Leftover Communion Elements
Q: Just wanted to let you know that your “Ask the Pastor” is great! You’ve already answered many questions that I’ve had but didn’t want to ask. A question that I have is what is the proper way of disposing the wine from the cup after Holy Communion? Is it proper to just pour it down the drain or should it be taken outside and poured on the grass? Keep up the good work!
A: Thank you for your interest and your question. When the Lord’s Supper is regularly celebrated, disposal of “leftovers” can be a major concern. This is especially true in churches that understand Christ’s words, “This is My body ... this is my blood,” to mean that in some mysterious, God-caused manner, the body and blood of Christ are really and actually present. Yet even among those who view Communion as strictly a memorial, the solemnity of the circumstances makes them leery of merely dumping wine down the drain.
If you use individual cups, some consider it proper to decant the contents of unused glasses into the original bottle or, better, pour it into one specially reserved for the remnant. The same can be done with the flagon (pitcher) used with the chalice (common cup).
The question usually turns on what to do when the chalice is still half-full after all have communed. Certainly, we don’t want to pour back what’s been passed from mouth to mouth in the congregation. Respect for our Lord and His Supper keeps most of us from wanting to dump it down the drain to mingle with the sewage.
Some congregations choose a cultivated area outside the building, such as a garden or a row of shrubbery. They treat this as a special place for receiving of the remnants of the Supper and will pour the wine out, perhaps with a prayer of thanks to the Lord who gives Himself in the Eucharist. Some churches go further and have a direct pipe from the church into the ground. Called a piscina (pronounced pih-SEE-nuh), nothing but the remaining communion wine or baptismal water is poured into it.
In my mind, the best alternative has the pastor and any communion assistants waiting until after the service, then drinking what remains. Again, this is done in a respectful manner. This also follows Christ’s bidding to “drink.”
While you haven’t asked about the consecrated bread — the body of our Lord — remaining after all have communed, we should also consider it. Some will scoop what remains on the paten (plate) into a pyx or ciborium (communion ware dedicated to holding the bread until distribution). There it will be held until the next service. Others place the consecrated hosts back into the same container as the supply of unconsecrated bread. I also read and hear about churches that dump it on the grounds for the birds or who give what remains to the children.
Catholicism normally holds the consecrated bread in a tabernacle, a box dedicated solely to that purpose. The sanctuary lamps or eternal flames common in many Christian churches these days actually come from the Catholic practice of lighting a special candle to signify to the priests and worshipers that consecrated bread remains. When the light is burning, many will bow or genuflect in the direction of the tabernacle. Additionally, one host is often withheld and placed on display in monstrance or ostensorium.
Again, as I consider Jesus’ words, I can’t get past “eat ... drink.” Where does God tell us to store, display, or venerate? The Sacrament of the Altar “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink. (Small Catechism)” Paul wrote, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)” Eat and drink, eat and drink, eat and drink — we should be getting familiar with the pattern by now.
Furthermore, I think that we do well to consider the Old Testament roots of the Eucharist. Christ intentionally chose the Passover as the meal upon which to base the New Testament of His body and blood. One of God’s commands for eating the Passover was that the lamb must be entirely consumed or destroyed: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt ... ‘You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn ... it shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house. (Exodus 12:1, 10, 46)” See also Exodus 34:25; Numbers 9:12; Deuteronomy 16:4.
All things considered, eating and drinking all of the body and blood before the close of the service is probably the best choice. Second to that, I suggest finishing the remnant immediately after the service. After these, I hesitate to make suggestion, since I believe that none of the remaining options adequately deals with the remaining elements.
Explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar quoted from The Small Catechism, © 1986 by Concordia Publishing House.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Expanded from newspaper column #9:1