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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 communion cup.

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 dust.

"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."

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