Updated: Jun 22
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)
COVID changed things. It hurt us. In more ways than just the loss of loved ones that many families experienced. Socializing with others is more difficult than it was (and it was already becoming more difficult for many). Our communities have suffered. Our sense of community has been impoverished.
And oddly enough, church practice and church community have changed and (in some cases) suffered. Church services were suspended. In-person worship was supplanted by online services for many. The sacraments were not offered for months, or were not offered in the way they were offered before the coronavirus shook things up. If sacraments are means of grace as well as powerful symbols, enacted words that re-present to us the sacrifice of Christ, then our sense of living out the Gospel in and with Christ has almost certainly been affected over the last two years.
In our case, we offered the sacrament as soon as our bishop permitted us to do so. At first we offered only the bread. When permission was given for each local church to do as seemed best for their particularly community, we offered communion in both kinds. But the wine was offered in individual cups. Keep in mind that this was a concession to the perceived threat of spreading the virus amongst our fellowship. It was never meant to become permanent. I'm afraid, though, that it did reinforce our fears. Instead of seeing the wine as the “cup of blessing” that the apostle Paul called it, the individual cups appeared “safer” than whatever contagion might be swirling about in the chalice.
A few points to consider.
1. Jesus was presented to the world to be received by faith. He was who he was and is, and we couldn't make him be what we wanted him to be. Though the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman authorities tried to make him fit within their understanding of how things should be, he remained uniquely himself. So, just as with them, we aren't given the privilege (and that's the wrong word) of sitting in judgment over him. Rather, he sits in judgment over all the peoples of the earth. He is the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
It seems to me that the same truth is set before us in the other ways Jesus is manifested to us. He is presented to us in the Scriptures to be received by faith. We don't get to sit in judgment over his Word, picking and choosing and modifying to suit our tastes. Rather, the Word of God judges our heart. The Good Book reads us more than we read it.
In the same manner, Jesus is set before us in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood. We don't get to evaluate the bread and wine and determine what it is or whether or not it is safe for us to consume. It is to be received by faith, just like the Scriptures, and just like the Incarnation of Jesus. Jesus said to take and eat, and to drink.
2. Similarly, Sacraments are more than mere symbols. They are more than just signposts pointing to some larger truth. They are indeed that, but they are so much more. Sacraments participate in what they re-present (and yes, I hyphenate intentionally so that we don't think of the sacraments as representations, but as “presentations again” of Jesus and His work to the gathered faithful). Our catechism defines sacraments as “means of grace.” These means of grace were given to the Church by Christ Himself as a way for us to verily receive the grace of Christ's self-gift to his people.
Because of what a sacrament is, we cannot allow ourselves to see the consecrated bread and wine as just symbols, as just bread and wine. We believe Christ to be spiritually present in the Holy Eucharist. We must then determine if we want to receive him or not. If we want more of him, then we come to the table to receive Christ, not just some bits of bread and wine that may or may not be tainted with a virus or bacteria or whatever. To see the chalice that way is to not see with the eyes of faith. Christ gave (and gives) himself for the good of his people not for their harm, for their nourishment not to deprive them of health.
3. The Church is the Body of Christ, and though we are many we are one body in him. We come to the Table as individuals, but also as members of the one Body of Christ, the catholic (universal) Church, the ransomed Bride of the victorious Lamb of God. It is our common union with Christ that we in part celebrate and acknowledge when we partake of the Body and Blood. As such, we are to hold all things in common. We are not to be divided or at enmity with each other. We should similarly not see each other as threats to our well-being but rather as vital to our growth and flourishing. We need each other. We are for each other. So, thoughts of “I don't want to drink after so-and-so” don't belong to a faithful receiving of the Sacrament. To think in such manner is to divide the Body of Christ, the Church, his Bride. It is to stand apart from each other. We all come to the one Christ for salvation. It is his blood alone which atones for our sins – the sins of each one of us. Therefore, we remember that Christ Jesus passed around one cup of wine to his disciples and bid them drink. We should all drink from the same cup as a reminder to all of us that we have a common life in the one Christ.
I feel a clarification might be needed here. I do not mean to say that the entire Church throughout the world must drink from one chalice in its Eucharistic celebrations. That would be a physical impossibility. Each earthly celebration of the Eucharist is a participation in the once-for-all Sacrifice, the one heavenly offering of Christ. If the universal Church can't drink from one cup, why need all the members gathered at the local church do so? Because if we don't, the symbolic power of the Sacrament is lost. Yes, the sacraments are more than symbols (see above); but they are nonetheless symbols – and very powerful and rich symbols at that. Individual plastic cups reinforces our individuality, not our corporate identity in Christ. Separate cups speak of partaking apart from each other rather than together. We run the risk of reducing the faith to something that is just between “me and Jesus."
4. The historic practice of Christendom argues for partaking from a common cup. It's what the Orthodox do. It's what the Roman Catholics do. It's what Anglicans have done for centuries. The consecrated elements have always been (until perhaps quite recently, and again in Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism) treated with reverence and great care. If some of the wine were to be spilt, it might be sipped off the floor, or blotted with towels which were then burned. If some wine spilled on a carpet, that piece of the carpet would be cut out and burned. If a wafer dropped on the floor it would be picked up and consumed. If an elderly person or child receiving communion were to take the wafer and then spit it out, it would be taken and consumed by the priest.
Sometimes the laity were not allowed to consume the wine for fear of it being spilt and trampled under foot. It was taught that the laity could consume the Body and Blood of Christ in just the bread. Bread was later pressed into thin wafers so as to keep crumbs from falling to the floor and being trampled upon. In the Orthodox churches, the bread is soaked in the cup of wine (all the bread in the entire chalice) and communion is served to the faithful with a spoon. Yes, the same spoon for each person.
Clearly, such liturgical practice is sufficient to say that the historic churches of Christendom have not seen the consecrated elements as ordinary bread and wine. Fear of getting sick was never the issue. I personally have been drinking what remains in the chalice after serving the congregation almost every Sunday for nearly twenty years. I've never gotten sick as a result. The concern in the Eucharist has generally been to ensure that that which is considered holy is not mishandled, that Christ is not dishonored in the Feast.