Within the first millennia the Holy Eucharistic bread was received in the hand, Full Stop.

 *** Excerpts from University of Notre Dame – Church Life Journal. Credits to E. Klein;

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 (at least) 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 honor, 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) honor; 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!

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]

*** End of excerpts from University of Notre Dame – Church Life Journal.

How does this evidence bear on present day conversations?

First, this evidence must inherently preclude that communion in the hand is intrinsically irreverent. It also rules out any argument that the act is a rejection of the ‘true presence’. The fathers made it very clear that all was well when receiving the Eucharistic bread in the hands.

The practice of communion on the tongue in the West, and on a spoon in the East, was probably a development to limit Eucharistic mishaps. It is not a weird and twisted for of reverence.

Yet, did Jesus worry about breaking bread (breaking is the key word) and giving it to his disciples? And there is absolutely no evidence in the biblical text that the disciples received it on the tongue. [Or for that matter that the Apostles later gave communion on the tongue]. If the bible is infallible, and it does not specifically spell it out, it did not happen. Conjecture is dangerous to the context of the bible.

Next, reverence is a mater of perspective, and can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. [Kneeling, praying, bowing, crossing and a myriad of other actions we see across the Christian spectrum].

Historically, based on biblical reference (or lack thereof) and very specific direction by the greatest and most respected of the church fathers, receiving on the tongue or palm should be a choice, albeit a choice of profound understanding of the reverence for the sacredness of the Eucharistic Host.

It is not without mishap that a priest drops the hosts when reaching to place it on the tongue. This is especially true of a kneeling communicant. If the head of the communicant is nor raised to look directly ate the priest, the priest must reach down and then elevate the wrist to get into the position of tongue reception. Clergy make mistakes, they are fallible just like the communicants. How many time does the braking of the wafer crack wrong and drop minuscule particles. It happens more that you may realize or admit.

One argument that many actually find offensive, is stating that the communicant is a sinner and will defile the host if taken in the hand. Be aware, all clergy are sinners, just like the communicant. The claim that God protects the Eucharistic host because the priest has special status is unsubstantiated.

Another case in point. Seminaries in this new age, with accredited seminaries operating as secularized businesses, are falling very short of proper training for the priesthood. Hence, many clergy are ill equipped to properly train their congregations. Our liturgies, especially the Eucharist, must be taught and have solid rubrics to sustain a reverent environment. Period.

*** Excerpt from University of Notre Dame – Church Life Journal;

It may well be the case that the sudden change in practice after Vatican II ( or the practices of other denominations) 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.


[1] Tertullian, On Idolatry 7.1.

[2] Cyprian, On the Good of Patience 14, On the Lapsed 16 and 26, and Letter 55.9.

[3] Augustine, Answer to Petilian 2.23.53 and Against Parmenian 2.7.13.

[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.

[7] Basil of Caesarea, Letter 93.

[8] John Chrysostom, Homilies on EphesiansBaptismal Instruction 12.15–16, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 6.36, and On the Priesthood 3.4.

[9] Theodore of Mopsuestia, Catechetical Homilies 6.

[10] See John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, 4.13.

[11] Council of Constantinople in Trullo, canon 101.

[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.

[17] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.9.4.

[18] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.43.18.

[19] You can see an image here. http://www.artesacrarossano.it/eng/details_works.php?IDo=37

[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).

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