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NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
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Excursus on the Communion of the Sick.

There is nothing upon which the ancient church more strenuously insisted than the oral reception of the Holy Communion.  What in later times was known as “Spiritual Communion” was outside of the view of those early days; and to them the issues of eternity were considered often to rest upon the sick man’s receiving with his mouth “his food for the journey,” the Viaticum, before he died.  No greater proof of how important this matter was deemed could be found than the present canon, which provides that even the stern and invariable canons of the public penance are to give way before the awful necessity of fortifying the soul in the last hour of its earthly sojourn.

Possibly at first the holy Sacrament may have been consecrated in the presence of the sick person, but of this in early times the instances are rare and by no means clear.  In fact it was considered a marked favour that such a thing should be allowed, and the saying of mass in private houses was prohibited (as it is in the Eastern and Latin churches still to-day) with the greatest rigour.

The necessity of having the consecrated bread and wine for the sick led to their reservation, a practice which has existed in the Church from the very beginning, so far as any records of which we are in possession shew.

St. Justin Martyr, writing less than a half century after St. John’s death, mentions that “the deacons communicate each of those present, and carry away to the absent the blest bread, and wine and water.”7979    Just. M. Apol. I. cap. lxv.  It was evidently a long established custom in his day.

Tertullian tells us of a woman whose husband was a heathen and who was allowed to keep the Holy Sacrament in her house that she might receive every morning before other food.  St. Cyprian also gives a most interesting example of reservation.  In his treatise “On the Lapsed” written in a.d. 251, (chapter xxvi), he says:  “Another woman, when she tried with unworthy hands to open her box, in which was the Holy of the Lord, was deterred from daring to touch it by fire rising from it.”

It is impossible with any accuracy to fix the date, but certainly before the year four hundred, a perpetual reservation for the sick was made in the churches.  A most interesting incidental proof of this is found in the thrilling description given by St. Chrysostom of the great riot in Constantinople in the year 403, when the soldiers “burst into the place where the Holy Things were stored, and saw all things therein,” and “the most holy blood of Christ was spilled upon their clothes.”8080    Chrys. Ep. ad Innoc. Sec. 3.  From this incident it is evident that in that church the Holy Sacrament was reserved in both kinds, and separately.

Whether this at the time was usual it is hard to say, but there can be no doubt that even in the earliest times the Sacrament was given, on rare occasions at least, in one kind, sometimes under the form of bread alone, and when the sick persons could not swallow under the form of wine alone.  The practice called “intinction,” that is the dipping of the bread into the wine and administering the two species together, was of very early introduction and still is universal in the East, not only when Communion is given with the reserved Sacrament, but also when the people are communicated in the Liturgy from the newly consecrated species.  The first mention of intinction in the West, is at Carthage in the fifth century.8181    I give the reference as in Scudamore’s Not. Euch. from which I have taken it.  De Prom. et Præd. Dei; Dimid. Temp. c. 6; inter Opp. Prosperi, p. 161. ed. 1609.  We know it was practised in the seventh century and by the twelfth it had become general, to give place to the withdrawal of the chalice altogether in the West.8282    Cf. Scudamore, Not. Euch. p. 705.  “Regino (De Eccles. Discip. Lib. I. c. lxx.) in 906, Burchard (Decr. Lib. V. cap. ix. fol. 95. colon. 1560.) in 996, and Ivo (Decr. Pars. II. cap. xix. p. 56, Paris 1647) in 1092 all cite a Canon, which they ascribe to a council of Tours ordering ‘every presbyter to have a pyx or vessel meet for so great a sacrament, in which the Body of the Lord may be carefully laid up for the Viaticum to those departing from this world, which sacred oblation ought to be steeped in the Blood of Christ that the presbyter may be able to say truthfully to the sick man, The Body and Blood of the Lord avail thee, etc.’”8383    Cf. Scudamore, Notit. Euch. p. 707.

The reservation of the Holy Sacrament was usually made in the church itself, and the learned W. E. Scudamore is of opinion that this was the case in Africa as early as the fourth century.8484    W. E. Scudamore, Notitia Eucharistica [2d. Ed.] p. 1025.

It will not be uninteresting to quote in this connection the “Apostolic Constitutions,” for while indeed there is much doubt of the date of the Eighth Book, yet it is certainly of great antiquity.  Here we read, “and after the communion of both men and women, the deacons take what remains and place it in the tabernacle.”8585    Apost. Const. Lib. viii. cap. xiij.  The word used is παστοφόρια, this may possibly mean a side chapel, and does occur in the Book of Maccabees in this sense; but its classical use is to signify the shrine of a god, and while so distinguished a writer as Pierre Le Brun adopts the later meaning, the no less famous Durant, together with most commentators, translate as I have done above.  In either case for the present purpose, the quotation is conclusive of the practice of the primitive church in regard to this matter.  Liddell and Scott give “παστοφόρος, one carrying the image of a god in a shrine.”

Perhaps it may not be amiss before closing the remark that so far as we are aware the reservation of the Holy Sacrament in the early church was only for the purposes of communion, and that the churches of the East reserve it to the present day only for this purpose.

Those who wish to read the matter treated of more at length, can do so in Muratorius’s learned “Dissertations” which are prefixed to his edition of the Roman Sacramentaries (chapter XXIV) and in Scudamore’s Notitia Eucharistica, a work which can be absolutely relied upon for the accuracy of its facts, however little one may feel constrained to accept the logical justness of its conclusions.


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