Thinking Through Intinction

Thinking Through Intinction

Intinction is the practice of celebrating communion (aka, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, etc.) by dipping a piece of bread into the wine and then putting the winesoaked bread into the mouth. This is becoming more popular in my own denomination. Hopefully this essay will help in thinking through the practice.

In any kind of important ritual like baptism or the Lord’s supper, we want to perform the rite in the proper way. In the Old Testament, through the prophets, God often critiqued both the way in which his people were partaking of the various ceremonies and the heart with which they approached these things. For instance, the temple was in Judah, not Israel, so often God’s prophets spoke against Israel’s presumption to create a rival altar. We’ll leave aside the “heart” issue in this post because we’re really asking more about the mechanics of the sacrament. How should we perform it? The mechanics affect the heart, but that’s a different post.

We have to figure out which items are so central to the rite that without them, the rite ceases to exist. For instance, it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to conclude that at least some amount of water will need to be used in baptism. How do we think through this with regards to the Lord’s Supper?


This diagram shows several concentric circles to assist in visualizing what aspects of the rite are central (near point A) and which aspects are more peripheral to the rite (near point E). One of the New Testament texts about the celebration of the eucharist is I Corinthians 11:23-34. The writer, the Apostle Paul, is dealing with a particular church and its celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He is writing to tell them to clean up their act – all the rich people are eating together and leaving out the poor, some eat before the others, etc. In other words, they had corrupted the rite – using it to distinguish one group from another. In the process, though, we learn a lot about the rite itself:

I Corinthians 11:20-34: When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, uanother gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise vthe church of God and whumiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

First thing to note – Paul based his instructions about the Lord’s Supper on the celebration of the rite that Jesus had along with his disciples on “the night he was betrayed.” Thus, we should take the gospel accounts of the Last Supper into consideration too. There are three parallel accounts:

Matthew 26:26-30: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

Mark 14:22-26: And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

Luke 22:17-20: And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Now, taking into account all this biblical data, we see several things that make up the rite. I will list some aspects of the rite without comment and without implying any kind of centrality. I’m sure we could list even more if we tried, but these are the major aspects.

1. Communion has a meal context; all of the action takes place after a meal, sitting around a table.
2. The rite involves some kind of bread
3. The rite involves some kind of wine.
4. The rite involves eating
5. The rite involves drinking
6. The person leading the rite gives thanks twice: once for the bread, once for the wine.
7. Two gospel writers think to mention that Jesus and his disciples sung a hymn after the rite.
8. The bread and wine are distributed to the partakers somehow.
9. The supper, instituted at night, came to be celebrated in corporate worship.
10. There are words spoken – “this is my body, etc.”
11. There is an order to the proceedings: take, talk, pray, distribute, eat bread, take, talk, pray, distribute, drink cup

Historically, the church has considered the various aspects identified here to be more or less central to the rite, depending upon the branch of the church. If we think about intinction, it affects a great number of these areas:

First, there is the question of eating and drinking. Obviously, putting a soggy piece of bread into your mouth is not eating and drinking, but does this matter? Second, there is the question of ritually separating the eating and drinking, and separating the distribution and thanksgiving for each element. If it is part of the essence of the rite to eat and drink separately, then intinction makes this impossible. Third, there is the problem of the order of the rite. In Jesus’s celebration of the rite, he gives thanks for the element, distributes it, then they eat it. He does this twice, once for bread, once for wine. In intinction, very often a “common cup” is used. That means, the bread is distributed and broken apart so that everyone has a piece of bread. Then, the cup is passed around and the congregation dips the bread into the cup prior to partaking. In that scenario, the pastor can take, pray, then distribute both elements, but this cannot achieve the ordering of take, pray, distribute, consume, take pray, distribute, consume. The consumption is always reserved for the end of the process.

Back to our analogy with Baptism for a moment, we would probably not consider a real baptism to have taken place if someone were doused with sand in the Triune name. Or, at the very least, we would introduce doubts as to whether a real baptism has taken place. This would be pastorally dangerous, and it wouldn’t be an improper impulse for the one baptized with sand to wonder if he or she really was baptized.

What could we do to the communion rite to put it into that category – of a celebration where the congregation could legitimately be left wondering if they actually just had communion. Let’s go through the aspects of the rite one by one:

1. Communion as a meal.

This is one of the most frequently brushed over aspects of the supper. For example, some churches practice the meal aspect rather strictly. The soft form of this is to take communion while seated in the pews (as opposed to marching everyone up to the front of the church to partake while kneeling), and the harder form is to actually bring plank tables down the center of each aisle and then have everyone gather together around those tables in the aisle for a more meal-like situation. Once church in St. Louis encourages its members to talk during the communion meal because this is more like a meal where people are carrying on polite table conversation. This doesn’t really affect the intinction discussion, but it is important to note this aspect of the supper along the way. Intinction is a very pointed question, but the larger issue of how to properly perform the rite of the Lord’s Supper is worth considering. If we turn communion into a private act of devotion, say at a rail, where all the elements are distributed by a single ‘waiter’ to a single eater, then we lose the communal aspects of the meal and we make it that much easier to fall into the problems Paul warns about at Corinth, not discerning the body of believers properly and eating and drinking by ourselves.

2. The kind of bread

This is an interesting discussion and it really all comes down to two questions – what kind of bread did the early church use in its celebration of the Lord’s Supper and what kind did Jesus use. This gets into a technical discussion about what “unleavened bread” is in the scriptures. Some think that unleavened means “without yeast” and some think it means “without starter.” A starter is a living lump of yeast-dough that you might use to make sourdough bread. Using a starter links the new loaf to the old loaf and it gives a good character to the bread’s flavor. One of my favorite pancake places is in Birmingham, AL, and they actually age their batter overnight and allow the yeast to begin imparting a bit of fermentation and character to the batter. When Jesus warns about the leavening of the Pharisees, he might be using an analogy there to break with the old lump and bake bread with fresh yeast – break with the traditions of the Pharisees, in other words. Elsewhere in the scriptures we are “one loaf” but I suppose you could have a loaf of yeastless bread. There’s also the problem that in the ancient world (and in our world) it is very hard to do anything without yeast. Yeast is everywhere and every kind of bread has some degree of yeast in it. This doesn’t affect intinction, but it is interesting. Personally, I think it is important to use some kind of bread, not a cracker, and the happier bread the better.

3. The kind of wine

This is also an interesting discussion and it is conducted with a lot of passion in America with its peculiar history of prohibition. In fact, “grape juice” was invented in America by a dentist who figured out how to bottle it and stop the fermentation process. Notice I said “stop” the process because as soon as grapes are crushed, fermentation begins as the yeast in the environment goes to work. And as soon as you open a bottle of grape juice, the fermentation begins again. You have to try hard to not make wine when you’ve crushed some grapes. The only relevance to intinction here is that in studies of disease transmission in the various modes of communion, intinction is the least safe. People’s cuticles and the areas under their fingernails are crawling with germs and if the piece of bread is too small you end up dunking the filthiest part of your body into the cup. And so just be sure to use a very strong, fortified wine if intinction is your thing because human fingernails are scary places. As for how central this is to the rite, that’s a good question. Jesus used wine, he made wine, and the bible is full of the symbolism of wine’s making the heart glad. Grape juice is not wine, it is a precursor. It would be like using grain sheaths instead of bread. Plus, wine is a product of human technology. Both of the elements of communion are the result of human ingenuity – baking bread and making wine are parts of culture that apparently God wants to spread all over the earth. Having bread and wine implies the presence of a whole complex of supporting institutions and it is the fruit of human labor. Wine is important. Is grape juice a “kind” of wine? Because you can’t avoid fermentation, I guess so, but here’s the “kind” of wine that grape juice is: bad wine. Do you want to have bad wine at a happy meal with the king of creation?

4. Eating and Drinking

This seems to be important. Over and over Paul says things like “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” The eating and drinking are tied very closely to Jesus’s body and blood that serve as the central ritual aspects of the supper. A “Jesus centered” Lord’s supper would focus intently on the aspects of the supper that point plainly to the symbolism inherent in the sacrificial aspects of Jesus’s work. Paul seems to have in mind that you eat bread and drink wine. Of course, the fact that it never occurred to Paul to dip the bread into the cup and drink/eat all at once doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong, but again, we’re trying to figure out which parts of the supper are more central, not necessarily wrong or right (though we have to be open to the idea that there are wrong ways to celebrate the supper, surely). I think we can assume that intinction is not eating and drinking, it is some third thing. It reminds me of the old Anglo-Saxon wine-sop tradition. And so if eating and drinking are central to the rite, then intinction potentially derails the sacrament.

5. The person leading the rite gives thanks twice: once for the bread, once for the wine

Listen intently in your church service to see that God is thanked for each element separately. This is something Jesus did very plainly and Paul repeats. It is hard to know why this is important and how it ritually changes us, but there is something going on here that we should probably not tinker with too much. Certainly, you can do this in an intinction service, and so this point does not really count either way, but it is worth emphasizing that this is important. The Puritans, for instance, were real sticklers on this point, requiring two separate prayers. And this is wise. It isn’t always clear why a ritual changes us, and when something is so plainly an important part of the ritual, given by example of Jesus, then it is vital not to do otherwise.

6. Two gospel writers think to mention that Jesus and his disciples sung a hymn after the rite.

Hah, no need to comment here, but it is interesting. After I really noticed this, I stopped telling my kids not to sing at the table. I simply say “we can’t sing at the table unless we’re all singing the same song.” The rite of communion is happy. It should not be penitential. If you don’t feel like singing afterwards… If you haven’t drunk a little wine… If you don’t feel like you just ate dinner with the king of all the world, then something is wrong. Far worse a problem than the “mode” of communion in my denomination is the mood of communion. It’d better be happy and too many Presbyterian churches have morose communion.

7. The bread and wine are distributed to the partakers somehow.

The mode of distribution will of course differ depending upon the size of the crowd, the shape of the room, whether people are sitting or standing, whether the people come to the front, whether the elements are distributed to them, etc. A few comments. When people come to the front, they are continually served by the host. When elements are passed out in the pews, they are serving one another. It gives an opportunity to ritually introduce some table conversation. Often this is done with “the peace of Christ” said to the person as you hand them the tray. So distribution is important and it needs to support the aims of whatever aspects of the supper you think are central. If the meal aspect is central, then distribution needs to not get in the way of that aspect. It’s important that the ritual logic of your distribution matches the aims and goals of the ritual itself. With intinction, the only issue here is that you have to figure out how to get each person a piece of bread prior to their getting a cup. Not a real problem.

8. The supper, instituted at night, came to be celebrated in corporate worship.

From very early in the church, the ‘breaking of bread’ came to be done at the early morning, first-day-of-the-week worship services (Acts 2:42). Jesus instituted the supper at an evening meal and from pretty much then on Christians have done it when they gather (usually in the morning). This shows us that the ritual setting for the supper is more important than the time of day. It is a meal with Jesus and not simply a biological family meal. And when we gather together is usually in a corporate service to strengthen the whole body. This proves to us that the meal has more or less central aspects. Thankfully we don’t have to figure that one out – the bible records the deviation from the original event very clearly. But it shows us a pattern for adapting the supper to various contexts.

9. There are words spoken – “this is my body, etc.”

Ususally in Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper we repeat these words of Jesus. Often, we do this by quoting from the passage of Paul’s letter where he reminds the Corinthian church about the supper. This is central to the rite in most churches – a silent meal would be strange. It probably doesn’t make sense to focus on the centrality of the words; that’s not something that has ever been in doubt. But the words are in a context and that brings us to the next part – the order in which the words, prayers, distribution, and partaking happen.

10. There is an order to the proceedings: take, talk, pray, distribute, eat bread, take, talk, pray, distribute, drink cup

The order of a ritual is extremely important in its meaning. Think of the ritual of making gumbo. You have to get the roux the color of a copper penny before you can begin adding the other ingredients. It would be hard to get a roux looking right if you’re constantly stirring okra around the pot over the butter and flour. In the Lord’s Supper the ritual order in both Paul’s presentation and in the gospel accounts has Jesus talking about the element, thanking his Father for it, distributing it, and then the crowd consuming it. Then he does this again. Thinking of the best possible intinction order of service possible, we would have this: minister takes element, talks, prays, distributes, minister takes element, talks, prays, distributes, and then consumption is added at the end – both elements are eating/drunk together. This is definitely a different order of the service. And so if ritual order is central to the sacrament’s celebration, intinction presents a signficant problem.

Bringing this All Together

If you’re thinking through whether intinction is a good idea, then the way to proceed is to look at the list of communion aspects above and try to assign a letter to them from A to E that will help you plot the aspects of the supper onto our centrality chart. The nearer an aspect is to the center of the chart, the more closely you need to hew to the example in scripture in order to do the rite properly. Go ahead, drag the elements around in the chart if you’re using a decent browser, I’ve defaulted them to a random positioning:

Kind of Bread
Kind of Wine
Order of Proceedings
Two Prayers
Sing a Hyman Afterwards

Randomize Again

(Go ahead, drag these aspects around the chart)

Intinction implies that the order of the ceremony is not in the most central place. It also implies that true eating and drinking are not as central as some other aspects of the rite.

Order in rites is something God takes very seriously. We know this from the book of Leviticus where we see God’s taking pains to teach the people the proper way of approaching him through a series of different kinds of sacrifices. And inside of each sacrifice, God does things in a particular order – animals are slaughtered on tables, drained of blood, then the blood is sprinkled here and there and certain parts are put on the altar fire, etc. God shows himself to be the kind of God that when he gives a ritual, he expects it to be performed in a certain order. Or, put more positively, God shows himself to be a teacher wanting to take his students through a particular story over and over, and he wants them to get this story right so they don’t get the wrong idea about him. I’m not sure exactly how moving all consumption to the end of the rite of communion changes the story, but my uncertainty about that gives me pause when considering whether or not to depart from the example given by Jesus.

As for eating and drinking, we are not gnostics, as Christians. We believe that our bodies are important and the things we do with them are important and the order in which we do them is important. And so eating with our jaws, and drinking with our lips – these are really meaningful activities. Intinction changes the relationship of the human body to the elements from the original celebration’s example. This is not trivial.

It is clear from my comments here, that the way I would assess the centrality of the various aspects of communion leads me to think that intinction is a bad idea. If you do not put “eating and drinking” and “order of proceedings” into the most central place in your consideration of the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, then I would recommend a few things: be sure that you do two prayers; this couldn’t be clearer from Jesus’s example. Also, try very hard to make the celebration as meal-like as possible. Use a good strong wine to avoid any problem with cuticles (yuck) going into the common cup. Be sure that you get as close to the order used by Jesus as possible. Remember, you are making the choice to differ substantially from that order in order to use intinction as a method. May as well do your best to adhere where you can. Use a good strong bread so that the jaws are involved. You can at least have eating even if drinking is harder. To me, the worst of all possible combinations is to have communion at a rail with intinction. You lose the corporate aspect of the prayer and distribution, you lose the meal-like aspects, and you lose eating and drinking. Do it with grape juice and you might as well be inventing a new rite altogether.

What do you think? Is intinction licit? Is it wise? What might be the long-term effects of a liturgical change like introducing intinction into a congregation? What have been the long-term effects of taking wine out of the rite in America?