Precious Blood in the time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 spreading, more parishes are cautiously telling the congregation to skip or modify the sign of peace, and announcing that the Eucharist will only be distributed under the species of bread, not wine. 

This has happened in other years, when other sicknesses were circulating, and every year, there are complaints. Some Catholics claim we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood, because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick. Only those approaching the altar with a poor and feeble faith would be afraid to drink from the cup. How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

The answer is that faith might trump science, but it’s presumptuous to assume that it will. So let’s be clear: If I say that I know I’ll be preserved from transmission of disease because it’s Jesus, I’m saying that I know I’ll receive a miracle. 

But let’s set aside this faith-based argument for a moment and address a the second argument I often hear, which is that there’s also no scientific reason to skip the Precious Blood, because the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs anyway. I was surprised to learn that there is a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, low risk is some risk, and some diseases carry more of a threat than others. I decided several years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

Let’s talk about what is actually in that cup. We know that it is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But we also know it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

But this is pride disguised as piety. Unlike the unprecedented house call described above, the Eucharist is offered frequently, every day or at least every week; and it’s offered under both kinds. One reason for this is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating.

If we’re going to call the integrity of our fellow Catholics into question, then here’s a better question: How can we say we love and cherish the Church while sneering at the accommodations she offers us? You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now, and happy to know that you take the health and safety of your brethren seriously. 

Because there’s the more pressing concern. If we do get sick, we risk passing along our sickness to others, to the elderly, to people with compromised immune systems, to babies. When we make willing sacrifices, we must be sure that we’re the ones who will suffer, not other people. Deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees.

So maybe you’re convinced that, for practical and ethical reasons, it does make more sense to avoid drinking from a communal cup. But something about it still feels off. It’s very hard to shake the feeling that, even as we acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, surely it’s still somehow more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the sacrament.

But it’s really not. Here is why:

If the Eucharist were only spiritual and edifying, then Christ would be a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat that is us – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is really us. Jesus’ body was really Jesus. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood can have germs. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a magic trick.

But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Maybe God really will protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He will reward their trust with good health. Miracles like this are possible. Saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by taking germs seriously. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: Jesus is here with us, right now. He is one of us.


Image: Detail of photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

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18 thoughts on “Precious Blood in the time of Coronavirus”

  1. Two thoughts:

    1.) The only legitimate argument I can think of for keeping the cup is for the sake of those who can’t recieve the host because of gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy. Which gets into everything you just wrote out, but with the host.

    2.) The sunbeam hymen thing really, really, really gets under my skin. To the point that the whole “physically virgin after birth” thing makes me irrationally angry when I see it discussed. Why is the hymen so flipping important? What about her uterus stretching to hold baby Jesus, and the skin on her belly, or her breasts from nursing? If it was some sort of heavenly C-section, which I’ve seen defended, what the heck happened to the placenta? There’s a certain point in those conversations where Mary’s yes loses some of its meaning and sacrifice, and where even the humanity of Christ is threatened (“it was a mystical pregnancy!!” A Gnostic what now?).

    I don’t have a problem with the no pain in childbirth one, or her healing miraculously fast, I do have a problem with her not really giving birth at all. I think it’s an area that needs some female theologians who have borne children.

  2. There’s been no holy water in the fonts for months now. Nobody is giving the sign of peace, except via a nod. I don’t know about everyone else but I feel quite anxious about it all. Particular for the older generation and small children.

    On a side, I wander what the orthodox Churches are going to do? They give the wine using a spoon poured directly into mouth and you take a piece of leavened bread from a basket afterwards. Both methods could potentially spread the virus. Does that mean no Eucharist for the Orthodox faithful at all???
    I know it’s uncharitable of me (and political incorrect), but this is all because certain cultures are permitted to eat bat wing soup. It’s actually quietly infuriating. I mean really..

    1. “Certain cultures are permitted to eat bat wing soup.” That’s not just politically incorrect, it’s completely unsubstantiated. No credible source has shown a link between eating bats and the virus. It’s far more likely that some unfortunate person was bitten, and the disease was transmitted that way, IF bats are indeed the source of the virus, which has also not been firmly established. If you want to be infuriated at someone, direct it toward the Chinese government and their oppressive control of information, which interfered with a timely and effective response to the spread of the disease.

      1. Well said, Simcha. It could very well be that COVID-19 has been in the general population for much longer than we think, thanks to their suppression of information. I personally think it’s already here, and we’ve just mistaken it for a ‘bad flu season.’

          1. I know a family who got sick with something they said kept coming back…over and over…weaker each time, but same symptoms. The kids didn’t keep getting it, but the adults did. I have heard that the coronavirus can act like this, so it makes you wonder. We had quite a few schools around here close down for days due to staff and students being out so much, and they sanitized the schools and buses. This was back in January.

            1. Covid 19 did originally come from bats, but it was transferred to humans via palm civets (ferret/like things) sold at a wild meat market.

              1. Civets were definitely the source of SARS. Not sure why they kept on selling those things at markets, but it’s likely because all the pigs in China died from swine fever. And pork is/was one of the main sources of meat in China.

                In any case, it’s incumbent on us to pray for everyone who is affected by hunger, disease and poverty. Whether we agree with their dietary choices or not, whether we like their government’s policies or not.

                1. And yes definitely pray for the sick, poor and hungry. Absolutely. But we are responsible for our food consumption and hygiene.


        The Chinese government is absolutely to blame. They were shutting down reports from doctors when it first broke out.
        They also shouldn’t be allowing people to sell bats, snakes and rats for human consumption. SARS is thought to have originated from bats also. Not from bites. They are being traded for food and medicine. Humans shouldn’t eat bats. But you know it’s never “confirmed”. Poorly regulated live-animal markets mixed with illegal wildlife trade is HOW viruses spill over from wildlife hosts into the human population. So yeah infuriated at Chinese government for not educating its people for their health and for the rest of the world. If you are a Chinese citizen they regulate every inch of your life. Except these dirty markets. When it comes to our health I’ll cop the political incorrect tag.

    2. There’s another point of misinformation here, and that’s about the Eastern practice of Communion. In Orthodox (and Eastern Catholic) Churches, wine is not “poured” into communicants’ mouths; rather, the Precious Body and Precious Blood are mashed up together in the chalice, and pieces of Blood-soaked Body are skilfully flicked into communicants’ mouths with a long-handled metal spoon. There is no physical contact between the spoon and the communicant’s mouth, nor between the priest’s hands and the species — in some ways, it is a much more hygienic method than our own. (The bread basket that you speak of is not part of the Sacrament, but just there to give communicants something to eat, because Eastern liturgies are long and they have been fasting in preparation for Communion. It is, so far as I can understand, not a necessary part of the proceedings.)

  3. The text from “Away in a Manger” that mentions the “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” was a heresy called Apollinarianism, after Apollinaris the Younger. He believed that Jesus was not fully human but had a divine spirit within a human body. His theory was ruled a heresy at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. Yet still we all sing it every Christmas…

  4. From what I understand, flu has little potential to spread from either the rim of the chalice or the wine. The risk is that lots of people touch the chalice itself with their hands, and then touch their eyes or noses or mouths. And antibacterial hand sanitizer doesn’t kill viruses.

    1. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers will kill most viruses, but not all. Influenza and Covid 19 are killed by alcohol-based hand sanitizers. I would agree with you that the risk is largely due to the sheer number of people handling the chalice and then touching their faces

  5. Yaaaaay! This RN approves. 🙂 Seriously tho, stay home if you have so much as a cold. The particulates are too small to be stopped by masks, and there are lots of confirmed cases of people with not as much as a runny nose carrying and shedding the virus. Wash your hands, your doorknobs, toilet flushers and sinks. And if you have a cold, maybe skip visiting Grandma and call her instead.

    Thank you! We are gifted with faith AND reason, and we are physical beings, and so is Christ. I love that you can integrate infection control and theology.

  6. Thank you for this! It’s important to remember, as I remind my kids, that Jesus is completely present in both the Body and the Blood, so you need not receive both. My ultra-trad relatives screech at this, but it’s true. It’s like they think you’re dodging Jesus if you don’t take the cup as well. Frankly, the way I see people chug the chalice at Mass, I wonder if some of them just aren’t enjoying having a little drink at church.

    1. I have never known ultra-trads to be at all interested in the wine. Usually they prefer the body only, because tradition. Interesting.

      1. I’m just going by my close relatives, who are very scrupulous (sp?) to the point where one of my brothers-in-law tries to go to Mass every day, and confession as well if he can. That seems….a bit much to me, but what do I know. When one of my kids got his first communion at a church that was offering both Body and Blood to the kids, he asked me ahead if he “had” to take the wine, because he didn’t think as a kid, he should be drinking wine. We told him, sure, you don’t have to, only to have the RE director tell him differently during rehearsal. That they HAD to get in line for the cup after receiving the host. Luckily, the kid he was behind took such a long time with the cup–like, he was realllly liking that sacramental wine, there–that our kid was able to slip away and return to our pew after receiving the host and nobody noticed. Ha!

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