Like all important stories, this one begins with a bit of #fakenews.
Apparently, in September of 1894, a couple of newspapers had reported that Brooklyn’s Bedford Avenue Baptist Church was introducing a “novelty in communion service”—individual little cups for each communicant. A century ago, this sort of idea was so insanely crazy that apparently Brooklynites just had to see it for themselves, and the church was packed to the gills with visitors desperate to know what it would be like to drink grape juice out of little shot glasses. (Presumably, the Dodgers were having a bad season that year.) These would-be communicants went home disappointed.The Eucharist is an ancient ritual handed down by Christ himself, through the Apostles, and kept alive in the Church for millennia—and a hundred years ago, we decided to change it?
As it turned out, the newspapers in question had jumped the gun, reporting a bit of speculation by the church’s pastor as fact, the same way that modern newspapers crash the stock market every time President Trump tweets something stupid. Pastor J. H. Gunning, however, had had his first taste of fame, and he wasn’t about to give it up now—as soon as the service was over, he called a business meeting where the purchase of tiny little gold-and-silver shot glasses was approved. From that moment, a brand-new worship tradition was born, ready to take its place in the same pantheon as Gregorian chant and the smoke machine.
It’s actually not known with a ton of certainty which congregation was the first to use individual communion cups—there are at least seven congregations making the claim—but it is known that the idea is barely over 100 years old, it’s uniquely Protestant, and it was invented somewhere in the American northeast. In any case, it’s clear that it didn’t take long at all to go from gold-and-silver, to cheap glass, to über-cheap plastic. Soon, we were all slurping the newly invented grape juice out of tiny little shot glasses, and then flicking the empty cups at that cute girl from youth group. It’s a practice that’s commonplace and unremarkable now, but after nearly 2,000 years of sharing a single cup among everyone in the congregation, it was a radical change.
What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centers for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet , the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis. Fortunately, germ theory was revolutionizing medicine, and Americans have never met a problem we didn’t think we couldn’t solve with whatever scientific discoveries were grabbing headlines at the time.
If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage. And if you come from a tradition, as I do, that believes Jesus is actually present in the wine (and the bread), it seems pertinent to point out that that guy is in the business of healing disease, not spreading it. But then again, if Americans were the sort who let sound science and good theology get in the way of our love of novelty, we never would have invented Hot Pockets, either.
By 1906, the practice was becoming popular enough that Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient. Maybe it’s that last point that really led to the practice catching on—Americans have never met a convenience we didn’t like. We won’t eat food unless we can microwave it or get it out of a drive-thru window (preferably both), and we want our movies in three easy acts and our pop songs in two simple verses (and, like, a million choruses). “In this advanced age,” Krout wrote (weirdly describing an era before spray cheese was invented as “advanced”), “when congregations swell to the ranks of hundreds and thousands, it is necessary to expedite matters as much as possible. People are no longer willing to sit in the sanctuary and watch the minister as he slowly moves to and fro in administering the Lord’s Supper.”
That was it, then—we were spending way too much time on the most sacred of all Christian rituals. Communion may be the moment where God and man meet face-to-face every week, which is cool and all, but yeesh, get on with it, God. We’ve got places to be, and we need to beat the lunch rush at Typhoid Mary’s joint.
Once you get that “convenience” ball rolling, though, it’s hard to stop it. It wasn’t terribly long before we had gone from silver-and-gold communion cups to disposable plastic ones, and then—once we realized filling all those little cups was a pain in the butt—we started selling all-in-one, prepackaged communion. You can buy this convenient product right now, hermetically sealed for astronaut-caliber freshness, complete with a styrofoamy wafer and your choice of red or white grape juice—because nothing says “sacred rite” like, “Here, peel the plastic off of these Lunchables.”
I can hear you all now: “Geez, Luke, lighten up! Two weeks ago, you were making jokes about castration, and this week you’re giving us uptight lectures about Communion?” And the answer is, “…yeah.”
Look, I get that there are more important things to worry about—that’s a great all-purpose objection for derailing any conversation—but just because something isn’t THE MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. The Eucharist is an ancient ritual handed down by Christ himself, through the Apostles, and kept alive in the Church for millennia—and a hundred years ago, we decided to change it?
I can already hear what you’re saying next: “It doesn’t matter how we do it, just how we feel about it!” But that’s a two-way street. How we do something has a direct effect on how we feel about it. When we share a cup, we proclaim that we’re all united in one Christ, not only with each other, but with the saints throughout space and time. When we take shots of grape juice, we’re telling the world…what? That we can’t find some decent Scotch?
Which—come to think of it—is also probably true.
Image via Flickr: fcor1614