As I was flipping through the latest Cokesbury catalog, I came across the newest example of our troubling obsession with being sanitized at every moment of our lives. Behold! The Communion Wafer Dispenser!
This communion appointment enables one to “dispense” the sacrament with minimal human contact, and it can in fact reduce the number of persons involved in serving communion by as much as 50 percent (which seems like more of a minus than a plus). Also on the page I found a “Shallow Bowl” Intinction set specially designed to “prevent fingers from touching the juice or wine.”
Our obsession with cleanliness and our fear of one another’s “germed” bodies radically clashes at the Lord’s Table with the reality that it is in this meal that we are made one Body, one Family, that is sharing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the body and blood of the Lord. It is the place where we are the closest, where we commune together, yet for many people the Table is a place of fear because of the distrust we have with one another’s bodies.
As soon as I saw this the Communion Dispenser, I immediately posted it on Facebook because I was so incredulous that the object existed. This of course led to the requisite jokes, the best of which probably was that it was only an updated version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Thrower from back in the day. That, and when one of my friends removed the descriptive terms of the object, it pretty clearly resembles an advertisement for a gun: “The revolutionary Rapid Re-Load™ system dispenses up to […] without having to be re-filled, while being fast and easy when you need to re-load.”
All jokes aside, shouldn’t we be alarmed when one of the driving forces behind the designs for our communion appointments is sanitization? Shouldn’t we be alarmed when our we are so terrified of one another’s bodies, that we have to begin devising ways to alter our practices of receiving the Lord’s Supper to appease those fears?
It is true that there can be a real danger for those with compromised immune systems, particularly with regard to H1N1. Those are things about which we should be genuinely concerned. Yet, does that really necessitate the requisite loud squirt of hand sanitizer before we touch the Eucharist?
In reality, because this is a fear we are dealing with, none of the rational answers will likely suffice in the end. Rather, perhaps our work must be helping one another to overcome the fear of our bodies and the bodies of others.
We, as members of the Body of Christ, find ourselves part of a body that was beaten and broken, whose blood makes us clean. Yet, we find ourselves afraid even of receiving that body and blood. The scent of incense is now replaced by Purrell.
In a world of Communion Wafer Dispensers, what are we to do with visions like that of Julian of Norwich:
“And then it came to me that God has provided us on earth with abundant water for our use and bodily refreshment, because of the tender love he has for us, yet it pleases him better that we should simply take his holy blood to wash away our sins; for there is no liquid created which he likes to give so much; it is as plentiful as it is precious by virtue of his Holy Godhead. And it shares our nature and pours over and transports us by virtue of his precious love. The beloved blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is as truly precious as it is truly plentiful” (Julian of Norwich, Revelvations of Divine Love, Long Text, para. 12).
Yes, good hand hygiene is important, especially during cold and flu season, but it cannot be the driving force of our practices of Holy Communion. Rather, our practice of Holy Communion must help us to learn how we are to live together with one another’s bodies, even when those bodies are not well. To illustrate this, I will share a story that Dr. Amy Laura Hall shared with a class I was in at Duke:
There was a church that had a member who had contracted HIV. This created a lot of questions for the church about how they would take communion because they shared a common cup. The church decided that before they would make any decisions, they would pray and fast together for a given amount of time. When they came back together, they realized that the most faithful act would be to all the person with HIV to receive Communion first because that person was the one who was in the most danger.
This church didn’t get a communion dispenser and move to use the individual cups. Rather, they discovered a faithful way to be the one Body of Christ, to share the same cup, without compromising who they were.
I don't mean this as a rant, nor to I mean it as a way to suggest that what I have written will answer the concerns folks often raise. Rather, it can be a beginning place for a conversation. I will still have folks in my congergation insisting that we figure out a “better” or “cleaner” way to share communion when cold and flu season comes around. That pressure will always be there as long as there are those Lysol commercials that show how many germs are all over everything.
However, perhaps if we begin to reflect as Christians together about the relationship between sharing the body and blood of Jesus and our obsession with being clean, maybe we will see what Julian saw, that it is in Christ’s plentiful blood that we are made truly clean, and we are most healthy when we are one Body.