The following post originally appeared May 13, 2016, on the author’s blog as part of a series on communion.
What is intinction?
Intinction is the style of communion where a person takes a piece of bread (often ripping it off of the loaf) and dips it into a communal cup of wine (or often grape juice). This practice is seen as early as the writing of Julius I in around 340 A.D. It way predates our use of individual cups in the pews, which doesn’t date until the 1890s.
Recently I have become aware that the practice of intinction bothers some people. People are touching the loaf and sharing germs. People often end up putting their fingers (and fingernails) into the cup, especially if they only rip off a small piece of bread. If we used wine it would kill more germs, but not all. The other problem is that some people rip off a very large piece of bread and have to awkwardly dip it and take a long time to consume it. Some people don’t care for the texture of soggy bread, and I always end up having to wipe juice off of the floor after we have intinction. I am just glad that we do not have carpeting.
When I first heard about these complaints from people in my church, I brushed it off. These people just need to get over it, right? But the more I thought about it, the more that I found that needing to “get over it” to come to the communion table is contrary to the message of the table. Communion should be a symbol of welcome, of love, and of gratitude. You don’t have to “get over” the junk in your life—sin, bad habits, guilt, shame. The whole story is that Jesus paid for those on the cross. He “got over” those things for you.
For many people, intinction becomes a time of stress, worry, and disgust. The symbol is backfiring. For many people in the pews today, communion by intinction represents the opposite of what it is meant to represent.
We could change the practice. The bread could be pre-cut. The server could dip the bread. But, in the end, I think I am not doing it anymore. I am doing communion, but that particular expression or style of communion is leaving my practice. I know that some people will love this decision, others won’t understand it, and still others will dislike it. I am personally sad to see intinction go. But the symbol is such a problem for so many people that I am willing to let it go for their sakes.
This is important not just for the practice of communion. This is exactly the kind of discussion that the church needs to be in right now. The church is full of symbols. We have hymns, liturgy, architecture, personal disciplines . . . . We have stories and metaphors. But the problem with all language, and especially with symbolic language or practice, is that it changes.
Different words, actions, and symbols mean different things in different place and at different times. For example, if I wear a shirt with a rainbow on it, it means something today that it did not mean just a few years ago. The word artificial used to mean “artfully and skillfully constructed,” but now it basically means the opposite.
We have lost touch with our symbols. Do people in our churches know why we light candles at the beginning of worship, why we pass the peace, or why we do communion after the sermon? Do people know that our worship spaces are modeled after the Jewish temple, that our ceilings are meant to look like the inside of a ship, or that stained glass was at one time the only Bible people had?
The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?
This is scary for people because it might mean we have to change. Here is the reality: many of the things we hold as sacred are not actually sacred. They may represent something sacred—like communion representing the saving life and work of Jesus. But their particular expressions are not. We know that Jesus served communion with a meal in between the elements, so it was clearly NOT inctinction. The symbols were developed to signify the sacred for a particular time and place. Maybe they don’t work as well or mean something else for our time and place.
If others want to do intinction then that is fine. I might revisit it again later, perhaps with some adaptation to help people accept it. But for now, I am going to set it aside.
Jordan Rimmer ’12 is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in New Brighton, Pa. He earned his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is currently working on getting his Doctor of Ministry. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was the director of outreach and youth ministries at Glenwood Methodist Church in Erie, Pa. He is a husband and father of four children. Jordan blogs at jordanrimmer.com and tweets at @jrimmer21. His sermons are available for download on iTunes or at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com.
6 thoughts on “Why I am Not Doing Intinction Anymore”
Perhaps intinction once or twice a year as one of several ways occasionally offered to receive the sacrament. I think anytime we fall in a routine of receiving the sacrament only one way, we fall also fall into a rut. Occasionally changing the way it is distributed, received, and even the elements themselves can help highlight the many meanings of the sacrament, all of which we are not capable of alluding to or focusing on in any one service or style of distributing and receiving.
Interesting article Jordan, more from the aspect of what we fuss about than from considerations of communion. Having dealt with similar complaints from germophobes et al, I get your concerns. My first recollection dates to my first Maundy Thursday communion service as a pastor. That particular worship time is especially meaningful in my opinion. Accordingly I spend significant time on laying it out every year. That first service I chose to do intinction in small groups of 12 at a time. The bread was pitas.
Easter Monday, I received an anonymous letter taking me to the woodshed. Not because of intinction, but because we ” …should have been using unleavened bread.” To this day, I am not sure why. On the positive side, it gave me a great opening to preach on the subject of idolatry in the modern church.
Nowadays I celebrate communion by intinction on every other month. IN this practice we pre-cut the bread into uniform cubes. and have several stations for people to move towards as well as 2 servers to take the elements to the mobility impaired. To be honest, inasmuch as you can never make everyone happy, don’t try. Let the session set the course and stick t it.
Keep up the good work!
Intinction makes me uncomfortable because the one time it is used in the bible is when Jesus is identifying Judas as the betrayer and when Judas took it, Satan entered into him. I’m sure God in his grace overlooks this and only judges the hearts of people but I can’t help but feel uneasy at worst and annoyed at best that this symbolism is lost on people, especially in traditions where symbolism is everything.
Years ago one of my churches resolved their intinction germ fears proactively. A day or two before the service sliced bread was cut into 1.5″ squares and arranged on service trays to dry. The pieces were large enough for easy pickup and not touching the juice surface at the same time they were small enough to not break or drip juice. We also provided small wipes for each person to clean their fingers before they picked up the bread. Once the changes became part of our routine, we no longer heard fears or complaints and we got compliments from visitors. The congregation preferred the “increased intimacy” of intinction and concluded there’s really no totally germ free way to serve communion on. So after applying best practices we chose to believe we were protected.
Modern church problems. Sheesh. I guess people STILL don’t realize a sterile environment is counterproductive to your immune system? Shame the ancient liturgical practices like intinction are stressful for “smart” modern people.