Germ-Free Communion

I recently attended a meeting of several dozen clergy types from my denomination. When we gather like that, we almost always celebrate Holy Communion together. John Wesley was a stickler on that, so it has become a prominent part of our heritage. I won’t get into the theology, but suffice it to say, it’s a good thing.

During this past gathering, something grabbed my eye—something to which I hadn’t paid much attention prior to this. On the communion table were the normal trappings. Naturally, there was a loaf of bread, a cup, a couple of candles, and a Book of Worship. The table itself was covered with a white, linen cloth. In addition to all those usual items, however, there was another one that seemed enormously out of place. It was a large, plastic bottle of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.

This Could Be a Good Thing

Prior to distributing the elements (the bread and wine), the celebrants pumped a glop or two of sanitizer on their hands and gave themselves a good sterilizing. Considering the fact that we were in the middle of flu season, this could be considered a “good thing” as well. Still, it just didn’t set quite right with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in ingesting someone else’s germs—particularly if they have some dread disease. I don’t want to see others get infected over someone else’s lack of hygiene. And even though it’s not totally Biblical, I can buy into the old saying that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” My problem is not one of procedure—it’s one of imagery.

When I celebrate (or participate) in Holy Communion, I (without exception) picture Jesus breaking bread with his disciples during his last Seder Supper. The Jewish folks were clean freaks. Washings and anointings were in their rituals and probably in their DNA as well. Still, it’s really tough for me to picture Jesus sitting in front of a bottle of hand sanitizer. It somehow dampens the spirit of the sacrament for me.

Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness?

I’m probably all alone on this one, but I just can’t help it. I guess I’m old-school (first-century old). I have a long-standing practice of washing my hands prior to breaking the bread, but I don’t invite the congregation into the men’s room to watch me do it. I know I’m being picky, but the visual just bothers me.

The Apostle Paul warned the church not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner.” Maybe we’re extending that thought to the preparation of our hands—I don’t know. I don’t want someone to pump gas then break my bread, but I don’t need to see them clean up. As long as they look uncontaminated, I’m good.

I realize all of this is rather superfluous, and I’m not really complaining (although, I’m sure it sounds like it). I’ll get over it by realizing that the presence of the hand sanitizer is an outward statement of love. “We care about your health—your body’s as well as your soul’s.”

[Dave Zuchelli is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently pastor of Smith Chapel in Great Falls, VA.]

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