Hallelujah! We will get to return to celebrating Holy Eucharist in just ten days! The Diocese has issued strict guidelines for how to celebrate safely. I will be masked throughout the Liturgy of the Table, and will disinfect my hands several times. We will ask people to maintain a six foot distance as they come forward. I will distribute the bread with some lovely ice tongs that Joe Rutter has supplied for the purpose. We are not allowed to partake of the wine, and I will spend the rest of this article sharing some thoughts about concomitance, the doctrinal idea that Christ is fully present in either the bread or the wine.
To tell the truth, I have some qualms about the development of this doctrine. It arose in the thirteenth century, after more than a thousand years of squabbling over what the eucharist was, who could receive it, and the conditions under which it could be properly received. This squabbling started with the idea that the eucharist is holy, which is a very sound idea, given that we assert that it symbolically represents Christ’s body and blood (I’m going to leave aside questions of transubstantiation here, dodging them as the Book of Common Prayer’s catechism does). Regardless of whether it becomes the literal and physical body and blood of Christ, it is a powerful sacred symbol, and by the sixth century people were worrying that it might be abused. Any symbol can be transformed and defamed, and the fear was that the bread, especially, would be snuck out of worship and then used for witchcraft or other non-Christian purposes. So by the ninth century the priest was placing the hosts directly into the mouths of communicants. Wine was less controversial at first, but by the 13th century it was mostly reserved for the priest and the priest only. Back in seminary, this was attributed to a fear of spillage. If you got Christ’s body on your shirt, could you really wash it with the rest of your laundry, and allow the holy blood to mix with the dirt and excrement of the street? Better to not risk it. But there was a cost to this. It created the impression that only priests could be trusted with holy things, and the Protestant reformers, who were concerned with promoting the idea that we all have equal access to God and to the sacred, restored the practice of the laity receiving the eucharist in both kinds (both the bread and the wine).
So the doctrine of concomitance developed out of a concern for keeping the sacred and the profane separated. My belief is that these two categories are a lot fuzzier than we think. The soil that life springs from can be sacred, even if it is laden with manure, and a sacrament that is used cruelly or selfishly can become profane (for instance, a marriage that one partner enters into while planning to control and abuse the other partner). Yet there are valid reasons for concomitance that don’t arise from a rigid separation of the sacred from the profane. People who are in recovery have long been used to receiving only the bread at eucharist. In this way, the sacrality of their recovery is supported and affirmed. And when we’re ill, we often refuse the common cup, or ask only for a blessing at communion.
The Covid-19 Pandemic obviously provides a valid reason for receiving the eucharist in only one kind. Yet as a Protestant, and a person who worries that the wisdom and grace of the laity will be buried in an avalanche of assumed priestly-privilege, I am uncomfortable with the idea of being the only one to receive the wine on a Sunday morning. I realize that my doing so might be symbolic – that in drinking from the chalice, I could be considered a stand-in for all of you. But it’s a very small step from stand-in to mediator, and I don’t believe it’s my role to mediate between you and God, who wants to interact with all of us directly.
There is, fortunately, another solution. It has long been deemed appropriate to simply return the leftover bread and wine to the earth (in many churches, there’s a special sink called a piscina, whose pipes go directly into the ground). By doing so, we are symbolically affirming the holiness of the created world, which the sacraments can mix with freely, while also being very intentional about the ways in which we can help the sacred and profane to interact. This, after all, is our foundational understanding of incarnation – God, the sacred, becomes incarnate in a human being who lives and participates in a world that is often profane. God doesn’t reject this world, but becomes immersed in it, and accepts its costs.
My plan, therefore, is to bless both the bread and wine at communion. All of us will only receive the bread, and at the end of the service I will pour the blessed wine into the earth. Covid has reminded us of how interconnected we all are, both with each other and the natural world. Returning the wine to the earth will help us to honor this interconnection, contributing to our spiritual health while we safeguard our physical health.