Intinction and Communion as Meal
by Jeffrey A. Truscott (May / June 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 3)
A practice which strives to maintain the meal character of the sacrament is important for the administration of Holy Communion. Can intinction do this?
The official stance of the ELCA on the form of the communion elements is rather flexible, as the following indicates:
A loaf of bread and a chalice of wine are encouraged since they signify the unity which the sacrament bestows. The bread may be leavened or unleavened. The wine may be white or red.
The use of leavened bread is the most ancient attested practice of the Church and gives witness to the connection between the Eucharist and ordinary life. Unleavened bread underscores the Passover themes which are present in the biblical accounts of the Last Supper.1
No explicit mention is made of intinction, that is, the administration of communion by dipping wafers into a chalice of wine. Yet Use of the Means of Grace seemingly precludes the normativity of the practice, since "ordinarily the bread is placed in the communicants hand and the chalice is guided by the communicant or carefully poured by the minister of communion."2
Nevertheless, intinction has become more common in Lutheran churches in North America.3 Undoubtedly, individual communion glasses are deemed undesirable because they affirm an individualistic piety and involve inconvenient preparations. The replacement of individual glasses with a common cup, however, is not an option in many congregations because of fears about contracting diseases. Since bread would leave crumbs in the chalice, communion wafers are used for intinction.
Thus intinction seems to solve both theological and practical problems. Yet, from the liturgical-symbolic standpoint, communion administered by intinction is less than desirable because it obscures the meal character of the sacrament.
It is clear that the Lord's Supper was instituted within the context of a meal, which may or may not have been the Passover Meal.4 The earliest Christian communities probably did not make a clear distinction between the sacramental meal and the ordinary community meal.
But already in the 50's C.E. that distinction was emerging. In Corinth, wealthy benefactors who hosted the Christian assembly's gathering provided one type of food for working class people and richer fare for the wealthier members of the community. The Lord's Supper (still attached to the communal meal) thereby accentuated social differences rather than highlighting oneness in the Lord Jesus. For this reason, St. Paul called for the confinement of the private meal to the home (1 Cor. 11:34).
Despite the fact that Holy Communion is no longer part of a community meal in the fullest sense, that is, with various food courses and conversation among the participants, its early inclusion within the full Christian communal meal, the biblical background of Jewish sacred meals, and Jesus' meal fellowship, and the fact that food is consumed have always led us to conceive of communion as a meal. Note our terminology: Lord's Supper, or in German, Die Abendmahl ("Evening Meal," after Luke 24).
The biblical meal is significant because it establishes group identity.5 For Israel, group identity is in relationship to the God of the Exodus, and the Passover meal re-constitutes that relationship (Ex. 12:14-20).
According to the Passover seder, each individual is to regard him/herself as having personally gone forth from Egypt, i.e., to understand one's self-identity in light of the Exodus. For Jesus, meals established group identity grounded in personal relationship with him. Jesus' meal fellowship with sinners and outcasts (Mark 2:15-17) suggested his personal solidarity with those considered unfit for God's promises to Israel, a symbolism now lost on his critics!
In Luke 24, it was in the breaking of the bread (a meal!) that the disciples most clearly experienced fellowship with the Lord. In John 21:9-14, the resurrected Lord shared a meal with the disciples, and it is within this context that Jesus brings Peter back into fellowship with himself by means of a three-fold question/charge ("Do you love me?"/"Feed my sheep")a reversal of Peter's three-fold denial.
Additionally, we might note that the early community's identity had meal fellowship as a focal point: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). Thus a meal signifies and affects fellowship between the community and the Risen Lord and among members of the community.
The biblical meal is also significant because it symbolizes joy/celebration. Note Isaiah 25:6:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day: "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in this salvation." For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
For Isaiah, then, salvation from the power of death is imaged as a lavish and joyous feast. Likewise, the "marriage supper of the Lamb" in Revelation 19 is pictured as a time of rejoicing and exultation. Thus, every celebration of Holy Communion resonates with these biblical images of joy because the Lamb who overcame sin and death is present to feast with the wedding guests!
Now the critical question: does intinction enable the liturgical assembly to experience communion as a meal? A meal, after all, involves eating and drinking significant amounts of food. But with intinction, wine is absorbed into a wafer that is usually dissolved on the roof of the mouthnot the normal way of consuming food and drink.
Intinction, in other words, gives communion an air of unreality and, perhaps, phoniness.6 We can only wonder, then, whether intinction contributes to the divorcing of faith from everyday life, and ultimately to the attenuation of the priesthood of all believers. Since a central act of the church has little relationship to my life, perhaps my life need not express my Christian commitments.
If intinction obscures the meal character of communion, then, arguably, it obscures the identity-making and symbolic aspects of the sacrament. First, it seems strange to suggest that Holy Communion re-establishes our identity in relationship to Jesusthrough our making remembrance (anamnesis)when our way of remembering does not approximate the meal instituted by Christ himself.7 Surely no one believes that Christ dipped wafers in wine at the various meals he attended!
Second, it is difficult to think that intinction establishes (or symbolizes) group identity. Compared to receiving a piece of bread broken from a loaf or drinking from a cup shared with other Christians, dipping a wafer in wine is quite individualisticmore like an individual dosing of medicine than the sharing of a meal. Thus, it could be argued that intinction supports the individualistic piety that reduces "church" to a gathering of the religiously like-minded.
Third, intinction inadequately symbolizes joy, since the latter normally connotes large, if not excessive, amounts of food. Granted, the ritual character of Holy Communion necessarily limits the amount of food used. But seeking to use ever smaller amounts of food surely contradicts the image of Isaiah's "feast of rich food."
The basic point is that we must attend carefully to the symbolic aspect of Holy Communion, which notably, has received more focus in recent years. Consider the following statement:
The term "sign," once suspect, is again recognized as a positive term for speaking of Christ's presence in the sacrament [of Holy Communion]. For, though symbols and symbolic actions are used, the Lord's Supper is an effective sign: It communicates what it promises "...the action of the church becomes the effective means whereby God in Christ acts and Christ is present with his people."8
Moreover, signs and symbols express the faith of the church, i.e., along with ritual and "myth," they are the means by which the "culture" of the church is passed on to succeeding generations.9 Arguably, inattentiveness to symbols (i.e., minimalism) leads to defective liturgical/theological formation of the church. Thus, we need to ask constantly about the adequacy of our use of symbols in the liturgy.
Of course, a response might be: "We shouldn't focus on the eating and drinking since Luther stated that the benefits of the sacrament derive not from the eating and drinking alone, but from the words of promise 'for you' and 'for the forgiveness of sins.'10 Any focus on the eating and drinking risks obscuring the promise."
Yet, even if sacramental efficacy for Luther was entirely dependent on the divine word of promise attached to the sacramental element, he was nevertheless concerned about the symbolic dimension of the liturgy. In a 1519 sermon on baptism, Luther argued for baptismal immersion, i.e., a fuller use of water. He stated that:
It would be proper, according to the meaning of the word Taufe [baptism] that the infant, or whoever is to be baptized, should be put in and sunk completely into the water and then drawn out again. For even in the German tongue the word Taufe comes undoubtedly from the word tief [deep] and means that what is baptized is sunk deeply into the water. This usage is also demanded by the significance of baptism itself. For baptism, as we shall hear, signifies that the old man and the sinful birth of flesh and blood are to be wholly drowned by the grace of God. We should therefore do justice to its meaning and make baptism a true and complete sign of the thing it signifies.11 (emphasis mine)
Following Luther's thinking, then, if Holy Communion is a meal or supper, then normal food (i.e., real bread) should be used and consumed in a normal way in order to do justice to the sacrament's meaning. Likewise, the significance of Holy Communion demands the eating of real bread since Paul states that: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread."12 The imagery here is obscured when a real loaf is not used.
Of course, it is desirable to avoid individual communion glasses, but not if that results in communion by intinction.13 We are better off keeping the glasses so that we can drink wine. Ideally, the glasses would be filled from a pouring chalice at the time of reception. (This pouring chalice would be filled from a flagon after the eucharistic prayer, when other vessels are brought to the table.)
At the same time, a common cup should be available for those who desire it. Perhaps Frank Senn's article on the common cup could be shared with a congregation as a way of encouraging the use of the common cup.13Those congregations that currently commune by intinction with wafers might at least consider using a special bread that is easily broken into pieces without leaving too many crumbs.
This article has argued for administering Holy Communion in a way that more clearly maintains the meal character of the sacrament. This has not been to suggest, of course, that the grace of God depends on how we administer the sacrament. Rather the point has been to suggest a way of better connecting the celebration of communion to the biblical witness about the God who comes to us in a meal.
Jeffery A. Truscott is a lecturer in liturgics at Japan Lutheran College and Seminary, Tokyo.
1. Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), Application 44A and Background 44B, p. 48.
2. Ibid., Application 45B, p. 49.
3. Notably, both the Episcopal and Roman rites approve of intinction. See Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury, 1979), pp. 407-408 and General Instruction for the Roman Missal, nos. 246-247, in The Sacramentary (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1985), p. 38.
4. The accounts in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:15-20) indicate that the "Last Supper" was a Passover Meal. The Johannine account (13:1ff) indicates that Jesus' final meal with his disciples was held before the Passover.
5. See Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), pp. 185ff.
6. Consider the following remarks by Laurence H. Stookey: "In choosing the kind of material things to be eaten and drunk, care should be taken to represent God's good creation with realism and dignity. What is offered to the guests should not have the appearance of being phony or trivial. This suggests first the use of a type of bread one might indeed share around a table. The plastic-looking wafers so popular in the past convey a kind of unreality to the Eucharist..." (Eucharist: Christ's Feast in the Church, [Nashville: Abingdon, 1993], p. 124).
7. By "remembrance," I do not simply mean the calling to mind of past historical events, but rather the "representation" or "reactualization" of the past events that become fully present and effective now.
8. The Eucharist: a Lutheran-Catholic Statement, 2.1, in Lutherans and Roman Catholics in Dialog III (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1965), pp. 192-193.
9. On the matter of liturgical formation, see Frank C. Senn, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), Chapter 9, especially pp. 126-127.
10. Small Catechism [VI], in Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), p. 352.7-8.
11. Martin Luther, "The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519), Luther's Works, American Edition, E. Theodore Bachman and Helmut T. Lehman. eds. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), vol. 35, p.29.
12. 1 Corinthians 10:17. Note that the Greek artos denotes a loaf or cake of bread.
13. If part of the reason for giving up the glasses was the implied individualism, then the use of individual wafers for intinction merely represents a return to the fleshpots of Egypt!
14. Frank Senn, "The Cup of Salvation: Take and Drink" in A Stewardship of the Mysteries (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), pp. 138ff.