Amen And Ahchoo: Communion and the Spread of Germs
by Sue Liskowski
In this age of filtered water, purified air, and anti-bacterial-
everything, just imagine sharing the same spoon with a hundred or so of your neighbors.
If you are a member of our bacteria-phobic culture, you just might be feeling a little
paranoid at the thought.
The fear of germs spreading during Holy Communion has caused some
Christian denominations to employ different methods such as using individual plastic cups
or receiving wafers in the hand and forgoing a common cup.
In February, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the Centers for
Disease Control has had an official position on the question for more than two decades,
and continues to receive inquiries about the subject despite the fact that there is no
documented case of any infectious disease having been transmitted through use of a common
Based on a consensus of the National Center for Infectious Diseases and
the National Center for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and
Tuberculosis, the CDC has concluded that there is a "theoretic risk" of transmitting
disease through the common cup, but that it is so small as to be undetectable.
Their advice to churches is to advise congregants that sharing a cup
may not be advisable if someone has an active respiratory infection such as cold or flu,
or moist or open sores on the lips. While it is believed that the AIDS virus cannot be
spread through contact by mouth, there is more of a risk from Hepatitis B and cold-sore
viruses. Common sense and common courtesy should guide us to refrain from receiving Holy
Communion when we are ill. Father Andrew said that if he knew a parishioner had a
condition like Hepatitis B, he would counsel them not to receive Holy Communion during
Liturgy and he would administer it privately to them.
In the Eastern Orthodox churches, which break the communion bread into
the wine and serve both with a common spoon, returning the spoon to the wine after each
administration is believed to provide a cleansing action. The churches have studied the
practice, which dates back more than 500 years through plagues and epidemics, and believe
it to be safe.
Central to their continuation of the custom is the belief that the
bread and wine of communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the
consecration of the liturgy.
On the OCA website, an article written by Father John Matusiak
addresses concerns on the spread of germs through the common spoon. He encourages
receiving Communion by tilting one's head back and opening one's mouth as wide as
possible, thereby allowing the priest to simply drop the Body and Blood of Christ into
the communicant's mouth without ever coming into contact with the spoon.
Father Matusiak also points out that we, as Orthodox Christians,
firmly believe that what is being received is the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a
matter of faith that one cannot contract a disease from the Body and Blood of Christ.
Following the Divine Liturgy and the consumption of the remaining
Holy Gifts by the priest or deacon, the chalice, diskos, and spoon are usually cleansed
with boiling hot water and carefully covered, protecting them even from the air and
"While I would acknowledge that there are a host of viruses and
diseases making the rounds in today's world, it would seem that in times past matters
were somewhat worse." Father Matusiak writes. "The Bubonic plague and Black Death come
to mind here. So do the more recent times in which TB, polio and other diseases were
rampant. If one focuses their faith on Jesus Christ, one must assume that His Body and
Blood, which is the "fountain of life and immortality," simply cannot be the cause of
illness, disease, or death."
"What is a matter of faith is the struggle to overcome precisely
those things which can become an obstacle to faith, such as a preoccupation with
getting sick from taking Communion or kissing the cross. I have met a few people who
refuse to go to Communion because they are obsessed with the thought of getting sick.
This reveals a desire, conscious or unconscious, to keep the body in perfect health --
which we all know is not possible for any serious length of time, since ultimately we all
die -- at the expense of spiritual health. In the Gospel of Saint John, Christ says,
"Unless you eat of My Body and drink of My Blood, you have no life in you." Those who
outright refuse the Eucharist out of concern for their physical health clearly reveal
that their spiritual health is less important or not important at all. So we need that
faith which makes us certain of those things which we have not fully understood or seen
to be assured that we will not become ill from the Body and Blood of Christ.
If we do not have such faith, then it is best not to receive Communion,
not out of fear of physical illness or death, but because we are not prepared, in which
case, as Saint John Chrysostom writes, the Eucharist can be a burning fire and to our
condemnation rather than salvation."