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Sharing the Cup of Christ's Blood
HYGIENE & THE COMMON CUP
Whenever a parish priest or liturgy committee makes a commendable effort to encourage more communicants to receive from the chalice, I get phone calls from people who are concerned about ‘catching germs’ if they drink from the common cup.
The topic of hygiene and drinking from the common cup has been the subject of religious debate and scientific investigation for the past one hundred years, not only amongst Catholics but also in the Anglican and Lutheran Churches.
Up to the present, the transmission of a disease has never been traced to the shared communion cup among any religious denomination that has had this practice. Priests often receive communion daily and are the ones who regularly perform ablutions, yet there is no indication that they suffer illness more frequently than other individuals.
Although it is not possible to state that infection will never take place through the practice of sharing the cup at communion, most scientists agree that it is highly unlikely, since contracting a disease requires that one be exposed to millions of germs from that disease. It is wise, however, for individuals to be aware of the condition of their general health and to judge whether even the slightest risk might put them in danger.
As an act of charity towards other members of the community, individuals with colds, cold sores or any illness that might be contagious should receive the body and blood of Christ under the form of bread alone during the time of illness.
Simplistic solutions to the issue of the communion cup should be treated with suspicion, both on theological and practical grounds. The sharing of our eucharistic food carries great symbolic significance for the followers of Jesus. The use of the one cup of wine speaks of the unity of the community and our participation in the one Christ.
Intinction, the practice adopted by some people of dipping the consecrated bread into the wine, destroys this symbol of unity and ignores Christ’s command to “take and drink”. Besides it does not solve the hygiene issue because communicants taking the bread and dipping it in the cup spread more germs with their hands than they would by drinking from the cup.
Similarly, the suggestion of following the practice of some denominations and using individual cups fails on both health and symbolic grounds. Individual cups require very careful disinfection to be hygienic and this is almost impossible when used in large quantities. Many of the Churches that currently use this method are also questioning its symbolic value.
Of course, precautions need to be taken when using the common cup: consecrate enough wine for people to take a proper sip, have enough cups to avoid too many people using the one cup, wipe the rim inside and out firmly with a clean cloth after each communicant and rotate the cup slightly before presenting it to the next person, encourage people to refrain from taking the cup during illness, wash the cups in hot water after each Mass, and use cups made of metal or glass, not wood or pottery.
Our unity in Christ is ritualised powerfully when we approach the table together and eat of the same bread and drink from the one cup.