So you’ve heard the flu shot is somewhat ineffective this year, and, though you have a normal immune system, you don't want to take the Eucharist from a common chalice.
Part of me kind of wants to slap you.
Obviously, that's not what Jesus would do. We know what Jesus did — he offered you his lifeblood, saying "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." Ever after, Christians have taken wine and bread, a sacrament which binds us together in communion with other Christ-followers around the globe and through two millennia.
For the last few months, because my cancer treatment had decimated my immune system, I haven't been able to drink from the common chalice (or to eat most raw food, go to the movies, or get on the bus without a face mask). I really miss it. So I want to share two key insights I’ve had about the common Eucharistic cup.
1. Chalice-sharing is safer than touching a doorknob, because people's lips are WAY cleaner than their hands. This is born out by various medical surveys, like this one or this one or this microbiologist, who points out Communion is as safe as “standing in line at the movies." (And it’s a lot better for you spiritually). People tend to ignore this reality because they assume that, as lips are a more private body part than hands, they're more likely to spread illness. While this private-equals-contagious idea is true of the very most private parts of your body — having sex can give you HIV — it's just dead wrong when it comes to lips. Even when my immune system is down to 10 percent of normal, I’ve been allowed to kiss my boyfriend, as long as he isn't sick. In contrast, we both have to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds before touching anything I’m going to eat (otherwise, it would be like licking every doorknob we'd touched recently).
If you think about it rationally, you will observe that your Episcopalian or Catholic friends don't get sick noticeably more than anybody else. Priests in some traditions routinely finish off wine remaining in the bottom of the chalice after everyone has drunk, but you've never heard anyone use the saying "sickly as a parish priest" (at least, Google hasn't). But, actually, thinking about this rationally isn't where you should stop, because:
2. The Eucharist is supposed to be in your face. When Paul told church members to greet each other with a kiss and to throw away their society’s entire class hierarchy over the Lord’s supper, that was pretty in your face. Even if you're not one of Jesus' original disciples, for whom blood would have been the least kosher thing you could possibly put in your mouth, you are still drinking human blood. Whether you take that with a side order of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or just deep symbolism, if this sacrament is not a little edgy, you may not be doing it right.
So sure, use reasonable precautions against illness. Wash your hands before you eat (antibacterial gels like Purell are not certified against viruses such as the flu), especially if you’ve touched a doorknob or your keyboard or money. Get a flu shot. And for Pete's sake, cough in your sleeve rather than on your hand (unless you want a germ-spreading method more efficient than spitting on each individual doorknob). If you have a compromised immune system or are in an area with cholera or something, do take precautions about the Eucharist.
But don’t let the mold of this world, or an unexamined culture of fear and separation, pressure you into needlessly separating yourself from the blood — and Body — of Christ.
Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners. She blogs about surviving cancer at www.cherisheach.com.