Bread of Life, Our Host and Meal: Practical answers to your questions about communion

By Pastor Tracey Breashears Schultz

What kinds of bread and wine or juice are used for Holy Communion?

Some assemblies use leavened bread, which is made to rise with yeast. This is what comes to mind when most people think of bread. A few reasons to prefer the use of leavened bread is that it connects the holy with the ordinary and familiar; the bread on our tables is the bread at this Table. Bread made with yeast has been allowed to rise, a reminder that comm 1Christ is risen. Finally, the use of leavened bread is the “most ancient attested practice of the Church” (Use of the Means of Grace, 44B, p.48); works of art and texts from the early church give evidence to the practice. A church member could make such bread, or it might be purchased from a local bakery.

comm 2When unleavened bread is used, it conveys the Passover themes which are present in the account of the Last Supper (Use of the means of Grace, 44B, p.48). At the time of the Passover, the Israelites were in such a hurry to flee their houses, there was no time to let their bread rise (Ex. 2:34). Any flat bread may be used for communion, such as Naan, pita bread, a flat bread communion recipe, like this one from Luther Seminary, or wafers.

Wafers are a tradition in many churches, although it may come as a surprise that this unleavened pre-cut option did not come into practice until the Middle Ages in the West. Wafers are convenient in that they do not spoil and they make few crumbs, but they are virtually tasteless, and of all the options, seem to least convey the idea of a feast.

If your congregation is attempting to transition from the use of wafers to bread, consider making your choices seasonally. Lent and Advent are good times for wafers or flat bread, while Easter, Christmas, and other festival celebrations call for a risen loaf with life in it!

Wine does not need to be the most expensive on the market, but it does need to taste good. For synod assemblies or theological conferences, our practice is to buy a sweet red or a blended wine, made from three grape varieties (Both options are about $7 each). If grape juice is also used, it is a good practice to use white grape juice to differentiate between the red wine and the white juice.

What is a host wafer and is it eaten?

comm 3Often, when wafers are used instead of bread, the presider will hold up a larger wafer during the Words of Institution, so it is easily seen by the congregation. This wafer is the host. As the host, it should always be served first. Often, the host is marked with a cross, making it easy to break into four equal pieces. If this is the case, the first four people to commune receive it before the other wafers are served. If your practice is to commune the pastor and communion assistants first, they should receive the host. If communion servers are communed last, then the first persons in your communion line will receive the host.

What about gluten-free?

comm 4More and more people are requesting that their communion bread be gluten-free, often for serious health reasons. Gluten is a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat; it gives dough its elastic texture. If you are looking for gluten-free options, carefully read labels and look for “gluten-free” on the packaging. For synod assemblies or theological conferences, we often buy Blue Diamond Nut-Thins. They are crackers made of nuts and rice, and they are heartier and tastier than ordinary communion wafers ($3 per box of 60). If you prefer a gluten-free bread over crackers, consider making your own, such as this one, suggested by the ELCA Department for Worship. There may be a member of your congregation, especially one comm 5whose diet is gluten-free, willing to make gluten-free bread. A local bakery may have a gluten-free option or may be willing to create one for you, especially if you let them know it will be used for communion. Another option is to buy Paleo Bread, a brand name which is guaranteed gluten-free, which uses ingredients like nut or coconut flour ($6-9 per loaf).

Those with gluten allergies cannot eat bread which has been near or been touched by contaminated bread or hands. This means the presider cannot serve regular bread and then turn around and touch the gluten-free bread; his/her hands are already contaminated and could make the communicant quite sick. Instead, the gluten-free option should be prepared and served by someone who has not touched another bread product, and it should be kept in an entirely separate basket or container. Likewise, someone with a gluten-free allergy cannot share wine with those who are gluten-tolerant. If intinction is your church’s practice, be aware that asking someone to dip their gluten-free bread into a contaminated common cup or to sip from this cup defeats the purpose of keeping their bread apart from the other.

One option is to create a gluten-free station. The person serving the bread at this station only touches this bread, so contamination is not a concern. The common cup at this station is never contaminated even if intinction is used because it is reserved for gluten-free communicants. Those with or without allergies could commune at this station.

At the distribution, if it is your congregation’s practice to commune the pastor and communion assistants first, then the bread they are served should be gluten free. This ensures that those working the gluten-free station have not touched anything else. If you can change your practice and commune the pastor and communion assistants last, you will have done away with the contamination concerns.

Another option is to ask those with gluten allergies to bring their own bread for communion. They could bring it with them to the communion line, and the server would say the words, “the body of Christ, given for you,” while the communicant takes his or her bread from its packaging. There are theological implications with this option. Does bread have to be on the altar when the Words of Institution are said in order for it to be blessed? What happens to our understanding of “one bread, one body” when what we share is not coming from the same place?

A final suggestion is to offer gluten-free communion for everyone. Doing this, you will have entirely eliminated concerns about contamination, and everyone will have eaten from the same loaf.

Is there a special way to dispose of leftovers?

After communion, the uneaten bread and the unused wine should be treated with care and reverence. They have conveyed the holy. As Lutherans, we believe these elements are not just bread and wine; they are also the body and blood of Jesus. It is never appropriate to toss wafers in the trash or to dump wine down the drain. Our practice should always be to return unused portions of the meal to creation. Wine may be poured out onto the earth, or, if your church has a piscina, a sink which drains directly to the earth, it may be poured out in this sink. People are, of course, God’s creation. The pastor, assisting minister, communion servers, altar guild, and/or worshipers might gather around the leftovers after worship, eating and drinking until they are gone. Or, bread may be taken outside and scattered on a lawn or in a green space, where it can be consumed by birds, squirrels, and other critters, extending the feast.


ELCA Worship Frequently Asked Questions

The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997

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