Wine at communion? A reflection

Today I did something I haven't done for nearly a year and a half: I took a chalice at Holy Communion, brought it to my lips, and drank from it. Don't worry: it wasn't wine. It was grape juice. What follows is a reflection from my own perspective: deacon, psychotherapist, lifelong participant in Protestant churches (Lutheran and Episcopal), and alcoholic. (I also studied sacramental theology about four years ago, and I read things, but don't expect the latest in the field here: this is just me sharing some of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Note also that I take to heart a line from page 103 of the Big Book of AA: "...we have stopped fighting anybody or anything. We have to!" This is not a manifesto, an argument, or the last word on anything. Take it or leave it.)

If you've spent a lot of time thinking or feeling about the topic of Holy Communion, you likely have an opinion about the wine. And the bread, too, I'll bet. And if you've been in church over the last few years, you've noticed that bread now comes in more than one form: gluten and non-gluten, wheat and rice. That's because we want to be sensitive to those who can't eat gluten, and that is good. Anything that helps Communion ministers be more sensitive is probably a good thing. But it raises the question: if it's good for the goose of bread, why not the gander of wine? Why not offer grape juice for those who can't consume alcohol?

There are a few reasons. Let's start with my favorite: recovering alcoholics are trained to be low-maintenance. You don't need to change your practices for us. It's our job to pay attention to what we put in our bodies, and since you told us that either bread or wine is sufficient to receive Holy Communion (You told us that, right? Go check your bulletin and put it in there if it's not there), we can just walk by the chalice, or cross our hands over our hearts, or whatever gesture you like to let you know that we are taking a pass. We can also simply kiss the chalice (the easiest way to make it appear to onlookers that we're just like them, if that's what some of us need to do). And there are some of us who, guess what, drink from the chalice, or dip the bread into it. They have enough time in sobriety that they can receive a bit of alcohol on their mouth and not relapse. And since their intention is not to drink (more than a small taste) or get drunk, they don't have to reset their sobriety date. They're just fine. This doesn't work for me, but that's me.

Here's another reason not to offer grape juice: it's not our festival drink. I think it's Gordon Lathrop who wrote the book that taught me this: Communion is about staple food and festival drink. It's about the community being fed, and all the spiritual--and literal--implications of that (Christianity is about sharing food with your neighbor); and Communion is also a celebration, a feast, so we want to crown that feast with a drink that lifts our spirits. For us humans across so many cultures, that drink is an alcoholic drink. If your community's staple food is rice, or if your community's festival drink is a craft beer, I think I'm right that it would be okay for you to use those at your liturgy of Holy Communion. But grape juice? It tastes sweet, and in sobriety I have lots of fizzy soda and fruit juice. But it rings a little hollow as a 'festival drink.'

There are also what I would call lesser reasons to serve only wine, reasons that don't really impress me much, such as the fact that Jesus used "bread" and "wine" in the biblical accounts of the first Eucharist, so we should too, and since gluten-free bread is still bread, it's okay, but grape juice fails the wine test. Meh. I'm not saying that's not a fair point, but it doesn't seem very robust. I expect Jesus (as I understand him) would want us to do what most easily binds as many people as possible together in God's love. Let's look at the whole board.

Here's yet another reason I thought of, a reason to not offer grape juice. It's a little abstract. It goes something like this: the Table of Holy Communion is a "foretaste of the feast to come," that is, a taste of what we will receive in abundance when God's dominion has finally dawned. Some of us see this future meal as a "heavenly banquet"; others imagine the reign of God's justice and peace here on earth. (Episcopalians like me hold both ideas together, in creative tension.) In any case, Holy Communion is meant (in part) to be a kind of teaser: this is a little bit of what is coming! For me, in this vision, I will be able to drink all the wine I want. Since I'll be in God's paradise, I will be able to drink all I want, and that will be enough. I will be truly freed from my obsession with alcohol, liberated from my physical addiction, and restored to the full person God created me to be. So I will be able to take a drink of the same substance that all of my neighbors enjoy, put my glass down, and smile. When I think of the "heavenly banquet" this way, there's something good and right about not being able to drink from the chalice now. There's something that rings true about my ability only to receive a taste of bread. All has not yet been restored. I'm not ready for even a taste of the wine. Not yet, at least.

Let me expand on this for a bit, with a quotation by Martin Luther: "This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified." I like that. And I can walk by the chalice with that in mind, and feel peace, even serenity.

And yet ... I have to say I really felt good drinking from the chalice this morning. I felt so included. I felt like I could participate equally with everyone else. It didn't feel like a "loser line," with some of us going to the wine and a few sadsacks trudging to the juice line. It felt great. It helped that at the church I attended, they handled it all so gracefully. I got a sense that the woman who served me grape juice does this as part of her ministry. Maybe she has wine duty on other Sundays, but in my imagination she and her friends relish the opportunity to serve juice to those who can't take part in the wine. Sacramental theologians would understand this, too, alongside their valid concerns about what elements should be served at Holy Communion, a meal ritual that has taken place every single day for the last two thousand years. I felt so...included.

And there have been times when I felt a little crestfallen, a little sad, when I couldn't receive wine. There have also been awkward moments: often churches don't work out ahead of time what the cup minister is supposed to do (if anything) when someone doesn't simply walk away, but remains at the Communion rail without an intention to drink from the cup. At St. Mark's Cathedral it's all worked out: they say the same words, and it's all very graceful and elegant. But there have been moments at other places where they pause uncomfortably, noticing the non-drinker kneeling there with arms folded, and simply walk on. It's fine: really, is this my biggest problem in life? If so, I am astonishingly wealthy and blessed. But it's a little awkward. And the sadness, light as it might feel, is actually about something serious: we church folk are all too susceptible to creating situations that communicate to some people that they are outsiders. Most of the time we want the exact opposite: we want everyone to feel truly welcome. But it can come across as an exclusion nonetheless.

I guess this all adds up to the fact that today, for now, I have at least a slight preference for including grape juice alongside wine. But I can be persuaded otherwise. My hope is that whatever your practice, you allow yourself to reflect on it. You may come to completely different conclusions than me. (I actually haven't reached a conclusion!) My hope is that all tables of Holy Communion draw more and more people closer to the feast God prepares for all creation.