communion in 4th-Century Egypt

  1. St. Basil is not referring to communion in the hand, but rather, the idea that no one should take communion for themselves. The early Fathers of the Church emphasized that no one, not even priests, should self-communicate. St. Augustine(c. 354-430), for example, in response to the letters of Petilian, bishop of Cirta, writes:

    “To this we may add, that I refer to a man who lived with you, whose birthday you were wont to celebrate with such large assemblies, with whom you joined in the kiss of peace in the sacraments, in whose hands you placed the Eucharist, to whom in turn you extended your hands to receive it from his ministering…” (Book 2, Chapter 23, Paragraph 53)

    Furthermore, his statement, “And even in the church, when the priest gives the portion, the recipient takes it with complete power over it, and so lifts it to his lips with his own hand,” (St. Basil, Letter 93) provides clear evidence that the Christian laity received Holy Communion in the hands.

  2. Very interesting. This made sense in the 4th century Church, just after the time of persecutions when practice was devised for true believers, not oceans of nominals. The idea of sticking the Eucharist in someone’s mouth with a hand or a spoon is obviously presuming that the laity or going to misuse the sacrament.

    I do wonder how careful they were with the crumbs back then.

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