Monday, November 8, 2021

Sharing the Common Cup: A Pandemic Message


During the pandemic there has been a renewed concern on the part of some about the chalice at the Eucharist. The belief some hold is that the common cup is not sanitary. Indeed, the Episcopal Church in many places forbade the distribution of the Holy Sacrament from the chalice to the people at the start of the pandemic--and continues to do so in some places still--while in others questionable or novel innovations have been employed to deal with this concern.

These responses have often resulted in erroneous thinking and practices: scientifically, spiritually, and liturgically. 

Scientifically

The risk of transmission of disease from the common cup is very, very low.  A recent article has once more confirmed this.* If it were an effective means of communicating disease, I would be ill much of the time, as I receive what remains in the chalice at the conclusion of communion at each celebration of the Eucharist. We also know now that SARS-CoV-2 is not effectively transmitted by surface contact in situations such as found with the common cup. As the above-linked article puts it:
In summary, the common communion cup may theoretically serve as a vehicle of transmitting infection, but the potential risk of transmission is very small. Currently, available data do not provide any support for the suggestion that the practice of sharing a common communion cup can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 because SARS-CoV-2 transmission from a patient with COVID-19 or asymptomatic carrier to other people has not been reported.
While the risk isn't zero, very few people are at any risk of infection by receiving the sacrament from the chalice.† Episcopalians often say they "follow the science." Here, this means accepting that the chalice is both sanitary and safe for the vast majority of people. 

Spiritually

Beyond the question of safety is the matter of what sacraments mean and provide to the faithful. We should be much more concerned about the value and efficacy of the sacraments as spiritual medicine, as well as our own fitness to receive the Holy Mysteries, rather than only their fitness for us. Consumerism has so invaded our faith that we often ignore the solemn words found in the Exhortation (based, in turn, on St. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians) for "all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup" and "Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord." The erroneous and exaggerated concerns around the common cup only deepen a serious error in contemporary discourse: conforming the sacraments to us, rather than conforming our lives to sharing in them and thus receiving their benefits.

Liturgically

The Eucharist is a sacrament of unity--the unity of God-in-Trinity, the unity of God and humanity in Christ, the unity of the Body of Christ in heaven and earth, the unity of the Church throughout the world and across the ages, the unity of our life as a holy offering, and the unity of those who gather in Christ to share in this meal. To shun the shared cup without sound reasons diminishes this sacramental sign of unity. 

Similarly, the substitution of pre-packaged "communion kits" for a common sharing essentially obliterates it. When, as some churches have done, communicants are given (or take for themselves) private plastic-wrapped wafers and cups, the visible sharing in this unity is drastically reduced. It also creates a large amount of plastic waste at what is supposed to be a meal where "nothing is wasted" and brings up the question of how such "waste" is to be reverently disposed of--along with the obvious point that such "communion-at-all-costs" is an unfortunate icon of our alienated, polluted relationship to God's Creation. Once again, consumerism (masquerading as sanitation, safety, convenience, &c.) has intruded, with all its Mammon-worshipping paraphernalia and logic, and displacing sound sacramental, liturgical practice.

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There are, of course, legitimate reasons for not receiving from the chalice: recovery from alcoholism, or the effects of some medications might be good reasons, for example. Since we teach that reception in one kind (either the consecrated bread or wine) is sufficient for a full communion, abstaining from the common cup does not nullify one's experience of the Sacrament. The point is to receive or not from the chalice based on spiritual and factual considerations, not myth, pseudoscience, or plain misunderstanding. 

For all but the most seriously immunocompromised, the chalice is safe. It is sanitary. It delivers Christ's sacred Blood to us without danger, as our Lord would have it. It is a sign of our being one in Christ. You may receive from it in faith and without fear.

Let us focus now, instead, on what it means to "share in that cup" and to be nourished in Christ's life and love there.

BLF+

* This article does remind us that if we are experiencing active infection, we should not receive. In such cases, we should not be in public liturgy, either.

†If you are seriously immunocompromised or for some other reason do not feel you can receive Holy Communion in a public liturgy, please contact me. I will make Holy Communion available to you privately in an ultra low-risk setting.


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