Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Disposing" of the Elements

In an effort to keep my promise to add content more regularly and revitalize the conversation 'round these parts, I was looking back through old posts. I knew there were at least a few instances where I had an idea for what I thought would be a good topic to post about, and created a draft but never finished and published it.  This was one, but I hadn't even begun writing it - just had a title! (weird, I know.)

I think it's a good thing to bat around, though - certainly something we have had some discussion about at Xenia Naz: what to do with the elements - the cup in particular - after communion?

If you're like our church and use the little round wafers (the "catholic" wafers, as I like to call them), you save whatever's left for the next time, in something of a really weird/weak version of having a "reserve sacrament" that continues to next time (although for that to really "count" the elements would have to be consecrated, wouldn't they...?  Perhaps that's another discussion...).  So that's not a problem.  But what is the best thing to do with that big chalice (in our case) or all those little bitty thimblefuls (also in our case - I'll explain later) filled with grape juice?

Rather than limit possible ideas by offering mine first (I will do so in the comments after a few have chimed in), I will share that the woman who sets up our communion each week (yes, we do it every week! Not exactly as I'd have us do it, perhaps, but that's yet another conversation) told me when I brought this up with her that she's actually had a bad feeling about pouring the remaining juice down the drain.  Now this woman is an incredible person and servant of the church, but she probably would not resonate very strongly with the scope of this blog.  Her basis for this instinct is probably not very theological.  But it affirms my feeling that, at the very least, THIS solution - pouring the blood of Christ down the sink - is not the best thing...

Your thoughts?


Todd Stepp said...


It depends on where one is theologically on this.

We've had this conversation on the cyber-chapter of the Order of St. Luke and the consensus is that one either reverently drinks it, or it is reverently poured on the ground.

This reflects the theology of the Real Presence (in some form) in the elements. Those who hold this position also have much difficulty with the little shot glasses, because you simply can't get all of the juice out of them. Further, those who drink from them leave drops of juice (and I don't know anyone who uses wine with the shot glasses, but then I don't know everyone!) in the cups.

Thus, such a theology, if one follows through to conclusion, would not only require certain ways of disposing of the remaining juice, but also certain modes of serving.

On the other hand, Rob Staples (p. 227 of "Outward Sign .. ."), along with Bishop Borgen, presenting a "Dynamic" and "Living Presence" position argues that the objective presence of Christ in the Supper ought not to be thought of as static. While admitting that ecumenical interests may cause one to respond differently, nevertheless, from this theological point of view "there would seem to be no absolute necessity to preserve remaining elements for future celebrations of the sacrament."

In taking a cue from Ray Dunner, Staples argues (in the footnotes) that the sacred character of the elements is "insofar as it is sacramentally intended." That is, once the sacramental celebration is over, Christ is not "trapped" in the elements.

I would point out, again, that this would likely raise ecumenical concerns. - Also, as one with one foot in the Church of the Nazarene and one in the UMC, I would say that the UMC (whether it is expressed in local congregations or not!) does not allow for the elements to "revert back" to unconsecrated elements.

My experience is that it is a job to get Nazarene congregations to own the sacramental nature of the Lord's Supper (i.e., Christ's presence and grace poured out). To push whoever is taking care of "sacramental clean up" concerning this may cause significant issues. - One has to determine if it will cause issues and if one's theological convictions on this matter are strong enough to "die on this hill."

On the other hand, simple instruction may work just fine!


J.B. Chapman said...

First thank you Todd for your response.

As for my congregation, we celebrate the Eucharist at least once a month, and of the 18 or more times a year we celebrate, it will be in shot glasses once (concession to one individual). After communion, the chalice (or shot glasses) is taken to the kitchen (my sacristy)and I humbly drink all the remaining juice (and Todd- the ELCA church down the street uses wine (and white grape juice for alcoholics and Nazarene's in attendance) in shot glasses, though everyone comes to the altar for the ingestion of Christ's body and blood.

Back to my parish. After the juice is drank, the host (BH's Catholic kind) is then put away. I draw from those that have been consecrated (epiclesis is always prayed) for communion with those who are unable to attend because of age or sickness.

Just my/our practice...

Rich Schmidt said...

At the Nazarene church I pastor, we celebrate communion every Sunday, by intinction, using one cup of juice and torn-up pieces of pita bread.

I dispose of the elements by dropping the remaining bread in the trash and pouring the remaining juice down the drain. I hold to a dynamic view that's probably similar to the one Staples describes. (It's been a while since I've read that book.) So while I pray some form of epiclesis before each celebration, I believe that Christ is present for us in the celebration of the sacrament. Afterward... it's just bread and juice.

Brannon Hancock said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Rich, I had a question: you do this yourself, or a volunteer within your congregation does it?

I agree with Todd that one's theological stance determines much; Rich's comment affirms this as well.

J.B.'s emphasis on the epiclesis - the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the elements in some form of consecratory prayer - highlights another question: when does the Holy Spirit's presence cease, and why? What causes this?

Brannon Hancock said...

Rich: clarification - I meant the actual disposal. Do you do the set-up and disposal? Or does someone else? Just curious.

Joseph said...

This may be a lame analogy, but its all I can come up with first thing on a Monday morning.

Think of a birthday or wedding cake. It is carefully mixed, baked, and decorated for the purpose of celebration. When the words are frosted on, or the candles are lit, the cake, which is just food, becomes more than just food. It becomes an instrument of celebration. It points to a person, or persons; it reveals the happiness that is shared; it produces an occasion for communion.

Now think about when the occasion is over. What happens to the leftover cake (if there is any leftover)? Is it thrown away in the trash? NO! It is cut up and shared amongst those in attendance. It is cut up and prepared to be delivered to those loved ones who may not have been able to attend the occasion. In the case of a wedding, the bride and groom often save a portion of the cake to eat at their first anniversary or the birth of their first child.

Whatever the case, the leftover cake is not immediately thrown away. I have never been to a party with cake where the leftover was immediately thrown in the trash because what was consumed had already served its purpose.

Now I'm not arguing that cake is sacramental, but I am arguing that cake is communal. We can learn a lot from this non-sacramental act in how we should 'dispose' of the elements in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is a celebration. We celebrate what has been accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we celebrate in the transference of grace, and we practice our celebration of what is to come in the marriage feast of the Lamb.

If our celebration of a birthday or wedding ends in the distributing and sharing of the leftover cake, how much more should our celebration of the Eucharist end in the distributing and sharing of the leftover elements?

On one level, we can share the leftovers together after the service. The communion continues after the 'formal' celebration in the service. We continue to share the bread and cup in a more relaxed and 'meal-like' atmosphere.

On another level, the distribution of the leftover elements to those who are unable to attend is a practice observed since the early days of the Church. Justin Martyr mentions that "deacons give each person a portion of the bread and wine.... over which thanks have been given and take them to those who are not present." Leftovers do not lose their meaning and power to effect communion. Sharing the elements with those who are unable to attend the celebration further develops the koinonia of the congregation.

These two levels say something about our theology of the Eucharist. A third level says something about our ethics.

As Christians we are called to feed the hungry and give the thirsty something to drink. What does it say about us when we throw away perfectly good bread and drink? What a waste! As consumers of Christ, we should be compelled to share and give to those in need. Even if you believe there is nothing special about the elements, that they are just bread and drink, it still remains that you are throwing away food.

I urge you to think deeply about what happens to the leftover elements after the celebration of the Eucharist. What we do with this food speaks volumes about who we are as Christians. And remember, it is the first opportunity we have to respond to the grace we have received in the celebration we just participated in.


Eric + said...

To touch on several of the threads of response. First, I do all the preparation and clean up. Second, we celebrate weekly (for now). Third we use two chalices of juice and either a loaf of bread or a piece of flat bread. If we use the loaf, it is broken for each person as they come to receive. If we use the flatbread it is prepared in 1" by 1/2" strips for ease of intinction. Following the communion, I typically drink the jucie - floaties and all. If we have left over flatbread pieces they are prayed over "for the redemption of all the earth" and put out for the birds. If there is left over loaf, then it is taken home and consumed with Sunday supper.

My question for those with a strong real presence view (and not the dynamic view espoused by Todd and Rich), how do you feel about pieces dropped on the floor and trampled?

Todd Stepp said...


To clarify (or not), I'm not sure that I espoused the position I recounted from Staples. I'm not sure that I don't. For the purpose of this blog comment, I'm just rather non-committal!

The question you raise is a very good question (and was also raised on the Order of St. Luke cyber chapter). There, the view was expressed that any spills were treated as the blood of Christ (so to crumbs).

The question was raised about what one sees when they see the stains on the floor (from spilled wine). The answer of at least one person was, "I see the blood of Jesus."


BThomas said...

I love this question. We serve communion in a variety of ways depending on the passage that is being preached. For example, if it is a passage where we are to respond to the Grace of God I usually invite people to come forward and we serve using several intinction chalices and plates of bread. We fill each of the chalices from a common pitcher during the act of consecration.
Other Sunday's when its a passage where God is pouring out his grace on people I send the elements out in the "shot glasses." At the end of the service regardless of how it was served I request that our stewards gather all of the left over bread and Juice. This is then divided up between the other pastors on staff and on Monday we go and serve all of the shut-ins that are a part of our church as well as others in the nursing homes, and care centers that we have adopted. We also serve it on Wed. during our worship service for those that were unable to participate on Sunday. On Wednesday evening whatever is left (not usually much) is consumed by each pastor. I am new at this church so we are only serving communion roughly once a month (again driven by the passage).
It is my understanding that for the past 30 years it had been served a couple of times a year.

Rich Schmidt said...

Brannon, I do the prep and disposal myself. There have been times when someone else has done it (a board member who oversees the volunteer cleaning crew), but it's almost always me. The prep is usually prayerful. The disposal is sometimes accompanied by a quick "thanks," but not always.

As for when the Holy Spirit's presence "ceases": it doesn't. The Spirit goes with and in (and before, and after) the people of God as we go back out onto the mission field. And once we're all gone, what's left behind is just bread and juice.

Regarding Joseph's birthday/wedding cake analogy: leftover food of any sort is usually packed in tupperware and saved for later consumption... unless there's not enough of it worth saving. In that case, someone might just finish it off. Or, if everyone is stuffed to the gills, it may be given to the pets, put down the disposal, or thrown away.

There's no good way to "save for later" the leftover grape juice and pieces of pita bread that we use.

Oh, and my wife and I ended up throwing away the top piece of our wedding cake that we had saved after the wedding. Either it went bad or my wife was afraid it had. So we tossed it. :)

Scott M. Collins said...

Love the discussion.

I setup & cleanup. We currently celebrate Holy Communion once per month which is a marked improvement.

I utilize the remaining loaf in sandwiches or meals during that week.

I usually take a big swig of the remaining juice in the cup and then feel bad as I pour the rest down the drain. As a result of this discussion, I will probably chug the whole thing.

I don't believe in full on transubstantiation, but I enjoy believing *something* more is going on in the elements.

"This *IS* my body." -- Matt. 26:26

Todd Stepp said...


You don't have to believe in transubstantiation to believe in the real presence of Christ. Wesley certainly did not believe in the former, but he certainly did believe in the latter.