This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

Or: What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

I know this is going to sound somewhat odd, especially for Presbyterians.  But as my eucharistic theology evolves I have been thinking about the bread and the wine.  (I am using “wine” to refer to fermented and unfermented grape juice.)    

I was in a conversation with my Russian priest friend the other day, when he indicated that we can identify one’s eucharistic theology simply by noticing what they do with the leftover communion elements.  

In “high” liturgical churches — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and perhaps some Lutheran — they are first of all careful to only consecrate enough of the elements for the number of people who will participate.  Then anything that is left over is consumed by the priest, or sometimes may be reserved for a future service.  In some places I even think leftover elements are buried. 

But, first of all, I have a problem with the practice of only preparing “enough.”  One aspect of the Sacrament is a witness to God’s abundance and generosity in creation and salvation.  This is hard to imagine when we have just a small amount of the bread and wine before us.

For instance, I get frustrated by baptisms that use as little water as possible.  I witnessed one baptism in which the pastor barely dipped his finger in the water and then shook it (!) so that by the time his hand reached the head of the person being baptized it must have barely been damp.  Presbyterians already have enough of a problem with matter and symbol and anything sensory.  We need to emphasize the water and use a lot of it.  We need to get wet!  By the same token the elements of the eucharist are not incidental.  It doesn’t have to be about the volume of bread and wine consumed, but it should be clear that God has provided more than enough!   

I mean, in nature, God is ridiculously promiscuous.  A single oak tree can produce like 10,000 acorns in a year.  So I don’t like the optics of just preparing enough for those present.  It makes God look cheap.  I don’t have a problem with having leftovers.  The issue is what to do with them.  

Now, I certainly don’t hold to the Roman Catholic view of “transubstantiation,” in which the elements somehow become physically the Body and Blood of the Lord.  One problem with transubstantiation is that it identifies realness with physical materiality.  I do hold to Calvin’s view of the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament.  For Calvin this is spiritual presence and therefore more real than mere limited, physical presence.  

At the same time, I do believe that the elements — and the people — are indeed changed in the Sacrament.  On the one hand, the elements become more than just ordinary bread and wine simply because of their use in the rite and that the sacred words have been spoken over them.  On the most basic level, this is like when a particular baseball becomes special when it was the one your child hit for a home run in Little League.  But this is even more special than that because we are saying words Jesus told us to say and doing things Jesus told us to do.

The bread and the wine are changed into more than special bread and wine.  While the elements certainly remain bread and wine, they do in some sense become, at the Lord’s command — “this is my body;” “this is my blood” — his Body and Blood.  This does not happen in terms of physics, but spiritually; not outwardly so much as inwardly.  

Jesus goes into this in some detail in John 6, where he states that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).  The Lord clarifies this teaching few verses later, when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63).  

When we remember that the inspiration for this discourse is the actual feeding of the hungry crowd on the hillside, we realize that the physical bread serves to ground and focus analogically and metaphorically the real bread which is Jesus’ presence and words.  The bread is not incidental and disposable any more than is the water of baptism.  Through these elements we remain rooted in creation.  Matter and bodies are valued precisely because of the sacramental freight they bear, showing us that God comes to us in and through what God has made, and not by means of some gnostic, anti-material, psychic fantasy.

Therefore, the elements do indeed become charged with God’s Presence for their sitting on this particular Table and having these particular words spoken over then, and being offered to these people with this intent and this these thoughts focused on them.  This change is fulfilled when the bread and the wine are actually consumed and interact with each participant.  Yet even the bread and wine left behind still carry this charge, even if unreleased.  

We do need to be conscious and careful about what we do with the leftovers, because my priest friend is right: it expresses something about what we believe about the bread, the sacrament, creation, and Jesus.   

Presbyterians, unconsciously influenced by Zwingli (at best) and a knee-jerk antipathy to everything “Catholic” (at worst) tend to dispose of the leftover elements by three methods.  
  1. The worst practice, in my view, is to throw the bread in the trash and pour the juice down the drain.  This is wasteful and ungrateful even for normal bread and juice.  Who would dispose of perfectly good food this way in their homes?  This is a sign of our sinfulness, that we would take a gift of God — especially something he has made significant in our specific obedience to him — and simply decide it is now worthless and relegate it to the category of garbage.  If your child bakes you a cookie you thank them and at least pretend to eat it.  You do not toss it in the trash in front of them.  At the very least, let’s treat the leftover communion elements like the real food they are.  To throw them out in the face of a world hungry for both food and grace, is an abomination.    
  2. Another practice is to leave the bread outside for birds, and pour the contents of the cup out on the ground.  This is a little better, if done with gratitude, prayer, and consideration, in that it shows some respect for the elements and semi-ritually returns them back to nature.  On the other hand, in my experience birds are not always interested, and the bread just sits there getting weathered.  This can easily be seen as careless disposal, little better than throwing it in the garbage.  After all, “for the birds” is what we sometimes say about something we don’t value.    
  3. Still better is when the elements are either consumed or sent out with the representatives of the church to be shared with homebound people in the congregation.  Here is a good use.  But most churches would not do this every time the sacrament is celebrated.  (One church I served did send the deacons out with the elements after every celebration; I never hesitate to commend them.)  
The Eastern Orthodox have something called the Antidoron.  The Antidoron is bread that is blessed but not actually consecrated in the eucharist.  (They don’t use much bread in the actual eucharist.  The priest chops it fine, mixes it with warmed wine, and literally feeds it to the people by a small spoon.)  In some churches the non-consecrated bread is cut into cubes and sent out with the people.  The Antidoron may be given to anyone, therefore it is also a way to include non-Orthodox around the edges of the sacrament.

Once when I attended an Easter liturgy at an Antiochian Orthodox church, it was clear to the congregation that I was a visitor.  Parents must have pointed me out to their children as a worthy recipient of Antidoron, for several kids, after having received communion themselves, took some pieces and gave them to me on their way by.  By then end of the service I had almost more Antidoron in my cupped hands than I could handle.  I felt very welcome!

Would it  not be inappropriate to use a strategy like this with our communion leftovers?  That is, what if we Presbyterians encouraged participants to take some pieces of the communion bread with them as they leave and give it away as a sign of blessing and inclusion?

Taking the bread to shut-ins in the congregation is one obvious use.  We could also offer it to others whom we meet.  Who can say that this kind of sharing of the literal bread might not inspire some recipient to wonder and ask about the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ?

Such a practice would indeed reveal something about our theology.  Giving away the bread reflects what we know about Jesus, who gives his life for the life of the world.  It would speak of God’s abundant love overflowing in creation.




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