A Little Communion W(h)ine image

A Little Communion W(h)ine

In Andrew's annual Lenten absence from this blog, I feel obligated to try harder than usual to find things to blog about, and since he often posts other people's posts with a bit of commentary, I think I'll give that a go.

This, by Luke T Harrington, is an excellent (in the sense that it agrees with me) post on ‘Those Little Communion Cups, Whatever Those Are Technically Called’.

It starts off light - an amusing little look at the history of a Christian oddity, but packs a punch later on. It’s as though Luke thought it didn’t bother him, but discovered as he wrote that it did. Quite a lot.

Apparently, the idea of using individual communion cups dates back to around 1894, and Luke says the idea and its popularity were due to that heady cocktail of industriali[s]ation and convenience:

What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet [citation needed], the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.


By 1906, the practice was becoming popular enough that Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s that last point that really led to the practice catching on—Americans have never met a convenience we didn’t like. We won’t eat food unless we can microwave it or get it out of a drive-thru window (preferably both), and we want our movies in three easy acts and our pop songs in two simple verses (and, like, a million choruses). “In this advanced age,” Krout wrote (weirdly describing an era before spray cheese was invented as “advanced”), “when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly moves to and fro in administering the Lord’s Supper.”

I like this guy’s writing style.

I like his biting sarcasm, too:

If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage. And if you come from a tradition, as I do, that believes Jesus is actually present in the wine (and the bread), it seems pertinent to point out that that guy is in the business of healing disease, not spreading it. But then again, if Americans were the sort who let sound science and good theology get in the way of our love of novelty, we never would have invented Hot Pockets, either.


Once you get that “convenience” ball rolling, though, it’s hard to stop it. It wasn’t terribly long before we had gone from silver-and-gold communion cups to disposable plastic ones, and then—once we realized filling all those little cups was a pain in the butt—we started selling all-in-one, prepackaged communion. You can buy this convenient product right now, hermetically sealed for astronaut-caliber freshness, complete with a styrofoamy wafer and your choice of red or white grape juice—because nothing says “sacred rite” like, “Here, peel the plastic off of these Lunchables.”

I liked the post and I shared it on my twitter and Facebook feeds. Twitter responses: Zero. Facebook responses: lively, thoughtful conversation.

One person noted that with the individual cups the congregation can all drink together, and indeed this was what happened the first time I encountered them, at Spring Harvest back in the 1980s. I was in the youth work, and, however much I might have liked the symbolism of it, passing round a single communion cup to thousands of teenagers would have been less than practical. Instead they arranged us into groups and handed each group a piece of bread (probably pitta) and a tray of shot glasses of juice. We broke the bread, then ate it together, then passed around the juice and drank together. I was very struck by the feeling of all of us joining in with the single moment. It made it very meaningful to me.

That seems to have been a one-off, though. Probably more a reflection on me than on the relative holiness of the act.

Another commenter pointed out that in her church there was a large number of people for whom the presence of alcohol would be a genuine problem, and it seems to me that that is the best possible reason for going with juice, and once you’ve done that, individual cups are also probably wiser (she also mentioned that using a shared cup in her situation you risked catching rather more than a cold…!).

The why is, as ever, so much more important than the what or the how, and informs them, even as it is informed by them.

Luke points out that, “How we do something has a direct effect on how we feel about it”:

When we share a cup, we proclaim that we’re all united in one Christ, not only with each other, but with the saints throughout space and time. When we take shots of grape juice, we’re telling the world…what? That we can’t find some decent Scotch?

Maybe sometimes we’re telling the world - and God - that we feel we’re “spending way too much time on the most sacred of all Christian rituals”, and need to speed things up a bit. Sometimes we might be telling them (and him) that we don’t trust him enough to obey him (‘I would do what you command, Lord, but I might get ill.’). But sometimes we may be telling the world, and God, that we’re finding a way to be obedient to both this command and the one “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. ... For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:13, 15)

I would love for more of our churches to be forced to have individual juice cups for all because there were simply too many people in the congregation with communicable diseases, addictions to alcohol or sensitivities for other reasons (perhaps recent converts from Islam) for it to be loving to continue to bring wine into the building.

Changing an ancient ritual because we’re too middle class and sophisticated to follow it any more is one thing. Changing it because we’re too committed to loving God and neighbour is another thing altogether.

Image credit: fcor1614 on Flickr.

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