23 January 2014

When receiving the Eucharist: To be succinct, don't intinct

This was mentioned in response to another post elsewhere on Facebook, but became a general plea here. That plea is to not do intinction when receiving the Eucharist — something that is very common amongst Old Catholics and Episcopalians. The usual argument for it is that it's supposedly more sanitary.

However, intinction (dipping the bread into the wine) is actually less sanitary than simply sharing the chalice. The mouth is home to far fewer bacteria than what people carry under their fingernails, even if they've just washed their hands. And the wine's antiseptic anyway.

A friend on Facebook pointed out that the contamination from the fingernails sits on top of the wine's surface tension, so the wine's antiseptic properties don't work as well.

If you're turned off by sharing a cup with strangers, then you can simply refrain from receiving the wine. There is no rule that everyone has to receive the Eucharist in both kinds; in fact according to church tradition, Christ is fully present in both, so you can just receive the bread or the wine.

Then there's the issue of treating the Eucharist with due reverence. I know the concept of Real Presence (or the Roman Catholic version of it, transubstantiation) turns some people off or seems like hocus pocus superstition. Unfortunately, given the way some people explain it or demand others to accept it, I can fully understand why it turns off a lot of people. That said, I think it's really a kind of awareness exercise. For me, the basic idea of the Real Presence is that by saying the Eucharistic prayer, the assembled group led by a priest transforms the bread in some way into the Body and Blood of Christ — "this is my Body, this is my Blood". That doesn't mean you would see muscle and blood cells under a microscope, and that's totally beside the point of the exercise anyway. The point is what the change is for, which is that the Body and Blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine take on a highly charged and potent symbolic meaning. They represent — and are — the Logos of Creation itself, the Word become flesh, and become something very precious to hold.

The idea and hope is that by treating bread and wine with this highest reverence, we then learn to treat everything else in Creation with that same reverence, be it the environment or relationships with other people or even just the food on your table — don't be wasteful in any way, but be mindful of all. The less wasteful we are and the more mindful of our resources and our selves we are, the more there is to go around for everyone, in particular the poor and needy.

Intinction, unlike simply drinking from the chalice, risks dripping wine and dropping crumbs everywhere. So it's not only not a very respectful way to treat the Body and Blood of Christ (would you want to carelessly drop Jesus on the floor?), it's also potentially more wasteful. The hope is that we learn to also not waste normal food or resources and learn to be watchful and mindful of how we treat everyone and everything.

In the Anglican liturgical tradition, there is the wonderful line after the Eucharistic prayer has been said: "The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving." To me this emphasizes what Creation itself is a gift, and we should be thankful for — and mindful of — every aspect of that Creation, right down to the last crumb of bread and last drop of wine.

Some of course will now think of oral communion, that is, having the priest place the bread on the person's tongue. I think it's worth pointing out that the early Church (such as the catechism of Cyril of Jerusalem) taught communicants to "make the left hand a throne for the right hand, which receives the King", and then to raise the bread to the mouth, consuming it all at one go. This has the advantage of not letting crumbs go anywhere, and you can quickly check the palm of your hand to see if any are left. So receiving the Eucharist with your hands is solidly traditional in the Church, far more so than oral communion, and has practical benefits as well.

In one parish I visited recently, I noticed that the distribution of Communion felt careless. Nothing was held under the consecrated bread to keep crumbs from falling as pieces were torn off, and no one seemed much bothered about what to do with the leftovers. It made me wonder if the attendees really believed anything special had happened to the bread and wine. Yet this was a parish whose church at least notionally believes in the Real Presence. To be honest, I was very distressed at how carelessly the people there treated the Sacrament and (whether intentionally or not) Jesus Himself in that Sacrament, because the message sent was that the Sacrament itself was not much more meaningful than having tea and cookies. And half the tea and cookies end up in the trash, because, well, meh. Is this how we want to treat our Savior, or our mother Earth, or our fellow human beings? Shouldn't we instead pay closer attention, be mindful of the sacred, and carry that mindfulness into the wider world in order to make it a better and holier place?

So…a plea to my fellow Old Catholics and Anglicans. Please consider not receiving by intinction — it's not terribly respectful, and it's not even sanitary, in fact it's less so. So why do it?