Monday, November 8, 2021

Sharing the Common Cup: A Pandemic Message


During the pandemic there has been a concern on the part of some about the chalice at the Eucharist. The concern is that the common cup is not sanitary and should be avoided. 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. Like so much else, the biblical, catholic, and rubrical provision for communion in both kinds in the Eucharist has been upended in the pandemic.

These responses have often resulted in erroneous, improvised, and misguided thinking and practices: scientifically, spiritually, and liturgically. I write this message to address these matters as part of the teaching office I have with you.

Scientifically

The risk of transmission of disease from the common cup is very, very low.  A recent article has once more confirmed this.* If the shared chalice 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 concludes:
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.
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

Above and beyond the question of science is the matter of what sacraments mean and what they provide for the faithful. We should be much more concerned about the value and efficacy of the sacraments as spiritual medicine (and our own preparation for them0 than a preoccupation with their fitness for us

Consumerism has so invaded our era 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 exaggerated concerns around the common cup only deepen a serious error in contemporary church discourse: conforming the sacraments to us, rather than conforming our lives to sharing in them. As Jesus asks of James and John, so he does of us: "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). The common cup is not an "option" among options, but a very physical encounter with Christ, neighbor, and creation through the Paschal Mystery. Approaching it in this light changes the discussion's context and character.

This brings up the point that the Holy Eucharist, like the entire Christian life, is not primarily about "being safe." Putting the priority on complete safety has never been a mark of authentic Christianity. 

In the early stages of the pandemic there was an understandable concern to limit transmission and keep our gatherings from being a way of bringing sickness and death, but with added knowledge it is time to assert the spiritual priority of making the sacraments available to God's people. The absolute priority of safety urged by some obscures the truth of the Gospel--a way of life inherently risky and at odds with the world's standards. Reliance on comfort, convenience, and riskless-ness found through such things as teleconferencing and avoidance of the chalice ultimately makes the Christian life more unreal, removed from human need and divine participation.

The spiritual consequence of prolonged physical absence from receiving the Holy Mysteries in both kinds is not to be downplayed. When Jesus says in John 6:53 "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" he is not speaking only figuratively. Prioitizing online forms of gathering has unintentionally undermined  incarnational, sacramental faith while encouraging gnostic, intellectualized distortions of that faith. The anxiety around the cup is, I believe, a further expression of this. When the cup is returned to normative use our fears will gradually be overcome and a renewal of trust made available through it.

Now that they have been vaccinated against this disease, many of our people have been pleading with clergy and lay leaders to bring back fully-sacramental worship in order to give sustenance for this long and arduous journey. Sadly, they have often been met with what amounts to pseudo-scientific legalism and spiritual prevarication, being told "we can't share the cup until everyone is comfortable with it" and the like--something never true in the Church's history before and quite beside the point now. The many people who have told me that receiving the cup is, for them, an essential part of their spiritual life have been denied this because of the qualms of others in their home communities, often in the name of "inclusion." This turning of sacramental theology on its head is sadly ironic and painfully misapplied.

Holding whole communities of vaccinated (and now boosted) parishioners hostage to the anxiety of a few is actually a form of coercion and exclusion rather than an image of inclusion. Making accommodation for access and mitigation of risks (bringing the Holy Sacrament to the immunocompromised, online access for services where useful, employing masks in liturgy, improved ventilation/air cleaning, &c. in church) while allowing for normative worship is the inclusive, generous, and spiritually-based response.

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 if not destroyed. 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.

The often hasty liturgical modifications made at the start of the pandemic may have had some logic initially, but their continued employment proves one should not generalize from emergencies to life afterwards. Rather, we should prioritize normative liturgical practice as found in the official formularies of our tradition, working from them and staying as close as possible to them and the underlying, cumulative sacramental wisdom they embody. Liturgy based on this communicates Christ, rather than panic, fear, or uniformed and consumeristic novelty.

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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. To receive or not from the chalice should, however, be based on spiritual and factual considerations, not myth, pseudoscience, or plain misunderstanding. 

To conclude: 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 and in joy. The pandemic has not changed this.

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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