Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Response to "Holy Communion and Menstruation"

St. Dionysius of Alexandria

Fr. Ted Bobosh has written an article on a topic that comes up from time to time -- whether or not we should observe the custom of women refraining from Communion during their menstrual cycle. Curiously, Fr. Ted appeals to Apostolic Constitutions as his primary basis for rejecting this custom, but makes no mention of the Ecumenical Canons that endorse the same custom. This is curious because Canon 2 of the Quinisext Council specifically rejects the Apostolic Constitutions because it contains many impious and heretical interpolations. And in that same canon, the Holy Fathers affirmed the canons of St. Dionysius of Alexandria (who reposed in 264 AD.) as well as those of St. Timothy of Alexandria (who reposed in 384, and was one of the Fathers of the Second Ecumenical Council), and in those canons, this custom is affirmed (see Canon 2 of St. Dionysius and Canon 7 of St. Timothy).

Contrary to the suggestion of the quote from the Apostolic Constitutions that Fr. Ted cited, no one believes that a women is separated from God during her menstrual cycle, cannot pray, or is deprived of the Holy Spirit. Nor does anyone teach that having a menstrual cycle is in any way sinful. Nor is the custom of women refraining from communion during this time an absolute prohibition. We do, however, have customs of ritual purity in the Orthodox Church. For example, when clergy are vesting for the liturgy, we ritually wash our hands -- not because they are physically dirty. Any clergyman with any sense has washed his hands before he comes into the Church. However, this action does remind us of our need for spiritual cleansing. If a priest cuts himself when serving the proskomedia, he must leave the altar, and not return until the bleeding has stopped. If a priest is driving and a young child runs out in front of his car, and is killed, that priest will never be allowed to serve the Liturgy again -- not because he killed the child intentionally, but because he has blood on his hands, and so can no longer offer the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist.

With the New Testament, the Old Testament worship has been replaced by a new Liturgy (Hebrews 8:6), but this does not mean that there is no continuity between the Old and the New Covenants. Some things have been set aside completely, and other things have been retained to one degree or another. In the Old Testament we see that there was quite a bit of concern about blood, and we see that even in the New Testament this concern has not been set aside (see, for example Acts 15:23-29).

The customs that we retain have a symbolic and didactic significance, but they are not absolute. If a woman was in danger of death during her menstrual period, she would of course be communed without any hesitation, because then the didactic value of this custom would be superseded by the more immediate need to prepare the woman for her death.

Fr. Ted did not mention the oft quote epistle of St. Gregory the Great in which he said that this custom should not be obligatory, but it should be noted that he also says that if a woman wishes to observe this custom it is praiseworthy -- which is very much in contrast to the position usually taken by those who cite St. Gregory on this subject. It should also be noted that St. Gregory the Great reposed in 604 AD., and the Quinisext Council was held in 692 AD. -- and so we do not know what he would have written had he lived after the time of that Council.

If someone wishes to argue that the canons of Ss. Dionysius and Timothy of Alexandria were due to the historical conditions of the times in which they lived, and that modern sanitation has made this practice no longer necessary, at least they are attempting to take the canons seriously rather than merely dismissing them. But those who take the position that the practice has never had any justification have a serious problem in explaining how these canons could have been affirmed by an Ecumenical Council -- and beyond that, they have the problem in dealing with the Old Testament laws regarding menstruation. Do they not believe that the Mosaic Law was inspired by God? Regardless of whether one thinks we should observe the custom in question today or not, if "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 2:15-17), then these laws could not be just a matter of ancient superstition, ignorance, or misogyny.

It should also be noted that the Russian Church has recently reaffirmed this practice, in the document: On the Patricipation of the Faithful in the Eucharist, which was approved at the Synod meeting held on February 2nd - 3rd, 2015 in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

See also:

On "Ritual Impurity": In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin), by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?, By Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Churching and the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord