I am re-reading Margaret Visser’s book on St. Agnes’ Outside the Walls Church in Rome “The Geometry of Love”. It’s a wonderfully rich book, and I can thoroughly recommend it. As it happens, I myself have been reflecting on a number of things about the liturgy recently, and I thought that this might be a good occasion to gather them up into one. Here goes!
The weekend before last, we went to the spa resort of Leukerbad. Naturally we visited the church there. It featured a large, baroque reredos (a decorative sculpture that goes behind the altar). This sculpture had as its central panel a small ‘Lamb of God’ (Jesus) lying on the book with the seven seals. Above this was a nearly life-size statue of the patron saint of the first Church, St. Barbara, and above her was an equally large statue of the Virgin Mary as the ‘Queen of Heaven’. On the sides were images of various other saints (St. Peter and Paul and St. Lawrence) and numerous cherubs with trumpets bursting out of the frame as is common in many exuberant baroque images.
We got up close to the reredos to get a good look at it. Just then, Robyn (my wife) made a comment. She said “I can’t see Jesus here.” I pointed out the ‘Lamb of God’ at the foot of the central panel, but what she said was true. In comparison to the other images in the whole sculpture, Jesus was hard to find!
So we continued looking around the church, and to finish we sat in the back pew, taking everything in. what became visible was a large rood (image of Jesus on the cross with St. John and Mary). So there in two layers was a kind of completion of the whole picture. In order to ‘get’ Jesus, one had to see what was presented in the whole Church, not just the reredos. But then I began to imagine a Eucharist taking place in the Church. There would be the altar with consecrated bread and wine on it. Christ would be present there in bread and wine. There would be the priest, repeating Jesus’ own words to ‘do this in memory of me’. In some Roman Catholic circles, the altar itself represents Christ. Now in this context the priest says “Therefore with angels and archangels, with prophets, saints and apostles we laud and magnify your glorious name, forever praising you and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy.” Now, with people present and an actual Eucharist in progress the reredos does its work. It is not a representation of ‘the whole thing’ but a representation of heaven, joining in their song of praise, as we celebrate the Eucharist. The reredos is like the scenery of an opera or play. It only comes alive, and plays its part when the actors are ‘on stage’ and the drama is going on.
This was a new idea for me about Church decoration. I am familiar with this idea in connection with Rublev’s ‘Trinity’ icon, for example. There the three angels are gathered around the table with bread and wine, but the fourth side is open. We are meant to complete the icon by taking our place at the table. The ‘fourth side’ is open to us, just as the life of God in the Trinity is open to us. I loved the idea that a Church would be built and decorated in such a way as to need a congregation and a Eucharist to complete the picture.
The second thing that has been exercising my mind recently is the idea of the ‘common cup’ in Anglicanism. Some denominations which do not use fermented grape juice have individual cups. But Anglicans, offer a common cup. The symbolism is clear. We are one body because we share in the one body of Christ in one loaf and one cup. There has been a lot of thought go into hygiene in this matter. People are naturally anxious about the possibility of exchanging bodily fluids (saliva) with others. The common wisdom that was passed down to me is the following: The priest is the last to consume the wine. If anyone is going to get sick, it is them! This never happens. Anglicans are instructed to be careful, and to refrain from receiving the cup if they have a cold or are sick. The purificator that wipes the lip of the chalice removes most of any fluid that might come from a communicant. The chalice is gold or silver plated. The heavy metal content of the gold or silver is very antiseptic in its effect. The wine we use is port. Port has a very high sugar content and a very high alcohol content (more than wine). These two elements serve to kill any virus or bacteria that may be in the cup. As one doctor has said “A person is more likely to get dangerous germs from the hands of the priest who is distributing the bread, and they are from the common cup!’
But there are some who are pre-occupied with hygiene. They say to the clergy “When we come to communion, we do not feel ‘right’ because while we are supposed to be thinking about receiving Jesus, we are actually thinking about how hygienic the cup is!”
I think that this is an unfortunate over reaction. In society at large, we are sold cleaning products on the basis we always have to be vigilant about the presence of ‘household germs’. But we really don’t need all these cleaning products. There is some evidence in fact that it is the presence of pristine environments that contributes to the rise in asthma in our populations because young people do not have a chance to make their immune systems resilient through regular, low level exposure to the causes of asthma.
People are more likely to die of the bacterial infections that are pick up in hospital, or get sick from the recycled air in ‘planes than they are to get sick from anything in church. But there is still something non-rational that makes them concerned about the common cup.
I think it has to do with the increasing anxiety of our age. Because of our economic situation, people are more anxious about their ‘integrity’ (their ability to hold things together) than ever before. This comes out in our fear of migration, our willingness to want to rid ourselves of ‘99% of household germs’ and our fear of the common cup. The anxiety is free floating, and looking for a place to ‘latch onto’. But instead of ‘latching onto’; the genuine source of our anxiety: declining political and economic standards and an increased insecurity about work, or here in Switzerland the anxieties associated with moving from one country to another, the thing that is blamed is displaced. Hence people who are ‘worried in general’ can be placated by being ‘worried about the common cup.’
But in Church, the common cup is not the cause of worry, but its antidote! Sharing of the common cup expresses our solidarity with one another. That is comfort. It is an antidote to the individualism (read isolation) that increases anxiety. If anything, when the Church functions well as ‘Body of Christ’, of which the common cup is a symbol, we provide a way of looking at the world which is safer and more robust than the idea of a whole crowd of individuals, each pursuing their own goals, in the hope that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will provide the best outcome for all.
I think that the common cup should be kept, and held up as the true antidote to the fear that makes us also worry about the ‘99% of household germs’.