Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.


This block-lettered inscription stretched across the front of the heavy wooden altar in my childhood church’s sanctuary. Once a month it’d be bedecked with four circular metal trays—two large, two small—themselves bedecked with gleaming metal lids. Under the larger lids were concentric rings of small plastic communion cups. Inside the communion cups was grape juice.

Inside the grape juice was something like the blood of God, the one solid figure in this line of nesting dolls—all the solider for being an idea and not, emphatically, a material thing.

If tragedy befalls a ceramic communion chalice, the tragedy would announce itself in the shattering. Tragedy cannot befall a plastic shot glass. The sound of its splintering might annoy and anger, but it would not shock or devastate.The inscription on the altar never changed in spite of our church’s serving the juice and the oyster crackers once a month, so as a child I became accustomed to the idea of God’s absence in church. THIS DO in reference to a THIS rarely done, recalling the absence of communion as communion itself recalled the absented, ascended Christ.

After preaching on a communion Sunday my father would pray, and then the smaller trays would weave through the rows. Congregants would pinch oyster crackers between their fingers and pray, sing, or contemplate their crackers. I was a cracker contemplator. I beheld the infinite kernel.

After everyone had received the tray, my father would repeat the story of the Last Supper—“On the night he was betrayed…”—before praying and inviting us to eat together. After partaking, the larger trays would start down the same invisible rail between the rows. Without shame, my sister consistently picked the center cup of juice for herself, leaving a black hole in the center of the orbits of the other cups. I would congratulate myself before God for having the humility to select a cup for myself from the row farthest from the center.

Under gentle piano notes or light guitar, congregants would pray, sing, or contemplate their cups.  I was a cup gazer. I’d stare deeply into the purple darkness, my hand slightly trembling in order to bounce the reflection of the lights overhead into a spiral inside the plastic rim. Sometimes a tremble would split the light into two distinct points. I often hoped this would let me see the face of Jesus in the cup, but Christ did not show up. THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME—IN REMEMBRANCE. I AM NOT HERE FOR I HAVE RISEN. STOP SHAKING THE CUP, YOU’RE GOING TO SPILL IT.

And I did spill it, occasionally, when instinctual brinkmanship turned my shaking hand into a twitching hand to send grape juice cascading down in rivulets that ran between my fingers. If licking the juice off wasn’t an option, I’d set the cup in the tiny cup holder built into the pew in front of me and rub my hands together, seeking to absorb the memory of Christ’s shed blood through direct osmosis.

Always the memory and never the thing itself, of course. Given our Zwinglianism about the elements, our plastic thimbles were not intended for metaphysically-complicated liquids—just a tart memory aid, a slanted metaphor for the blood Christ shed for us two millennia ago. Perhaps Welches, but likelier a store brand, if I know anything about church budgets.

At the end of the service the tiny cups would sit in tiny stacks in tiny cupholders built into the backs of the pews, and a couple of volunteers would move through the rows collecting them. Always a bit of juice would remain, drying into a film in the bottom of the cup: a stain to evoke the cleansing of a stain. Our stains.

At the end of the service too, though, we children who knew what was up would run to the small room behind the stage and gorge ourselves on leftover oyster crackers and have our fill of grape juice out of the cups that had not been taken when the trays made their rounds. The tiny portion guidelines—from Scripture: “every time you nibble and sip, this do in remembrance etc.”—went out the window completely, and we ruined our appetites for lunch with the memories of Christ’s body and blood. Someone had to eat and drink the leftovers, though. Otherwise they would have been thrown away.

If our ecclesiology comes out in our pews, our soteriology shows itself in the tiny cups being collected and stacked by volunteers after the service. There is no common chalice here. Rather, trays full of grace make their way to each individual, which individual then considers her own absolute relation to the absolute before eating to remember the Lord alongside pews full of other individuals, themselves having just finished contemplating their own absolute etc. etc. Then everyone goes home.

We’re far from the dignity of the Roman cup and wafer here. A G.I. Joe could mistake one of our cups for his missing Big Gulp, in a certain pastor’s kid’s hands and imagination. If a cup breaks, it’s likely by effort: crushed with a pop under a rebellious heel, broken under a hymnal into sticky plastic splinters—or, by accident, cracked in the hands of a person intensely considering the weight of his sin, who then has the hard task of not reading his misfortune as a sign of judgment. If tragedy befalls a ceramic communion chalice, the tragedy would announce itself in the shattering. Tragedy cannot befall a plastic shot glass. The sound of its splintering might annoy and anger, but it would not shock or devastate.

Parts of our character and temperament are also clear in these cups. They are so practical as to become invisible, wholly absorbed into the activity of communion. Cheap and disposable, they end up ribbing the outsides of full trash bags the Monday after communion Sunday. They are humble, unconcerned with appearances, hardworking, and keen on facilitating purely spiritual transactions without any hint of superstition, which hints are allegedly made aplenty in the metaphysics by which believers believe themselves to be eating the true body and blood of God. Ultimately, they are concerned with the state of your individual soul—of every individual’s soul.

But for all the individual focus of the plastic cup, the order of service asks congregants to hold the elements until all have been served. Anxieties about doing things out of order aside, the act of receiving a mouthful of juice alongside others doing the same is a reminder of the great host of which we are members and fellow witnesses. We take and drink in remembrance of the Lord, God-with-us, present among us even as we feel his absence, invisible to us as the plastic cups in our hands that draw us toward him.


  1. This whole article is marvelous, but I was particularly caught by the section talking about you and the rest of the kids–“who knew what was up”–going to the back after the service and indulging on the remainder of grape juice and oyster crackers. THAT, right there, is such a beautiful image of the grace of God and His relationship to the children throughout the gospels. You guys got it, whether you realized it or not. Kids aren’t afraid of indulging without limits on the blood of Christ. As we grow older we tend to impose “moderation” on ourselves towards the grace of God: You got me started, Jesus, but I got it from here. Kids don’t worry about that.

    Just such a beautiful and poignant image, I thought.


    1. I loved this line, too! Next time we take communion at church, I may chuckle a bit!

  3. As a student of material culture in history, I am delighted to discover your blog! What a beautiful reflection on the many different aspects of one humble object.

    I have to admit, as one of those Romans who drinks from gold chalices, I’ve always been curious about what it’s like to receive in the land of individual servings. :-)

  4. I’m fascinated by this take on the Eucharist. A few years ago after a high school Easter chapel service, I was shocked when students were stuffing their faces with leftover bread and chugging bottles of grape juice. Whether the leftovers were consecrated or not, it struck me as a violation of Christ’s Body and Blood. It felt like a disregard for the respectful, profound ceremony. Really interesting piece, it was thought provoking and quite funny!

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