It’s flu season, and it’s a tradition: Some Catholic always claims we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood at Mass. Why? Because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick.
And anyway, it’s alcohol, so that should kill any germs. And anyway! I mean really! How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?
At our parish, they stopped offering the cup during flu season, so the choice is out of our hands. There appears to be 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, there is some risk. I decided a few 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.
We know that what is inside that cup is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But 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?
To this, I respond: Let’s not invent sins that the Catechism never imagined. There are many reasons that the Eucharist (unlike the unprecedented house call described above) is offered so frequently, and that it’s offered under both kinds. One reason 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. This is for your own benefit, and also for the benefit all the other parishioners. 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.
We are all called upon to make sacrifices, including mortifying the flesh; but 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. Taking unnecessary risks with your health doesn’t sound like piety to me. It sounds like pride.
But what about the original argument, that we can acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, but it’s more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the Eucharist?
That would make Christ something of 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 we drag around – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is what we have to work with. 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 has germs in it. 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 trick. But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle. Miracles take nature and form it into something new, like clay becoming a cup. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.
Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God really does protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He rewards their trust with good health. After all, 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 thinking about germs. 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: He is here with us, right now. He is one of us.
Image: “The Increduity of St. Thomas” by Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.