Trembling, elderly hands sometimes lack the most amenable digits for holding thimble-sized cups filled with wine, but they are the hands into which the sacrament is placed nonetheless. Though having the congregation drink from one common cup has been the practice of most Christian centuries and finds some warrant in 1 Corinthians 10, for a variety of pastoral reasons many churches today use smaller individual cups for communion. When such hands recently received and then dropped an entire cup filled with the reserved sacrament, a shiver ran down my spine; the sound of a cup bouncing and liquid splashing on a wooden floor reverberated to the vaulted ceiling above the chancel and back down to where I was serving the panoply of persons who knelt at the altar rail.

In some Christian centuries, communion was received in only one kind on the basis of regarding the benefit conferred by the sacrament – namely, Christ himself – as present in both forms. Thus, only the sacramental bread was administered to the laity once per year, while the congregation only observed as the priest consecrated and consumed the wine. At least one reason for this practice was in part to avoid situations where the sacraments might be spilled. The Council of Constance, for instance, in 1415 taught that “it should be very firmly believed, and in no way doubted, that the whole body and blood of Christ are truly contained under both the form of bread and the form of wine,” decreeing upon pain of excommunication that priests must not allow communion in both kinds to the laity.

In Medieval Europe it was not uncommon for animals to sometimes wander into the sanctuary. As late as 1636, the bishop of Norwich directed altar rails to be constructed “so thick with pillars that dogs may not get in.”[1] Even in the early modern era, any spilt crumbs might mean having the body of Christ lapped up by a pack of dogs. This could perhaps be avoided if people kneel and the consecrated host is placed directly onto the tongue of those participating in holy communion, and that only once per year. The cup, however, is much more prone to spills and mishaps than the loaf, and accordingly was withheld from the congregation.

The Protestant Reformers stridently opposed the practice of communion in one kind only, and sought for eucharistic participation to occur far more frequently than only once per year. John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.47, denounced that practice for having “snatched or robbed a half of the Supper from the greater part of the people of God” since Christ himself told us to “drink,” and thus “they deprive the pious of that confirmation of faith which Christ delivered as necessary.” In his treatise on the sacraments, Calvin expresses his desire – never approved by the Geneva consistory – that “the table of the Lord ought to be spread in the sacred assembly at least once a week,” as often as the Word is preached.

But that the elements should be received in both kinds is explicitly found in several Protestant confessions, such as the Lutheran Smalcald Articles III.6, §2–4 and the Augsburg Confession as well as the Reformed Westminster Confession and the Anglican 39 Articles. These historic Protestant confessions all variously maintain that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper, but differ from Rome in maintaining that the consecrated bread and wine that are rightly called the body and blood of Christ nonetheless still continue to be bread and wine, rather than having lost their substance as bread and wine to only be Christ’s body and blood.[2]

If sacraments are appointed by Christ, and Jesus according to Holy Scripture explicitly tells us to “drink” of the cup of the new covenant in his blood, then the question of communion in both kinds can seem fairly straightforward to Protestants, who might regard fear of unworthy consumption as smacking only of self-righteousness or religious accomplishment. Elaborate liturgies and prayerful contrition can then become suspect for creating delusions of self-worthiness, or misdirecting attention on our own liturgical practices rather than Christ himself, or rendering the sacrament more a prize for the penitentially deserving than the healing balm of grace to the sick and needy. Is not Jesus the host of a banquet for humbled tax collectors and sinners, for the poor, the forgotten, and outright scoundrels, rather than those who boast in their own accomplishments? Such caution about the eclipse of grace is appropriate, and those concerns are not unwarranted.

But in the late modern West, many of us are less prone to overly pious eucharistic preparation and adoration, than having become so secular that we can scarcely even imagine what it means to regard anything as “set apart to the uses ordained by Christ” or “sacred,” a category that can seem almost unthinkable to us. We might be less anxious than Medieval Christians about the potential spilling of reserved bread and wine, but not because we have deeply imbibed Holy Writ, cultivated strong theological instincts, and nurtured a prayerful life of faith, hope, and love in service to God and others.

Perhaps we simply regard the Eucharist, and the liturgy of which it is a part, as a quaint ritual people do in country-club adjacent social groups on Sunday mornings more so than the sacraments being something that God does, scarcely imagining that the sacraments might be a visible word where God declares a sign and seal of God’s promises and Christ is present to commune with us. Perhaps we are less cynical than that, but an inflated self-importance still leads us to expect God to meet us on our own casual terms rather than our having been summoned before the holy things of God. Functionally, if not self-consciously, our presumptuousness can eclipse all reverence at the kindness and severity of the LORD, and likewise repentance becomes a very cheap thing. Even some ways of talking about how God is at work in all of life – finding the sacred and the ‘sacramental’ not only on Sundays but in the messiness and boringness of quotidian life – might have the potential to collapse all sacred-common distinctions, leading less to the elevation of common things as holy, than to the relegation of even the holy things as vulgar. While we might want to regard virtually anything and everything as a sacrament, surely in so doing we lose something in our ability to recognize the presence of Christ in the actual sacraments appointed by Christ himself.

Accordingly, it is entirely appropriate to approach the sacraments with fitting reverence, and we would do well to remember ways this was practiced at various times in the church’s history. Though Protestants historically have differed in how they understand Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, something they have held in common is that the consecrated bread and wine of communion do not cease to be bread and wine, and that according to Christ’s institution this holy meal is given in order that an otherwise unholy people might have participation in Christ, who is himself the new covenant (1 Cor 10:16, 11:25). That the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are still bread and wine is far from a license for treating them as common table scraps. Consequently, we need resources for approaching the bread and wine in which Christ is present with due reverence, while simultaneously appreciating just whom it is that Christ has invited to share in this holy meal – namely, people drawn from dust who will return to dust, who are prone to stumble and drop the holy things God puts in our hands.

An outstanding resource for navigating from the fourth century is found in Saint Cyril of Jerusalem’s homilies on the sacraments, delivered as instructional training for new Christians. A profound theological imagination undergirds these homilies. For instance, a figural reading of the “cup” in Psalm 23 as the Eucharist, and an exposition of what each line in the liturgy means. At the Sursum corda, Cyril writes “the priest cries out, ‘lift up your hearts.’ For in that awe-filled hour it is necessary to have our hearts up to the Lord, and not below with regard to the earth and earthly activities.”[3] In the petition of the Lord’s prayer that God’s name be hallowed, “the name of God is holy in its nature whether we say so or not… but we pray that the name of God may be holy in us.”[4] In distributing the elements the priest says “the holy things for the holy [people],” “ta hagia, tois hagiois,” to which the people respond “one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ,” about which Cyril comments “truly One is holy, holy by nature. And we ourselves are holy, though not by nature, but by participation, discipline, and prayer.”[5]

But near the end, Cyril becomes eminently practical. Addressing how Christians are to receive the elements in both kinds, Cyril even instructs them on how to literally hold their hands. Cyril writes:

Approaching, then, do not come with your hands extended or with your fingers open. But make a throne with your left hand for the right, as intending to receive the King, and having made a hollow in your hand, receive the body of Christ, after which you say “Amen.” Receive, having sanctified your eyes with care by a touch of the holy body, paying close attention so you do not lose any of it. For if you lose this it is like losing one of the members of your own body. For, tell me, if someone gave gold dust to you, would you not hold onto it with every care, guarding it, lest it be lost from you, and you suffer under the loss? Should you not be more careful then, watching closely so as not to let a crumb of what is more precious than gold and precious stones fall from you?

Next, after you have communed of the body of Christ, come also to the cup of the blood, not stretching out your hands, but bowing and saying “Amen” in a manner of profound worship and reverence and be sanctified, receiving of the blood of Christ. And while the moisture remains on your lips, touching it with your hands, sanctify your eyes, forehead, and your other senses. Next, while waiting for the prayer, give thanks to God who has made you worthy of these great mysteries.[6]

Having heard the sound of a communion cup bouncing and reserved wine hitting the floor, the next sound I heard was an announcement from the opposite side of the rail where communion was being distributed to others: “this is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” As I gazed at the floor, where the reserved sacrament lay spilt and now mixed with the dirt we trample underfoot, I pondered the mystery of the gospel, where that which is infinitely more precious than gold and precious stones was trampled underfoot for the life of the world. As Samuel Crossman wrote in the 17th century:

My song is love unknown,

My Saviour’s love to me;

Love to the loveless shown,

That they might lovely be.
O who am I,

That for my sake

My Lord should take

Frail flesh, and die?[7]

Fumbling, mortal sinners that we are, nonetheless through union with Christ in his death and resurrection we partake not only of his gifts and benefits to us, but we partake of Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom, cosmic deliverance, eternal beauty, and the grace that reconciles heaven and earth. Somehow, the past, the present, and the future converge in this strange and wonderful meal, where the Lord becomes servant and calls his servants “friends”; the people who dwell in darkness have seen a great light (Jn 15:15; Isa 9:2).

I took a purificator cloth, knelt, and did my best to absorb as much wine as possible from the crowded chancel floor; it is not easy to absorb a full cup of the reserved sacrament onto a purificator, or to avoid staining the sewn cross and hem. This white cloth, pristine a moment ago, was now darkened with dirt and a deep scarlet. After carefully cleaning the floor on hand and knee I stood and saw a new cup being placed into the frail, mortal hands from which a cup was dropped a moment earlier. That hand still trembled, and I began to tremble as well as these words were heard yet again, “this is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” God has made us, frail that we are, worthy of these great mysteries.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Walter Perry, Lawful Church Ornaments (London: Joseph Masters, 1857), 361.
  2. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession says in article twenty-two that “Christ has manifestly commanded concerning the cup that all should drink.” Elsewhere in the Augsburg Confession, in article ten it is maintained against Protestants who have a wholly memorialist view that Christ is indeed “truly present” in the Lord’s Supper, and in article twenty-two, that the Eucharist is to be “celebrated with the highest reverence.” In the 2nd edition of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the formula from the Council of Trent is affirmed as to how Christ is present in the Eucharist: “there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” In distinction from the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Lutherans maintain that while Christ is truly present in, with, and under the elements, they do not cease to be bread and wine as though they had wholly become nothing else but the body and blood of Christ. Denouncing the teaching that the consecrated bread and wine have lost their own natural substance and only retain the appearance of bread and wine but are not true bread and wine, the Smalcald Articles III.IV.5 say: “it is in perfect agreement with Holy Scriptures that there is, and remains, bread, as Paul himself calls it, 1 Cor. 10:16: The bread which we break. And 1 Cor. 11:28: Let him so eat of that bread.” Differently, the Reformed who follow Calvin on the Lord’s Supper maintain that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper, not necessarily in the elements themselves, but by Christ especially drawing near to us and us near to him, who unites us with himself by his Spirit and Word. Thus, the Reformed are comfortable describing the eucharistic elements as the very body and blood of Christ, but maintain that even though Christ becomes present with us in the Eucharist by his Word and Spirit, nonetheless the elements themselves remain only bread and wine, as represented in Westminster Confession 29.5: “The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.” At the intersection of Lutheran and Reformed theological traditions, the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles, after describing how in article twenty-eight that the bread and the cup are to be received reverently and with faith, explicitly addresses this question in article thirty, “Of Both Kinds,” stating: “The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.”
  3. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “On the Eucharistic Liturgy,” Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, trans. by Maxwell E. Johnson (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017), 123.
  4. Ibid., 129.
  5. Ibid., 133.
  6. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “On the Eucharistic Liturgy,” Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, trans. by Maxwell E. Johnson (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2017), 135
  7. Samuel Crossman, “My Song is Love Unknown,” The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, ed. by Iona and Peter Opie (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1973), 32.
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Posted by Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin received his PhD at the University of Aberdeen (Trinity College Bristol), is an adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University and the King’s College NYC, and is a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South (ACNA).

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