If You Must Intinct

All of the methods for sharing the bread and wine of communion have their strengths and weaknesses, and I am speaking now purely about the practicalities of administering the sacrament. I’ll leave the parsing of the theological meaning of the different methods to others. To me, bread is bread. Wine is wine. How it gets in my mouth is not itself significant. Christ feeds us according to his promise regardless. This is my body broken for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.

As a frequent visitor to United Methodist churches, I have observed that most congregations now receive communion through intinction. “Intinction” is just a churchy way of saying dipping the bread in the wine.

This is a change from my earliest years in pastoral ministry in United Methodist churches, in which the use of Baptist-style trays of mini-cups and Catholic-style communion hosts (or wafers) prevailed. I assume that the thinking behind this change has to do with a preference for a common cup and a common loaf, consistent with our liturgical renewal, combined with a fear of the germs that might be spread through drinking from the same vessel.

The purpose of this post is to share some observations and recommendations for intinction – if you must instinct.

Too often, as the cup approaches me, I look down into an unsavory soup of grape juice and floating bread parts. As I look at my neighbor, I see that he’s dipped his bread just a bit too far and the juice is dripping from his fingers, which were hopefully clean before they were baptized in the communion cup. When I pull my own piece of bread from the soup, it’s soaked up more juice than it can hold, and now I have my own drippage problem. When I put the sopping-wet bread into my mouth, well, it’s not a pleasant experience. Tactilely, it’s a blob of goo (and something that I would not ordinarily consume). And it just doesn’t taste very good. Rich, sweet yeast bread: good. Thick, sweet grape juice (or quality wine): good. Together: not so good. Maybe your experience is different. À chacun son gout.

As I said, Christ feeds us according to his promise regardless of the method, but there are probably some ways to improve the experience.

First, the bread matters. There are basically two kinds of bread (loaf and flat), in addition to communion hosts. Loaf bread ranges from rich, spongy white to dense, grainy brown. Whatever kind of bread you choose for intinction, it should pass three physical tests:

  • The Crumb Test. When dipped in the cup, the bread should not shed crumbs. The fewer crumbs the better.
  • The Toilet Paper Test. When dipped in the cup, the bread should not come apart like wet toilet paper.
  • The Liquid Retention Test. The bread should be able to retain almost all of the liquid that it initially absorbs.

In my experience, various types of flat breads (or commercially produced communion hosts) are best physically. Flat breads have an almost rubbery texture so that they hold together, even when wet. They don’t absorb much liquid, so there is not as great a drippage problem. Even though I would ordinarily prefer to eat a chunk of fresh-baked French bread than a pinch of fresh pita or tortilla, that’s no longer true if I have to soak the bread in grape juice.

Second, the choice of wine or juice also affects the taste and texture of the moistened bread. Pure Concord grape juice is extremely sweet and has an almost syrup-like quality. Wine made from Concord grapes is also sweet and dense. Personally, I like the taste of Welch’s when I drink it by itself. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t think it tastes very good as a soak for an equally rich piece of bread.

The richer the bread, the “drier” (unsweet) the wine or juice should probably be. And the more liquid that the bread absorbs, the lighter the texture of the liquid should be. If you are going to use rich, sweet, spongy bread for intinction, it is probably best paired with a light-bodied, dry wine or grape juice. A less flavorful bread can probaly take a more flavorful wine, either sweet or dry. And breads that don’t absorb much liquid can handle a heavier, more syrupy wine. Even if you only use unfermented grape juice, rememer that you are not necessarily stuck with Welch’s or Concord grapes. There may be other options available. Taste the combination that you use and see if it is actually palatable.

But I wonder why it is necessary to practice intinction at all.

When you move beyond a small gathering, the common cup and the common loaf aren’t all that common, even for the bread-dippers. When the crowd is big enough to require multiple communion stations, you’ve already lost whatever symbolism is present in the common cup and the common loaf. I’ve seen communion tables in large gatherings with dozens of so-called common cups waiting to be consecrated. Multiple common-cups is an oxymoron. What, then, is the symbolic advantage of multiple intinction chalices over multiple drinking cups, even over the trays of individual cups which are now out of fashion?

I also wonder if the supposed sanitary advantages of intinction are in fact illusory. I’ve taken communion by drinking from the same chalice with Lutherans and Episcopalians for decades, and I’ve never suffered any ill effects. It’s hard for me to believe that fingers are more sanitary than lips, and I am certain that countless fingers wind up stained in the communion cup every first Sunday in United Methodist churches.

If you must instinct, there are practical ways to reduce this finger dipping. Make the chalice big enough for communicants to see what they are doing. Keep the amount of juice in the chalice small, to discourage over-soaking the bread. And distribute pieces of bread that are large enough that the communicants’ fingers don’t have to get near the surface of the liquid.

Or you could always do what the Catholics do. Intinction is one method of reception allowed under Catholic canon law, but not self-intinction. The priest dips the host in the wine and places the host directly on the tongue of the waiting communicant. The communicant never touches the host or the chalice. That way, you only have to worry about the celebrant’s germs.

When all is said and done, however, I think there’s something to be said for actually eating the bread and drinking the wine – fully tasting and experiencing each – and not sliding the whole thing down the throat like a holy oyster. Truly, Jesus feeds us according to his promise regardless, but I think that it’s fitting to fulfill another word of scripture at the communion table: Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).