A Very Clean Hand To God

Benjamin Dueholm notes that “Christians in the US, like US citizens in general, are more obsessed with health and hygiene than most” – a tendency in tension with the faith’s central sacrament, the Eucharist, based on a meal Jesus shared with his disciples:

Pasteurised grape juice was invented here, quickly and tragically displacing wine in many Protestant celebrations of communion. And I can’t say for sure, but I would bet a significant sum that we invented those tiny individual cups, too – pre-filled for sanitary personal consumption, now disposable by the thousand where washing and reusing prove too burdensome. It is even possible to buy in bulk little packages of juice and a tiny wafer, sealed up and ready to pass through the pews so that no human hand need ever approach the elements. It’s a strange fate for things that were meant to be shared and that were intended to signify or even become a human body.

These developments have periodically been hastened by pandemic illnesses. The Spanish influenza of 1918 caused local health departments to suspend communion services in some places. The swine flu outbreak of 2009 saw churches in many countries cease using a common cup for the wine. The Ebola outbreak is doing the same in the affected countries (though even this modern development has led to a familiar reaction: the insistence that the fully transformed Body and Blood are incapable of transmitting disease).

Fear of biological contagion becomes hard to distinguish from fear of social contagion. When AIDS, which is not communicated by saliva, reached epidemic levels, many churches responded with panic and anger. The act of eating and drinking together doesn’t look especially intimate until the prospect of sharing a disease is raised. Taking on the risk, however modest, of sharing pathogens is a form of social solidarity, an acceptance of the other that can touch very deep insecurities. As the historical theologian Thomas O’Loughlin put it in The Didache (2010), his account of the earliest Christians: ‘The breaching of the boundaries of Graeco-Roman society at this Christian meal is one of the miracles of the early Church.’ I’m not sure that’s less true in the age of microbiology.