The Common Cup

Does your church use the common cup (chalice) or individual cups for the wine at Holy Communion?  How much do you think about how it’s done?

The common cup/chalice is the ancient practice of the church, stemming from Jesus’ words and practice at the Last Supper where it seems very clear that the disciples are drinking from a single cup that Jesus passes to them.  But around the turn of the 20th century, that began to change for many congregations.  For a tongue-in-cheek history, you could read this essay.

One of the major concerns appears to have been hygiene – how safe can it be to all drink from the same cup now that we know about germs and bacteria and the like?  Well, it appears to be a lot safer than we thought it was, or than we think it is now.  For a more official treatment of the topic, you could reference this LA Times article from a few years ago.   The fact that most Communion chalices were/are made from silver or gold means that they don’t host bacteria and other nasties on their own.  Combine this with the (slight) alcohol content of the wine, and the use of a clean purificator utilized in an appropriate way, and you have a very sanitary ritual.

In fact, the cleanliness traditionally began before the chalice ever touched anyone’s lips.  The Roman Catholic mass includes the lavabo, the washing of the celebrant’s hands.  In the ancient Eastern church, this rite took place just before the celebrant would put on the special vestments for Holy Communion (the chasuble).  The chasuble helps to draw greater attention to the high point of Christian worship – as we receive the body and blood of Jesus the Christ in with and under the bread and the wine.  In our Lutheran circles there are still some churches and pastors that utilize a chasuble, but it has fallen out of fashion with the majority of them.  In the Western church, the lavabo rite was performed also just before actually administering the elements, rather than prior to vesting.  The name of the rite comes from Psalm 25:6, which was read (through verse 12) as part of the rite.

So, in other words, in the oldest practices of the Church, the common cup/chalice has been a safe means of sharing in Holy Communion – certainly far safer than other traditions such as the passing of the peace or the traditional time of fellowship after worship.  I’ve just reinstated the use of the common cup/chalice in our congregation, offering it as an option for those who request it.  Most don’t, but more and more are beginning to.  And if they so choose, hopefully they’ll realize that it is relatively safe to do so!

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