Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Disease and Communion

The Rev. Deacon Brendan emailed the following to me:

The "There Are No Stupid Questions" Column

Q. In light of discussion concerning the 'flu, do you think it possible to get ill from receiving Communion?

A. This is a timely question and one that touches the anxieties of a number of people.

There is a simple, faith-based answer: no one ever got ill from participating in the Body and Blood of Christ, 'the medicine of immortality' (as holy communion is called in our prayers) - unless of course they receive communion unworthily - cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27 - 30. We receive communion for our health and salvation.

In almost 2000 years of far worse things - real plagues and epidemics - let alone the annual regular cycles of colds and ' flus - it does not seem that communion has had any discernable impact on the transmission of disease via communion. After all, if communion were a vehicle of disease you would think the clergy would have been getting sick all the time and dropping like flies, since they have to consume the chalice etc....

However - I think it a blessing that this simple, faith-based answer can be augmented by some information from a medical perspective. I have attached to this column a reflection written several years ago by a friend who is a doctor in one of our parishes.

I myself still think that the best - the most appropriate, the most loving - preventative practice is for you and your children to stay away from gathering at the church and parish center if you are sick with a contagious disease or feel that you are coming down with something. This is better for you - rest is best! - and better for the people you would have had contact with if you went out while sick - and better for the anxieties and scruples of your brothers and sisters in Christ. The clergy will be happy to minister to you as a shut-in at home, if necessary.

Fr Andrew

...to the Healing of soul and body...

By Emanuel Kolyvas, M.D., The Sign of the Theotokos Church, Montreal

Contrary to popular opinion, wine, and other beverages of antiquity produced through fermentation, were probably more important in providing disease-free drinking fluids than in their tendency to intoxicate. Ancient Greeks drank their water mixed with wine, and also used wine to cleanse wounds and soak dressings. More recently, military physicians of the last century observed that during epidemics of cholera, wine drinkers were relatively spared by the disease, and troops were advised to mix wine into the water.

Wine has been shown to be an effective antiseptic even when the alcohol is removed. In fact, 10% alcohol is a poor antiseptic, and alcohol only becomes optimally effective at concentrations of 70%. The antiseptic substances in wine are inactive in fresh grapes because these molecules are bound to complex sugars. During fermentation these antiseptic substances are split off from the sugars and in this way become active. These molecules are polyphenols, a class of substances used in hospitals to disinfect surfaces and instruments. The polyphenol of wine has been shown to be some thirty-three times more powerful than the phenol used by Lister when he pioneered antiseptic surgery.

Same year wines can be diluted up to ten times before beginning to show a decrease in their antiseptic effect. The better wines gradually improve with age over the first ten years and can be diluted twenty times without a decrease of the antiseptic effect. This effect then remains more or less constant over the next twenty years and becomes equivalent to a new wine after another twenty-five years. (Modern antiseptics and antibiotics for disinfecting wounds have surpassed wine effectiveness because the active ingredients in wine are rapidly bound and inactivated by proteins in body tissues.)

In preparing communion, the hot water that is added to the wine will increase greatly the antiseptic effect of the polyphenols. Disinfection occurs more rapidly and more effectively at 45 degrees centigrade than at room temperature (22-25 degrees). Another contribution to the antiseptic effect comes from the silver, copper, zinc that make up the chalice itself, ensuring that microbes are unable to survive on its surface.

Throughout the centuries, no disease has ever been transmitted by the taking of Holy Communion. Diseases, such as Hepatitis B, known to be transmitted by shared eating utensils, have never been acquired from the communion spoon. HIV is known not to be transmitted through shared eating utensils, and considering the antiseptic qualities of the Holy Communion received by the faithful, there is no likelihood of acquiring HIV infection through the Common Cup.

Image: Chalice of Antioch, c. early 6th century

1 comment:

Meg said...

Thanks for asking someone about this issue. It seems to be a concern at my church, which uses a single chalice for the wine.

As a nurse I am NOT concerned about getting some disease from the chalice. I have yet to hear of anyone getting sick from Communion; sitting next to someone who is coughing and sneezing is another matter.

Definitely not a dumb question.