Dangerous Communion

I woke up early on Saturday, so in place of the normal WESat that provides the background noise for my coffee-making and blog-checking, I found myself halfway listening to The People's Pharmacy. I missed the first half of the program, which had featured an interview with the authors of The Germ Freak's Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu: Guerilla Tactics to Keep Yourself Healthy at Home, at Work and in the World, and was listening to the open line discussion following from that conversation.

One woman called in to complain about the unsanitary practices at her church -- they make everybody shake hands! And they drink communion from a common cup!

The jocular hosts agreed with the caller about the ickiness of sharing a cup in the ritual of the Eucharist, and elaborated about how the cup bearer wiping the lip of the cup between communicants with the purificator (or, in Lenorese, "holy handkerchief") was purely aesthetic, and really only served to spread the germs around. "So, what are you going to do?" they asked the caller.

"I'm not going to do it." She declared.

"No, no, no, no, no!" went the Wrong Answer Alarm in my head. Granted, my sensitivity to the issue was heightened by having attended a party the previous weekend at which my theological colleagues had gotten into a vigorous discussion of the impropriety of alcohol-based antibacterial gel as an element of the communion rite. (This is what theologians do for fun.) But even barring that, I would have had the lurching gut reaction that there was something Seriously Wrong with that answer.

I was tempted to call in and speak up for the church, identify myself as a theologian, and then ... what would I say?

Make a public health argument about how a common cup is not really all that dangerous? (The church I attend uses intinction -- dipping the bit of bread in a cup of grape juice -- as its means of sharing communion. This method is generally less offensive to hypochondriacs, but is actually a much more effective means of spreading unpleasant microbes. I heard this from a Yale professor, so it must be true.)

Point out that some things in life are more important than avoiding other people's germs, and if this lady doesn't get that, she can just go to hell?

Make a (rather lame, since I don't think quickly on my feet) defense for the vital importance of the symbolism of the shared cup, and how participating in the unity of the church outweighs the risk of exposure to a cold virus?

Appeal to the listener to at least speak with her priest about her concerns, in the hopes that that poor fellow can do a better job than I of articulating why it's a bad idea to excommunicate yourself? Or suggest that if it matters that much to her, she should look for a church that uses little plastic cups?

I myself have frequently in recent years prayed when I took communion that it wouldn't kill me, but I was sort of envisioning God dramatically striking me dead on the spot rather than afflicting me with a vicious infection. (Wouldn't that be something?) This was based on an extremely literalist reading of 1 Corinthians 11:29-30: "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died." (The germ freaks might see this as ancient evidence of the public health menace of the communion rite.)

I took the death of the Corinthians as straight-up divine judgment for eating and drinking unworthily. And I knew full well that every time I came to the table, I was doing so unworthily. I had, after all, fled my last church precisely because an impasse with a former friend had created a situation where every visit to altar, rather than being a sign of Christian unity, would be a painful reminder of the rift between us, and my meager and broken efforts at reconciliation were not being reciprocated in any way that I was capable of receiving. Consequently, I came to communion each time unreconciled; indeed, with anger, even hate, for a fellow believer in my heart. I believed that God had every right to strike me dead for this offense against his body. I took comfort that the prescribed consequence was death, not damnation. I was willing to risk God's wrath to seek his grace. If I ate and drank unworthily (and is there ultimately any other way -- sacramental reconciliation notwithstanding?), I believed I might die. But I knew that I couldn't live without it.

I guess that's why I was offended by the woman on the radio declaring that she would refrain from communion for fear of germs. I am convinced that communion is a matter of life and death -- but that life is so much more than the life we cling to, and that death is the power that has defeated death. What's a few germs in comparison to that?

2 comments:

CyberianTygre said...

So I suppose you don't mind sharing the communion cup with me this Sunday after having witnessed my runny nose all during Bible study? (Or are you going to deliberately sit on the other sid of church to use anohter communion station :) )?

Rachel said...

Wait, it might not be too late to sign up for the women's retreat -- I'm sure none of THEM have GERMS! Okay, okay, but I'm trusting you to keep your contaminated fingers out of the grape juice!

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