Once the bread and wine are consecrated (blessed) for Communion, they cannot be disposed of in the usual ways that we dispose of things. Having been set aside for sacred service, they must be treated with care. In other words, they can’t be thrown in the trash or poured down the drain into the sewer. They must be either consumed, or returned to the earth from whence they came. Wine must be poured out into the soil, and bread must be buried in the ground. Many churches have a special sink called a “piscina” which drains directly into the ground rather than into the plumbing or the sewers, specifically for this purpose. At Grace & St. Peter’s, we do not have a piscina, which means that after Sunday services, someone must carefully pour any un-consumed communion wine outside the building, finding a patch of earth – as opposed to, say, concrete – upon which to do this. The ground where the mountain laurels grow is the preferred spot for this. Likewise, the flower garden has at times been the chosen spot to bury uneaten communion bread or wafers, if there is too much to be eaten any time soon.
This procedure may seem silly, but it is a powerful symbolic statement. Returning the elements to the earth acknowledges where that bread and wine came from, that even before they were consecrated on the altar they were part of God’s creation. They grew in the soil as grapes and grain, miraculously transforming water and sunlight into something nourishing and delicious. Returning the bread and wine to the earth is a reminder that all of creation belongs to God, all of creation is good, and all of creation is to be treated with some degree of reverence rather than thoughtlessly, carelessly trashed. It is an affirmation of the holiness and potential for holiness in all physical, earthly things. Any physical thing of creation can become a sacramental sign, conveying God’s grace in wondrous ways. The blessing of these particular elements – bread and wine, grapes and grain, water, sunlight, soil, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen – the blessing of these things for sacramental use underscores the blessing that was already there, when God declared all of creation “very good.” Returning the elements to the earth makes sure we don’t forget their blessed, sacred origins, that God made them and has always delighted in their existence, long before the bread and wine were placed on the altar.
I am also reminded of Jesus Christ’s physical, fleshy, earthy body, with which he walked around, touched people, talked, laughed and ate. Physical flesh formed from the physical elements of creation. The human body – and all of creation - which was already blessed, was sanctified in a particular way by God’s dwelling in human flesh, flesh that is formed of dust and will return to dust – ashes to ashes, earth to earth, and dust to dust.
When it is my job to pour out the remaining communion wine, or to bury the bread, I feel compelled to find a spot that is beautiful – under the mountain laurels or in the flower garden. This is not a requirement, for any earth will fulfill the “rule,” but it somehow seems fitting and right to me. Sometimes I end up burying the consecrated bread at home, in my own back yard. There, too, I seek out a spot that is lovely, near some especially beautiful rhododendrons. The simple act of returning the consecrated bread and wine to the earth feels like a prayer, and I find myself whispering “Thank You” as I do it. I remember the Communion for which the bread and wine were sanctified, and I am grateful for God’s presence in that sacrament and for the people that I shared it with. I feel connected and in relationship with God and other people. Then I notice the feel of soil on my hands and the breeze brushing my cheek. I look up and notice the slant of light coming through the trees, the songs of birds, the beauty of the place that I am in, the many shades of green in the various plants, and even chipmunks scurrying by. And the circle of connection, of relationship, expands to include those things as well, to include the entirety of God’s amazing creation. I perceive the Holy all around me. In that moment, my sense of gratitude and blessedness and joy overflows, and my soul is filled with grace, with sacramental nourishment.