Division or Addition?

In recent decades, thanks to the active revival of church life, the Russian Orthodox Church has seen an increase in the number of communicants. As a result, there is also a need for larger eucharistic vessels, which can sometimes be as large as nine liters at patriarchal services and in large monasteries. However, on large feasts, with many visitors, large numbers of parishioners and clergy, there may be a need for large chalices and discoses in small parishes, too. Not every congregation can afford large chalices for just a few services a year, so what if it is impossible to borrow a large chalice from neighboring parishes, but it is possible to borrow one or two of the same size?

The Current Method: Division of the Holy Gifts. Big chalices are used in large parishes and monasteries, where there is a well-established sacramental discipline and a large number of those who want to partake of the Sacrament. According to the established practice, during the transfer of the Chalice at the Great Entrance, it contains only a small or moderate amount of the holy substance – wine and water – prepared during the proskomedia. When the Gifts are placed on the Holy Table and the veil is lifted from them after the Creed, the clergy pour additional wine into the Chalice, which will then be consecrated during the anaphora. In doing so, the priests avoid the difficulty of carrying a heavy chalice and the risk of spilling the contents. Before the communion of the clergy, the Blood of Christ is dispensed with a special ladle into smaller vessels, from which the people of God will receive communion. This is one of the common practices adopted in most Russian parishes. It is considered to be somewhat more classical and correct, because it assumes the uniqueness of the Chalice and the Bread. The wide availability of ladles in specialized church shops speaks for itself. However, there is another method, known since the times of Orthodox Byzantium.

The Byzantine Method. There were already numerous participants and the need to prepare many Eucharistic Gifts in ancient times, especially during the worship in huge cathedrals like the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople. Some Christian manuscripts (ancient service books and works of Holy Fathers) suggest that the Byzantines performed the Eucharist with several vessels, including several discoses. Priests carried several chalices to the altar at once at the Great Entrance, as evidenced by the iconography of some Byzantine and Balkan frescoes of the XIV-XVI centuries. St. Symeon of Thessalonica writes that even if there were many chalices and discoses with the Gifts to be consecrated, the statutory words on the Liturgy still remained the same. The discoses with the Lambs were placed on the Holy Table in the form of a cross, and the chalices were placed between the arms of that cross:

All these chalices and discoses were sanctified during the anaphora, and there was no need of adding wine or pouring it from one chalice into many, which is fraught with shedding of the Blood of Christ, as well as the prolongation of the service. Later, with the decline of Eucharistic piety, when people began to receive communion less and less frequently, this practice gradually became obsolete, although the custom of carrying several empty vessels at the Great Entrance persisted for some time.

Today’s alternative practice, rooted in the Byzantine tradition, is that additional vessels are placed on the Holy Table after the Great Entrance, and are consecrated together. This practice is usually referred to as addition.

What’s Better? The main argument made by the advocates of the division practice is the words of the Liturgy itself, which always speaks of only one Bread and one Chalice. One Bread and one Chalice look more natural and fully convey both the symbolism of the Last Supper and the words of the Scriptures: “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Also, anaphoras of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great always speak about one Bread and one Cup, which, however, does not preclude putting three or four Lambs on a discos during the Lent to be used for communion at the Liturgies of the Presanctified. In general, as we have already said, the distribution of the Holy Gifts from a large chalice into small ones is considered more conservative.

Despite the symbolism of using just one Chalice, by the time of the communion of the faithful, in the presence of a large congregation or a gathering of worshippers, there is more than one Chalice on the Holy Table. No one would argue that this method is much more convenient for everyone to administer the Holy Sacraments to a large number of partakers, and it is not recommended to extend the Liturgy unnecessarily (by reading too many prayer notes, hearing confessions after the Communion Verse, or giving communion from one Chalice if there are other chalices and priests). Secondly, no matter how many discoses and chalices are on the altar, Christ is always the same everywhere. The Orthodox celebrate the Liturgy all over the world, and at some point there are tens of thousands of chalices on Holy Tables; and yet, we believe that there is only one Bread of Life and only one Cup of Immortality at the Eucharist. Thirdly, our divine service was created in Byzantium, and if the Byzantines themselves unashamedly celebrated it using several vessels, then we should pay more attention to such a tradition, witnessed and approved by such Fathers as St. Symeon of Thessalonica and St. Maximus the Confessor. The practicality and convenience of such a custom is also an important argument, and in the absence of a ladle it is simply unavoidable.

Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both practices. The division preserves the symbolism and literal adherence to the text of the anaphorae, but it takes time to distribute the wine and there is a risk of spilling the Blood, and it can also be difficult to calculate the right amount of Holy Blood, which is avoided by the use of multiple chalices. The downside of the Byzantine practice is a bit of hassle caused by the addition of other vessels after the Great Entrance (the Byzantines avoided this, too, by carrying all the vessels in the procession of the Great Entrance, which is not the case nowadays) and, if there are more than two or three holy chalices, it is desirable to have at least two deacons or two fellow priests take part in the Eucharist, who will be able to lift up all the vessels during the Anaphora. By and large, at this point in time, when evaluating the positive aspects of both practices, parishes may use either division or addition, sometimes even a combination of both depending on the situation.

John Nichiporuk

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
a Bachelor of Theology, specialized in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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