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In the last months, you’ve asked a number of thoughtful questions about our liturgical life, normally under the rubric of “this seems almost back to normal, except….” I love the questions! Your keen observations, together with our ongoing conversations, will continue to evolve and refine our liturgical life together. Today, let me address the hottest topic: communion.
First: Bread. Why are we currently using flat wafers? I’ll agree — it is an act of faith to declare a consecrated Wafer the bread of heaven. It’s not like the good old days. And it’s nothing like a pain au levain, challah or naan. So why are we making Eucharist with wafers?
Our repeated refrain during this pandemic has been “out of an abundance of caution.” A Eucharist of consecrated bread would increase the number of people touching the same elements, and therefore increase risk. Because wafers do not need to be torn at distribution, they can be dropped or placed lightly into the recipient’s hand with minimal contact. The wafers retain the essential character and intent of the feast, as they share a common vessel held or touched by the presider in the Great Thanksgiving.
Second: Wine. Why are we currently forgoing Wine? The common cup presents two challenges: multiple people touching with their hands, and multiple people drinking from it. Some may wonder, then, why don’t we have individual, sealed cups of communion wine?
The witness of scripture and tradition, the liturgical texts and rubrics of our prayer book are clear that the Eucharist is a feast that is shared. There is one bread, one cup. It is a feast of plenty, where none wants and none wastes.
The Bread is administered with the words “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” But the Wine is administered with the words “the Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” The emphasis is on the cup, rather than its contents. This cup figures strongly in scripture. On Maundy Thursday, we commemorate the Last Supper with Psalm 116: “I will lift up the cup of salvation.” The institution narrative in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 also emphasizes the cup: “He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” And the cup of salvation is also the cup of Jesus’ baptism into death. When the wife of Zebedee brokers seats of glory for her sons, Jesus replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Cf Matthew 20:21–23).
The use of disposable, individual, sealed containers of wine to sidesteps a critical feature of the love feast — the common cup. It risks embracing marketplace notions that communion is about consumption. We are thirsting, yes, but not for something that can be hermetically sealed and its vessel disposed of. For now, we observe the wisdom that Jesus offered in the Gospel according to Matthew’s. We wait until we can drink it anew: “Then [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’’ (Cf Matthew 20:26–29). Your kingdom come, O Lord, on earth as in heaven.
All good things,
The Rev. Anna E. Rossi
Director of Interfaith Engagement