We know that senses are important. When Jesus heals, he so often touches our senses: mud on our eyes, hands on our ears, spit on our face. When we worship, we hear his Word, taste his body (and his blood, but I’m not holding my breath on the return of that one), and see his face in the Body of Christ surrounding us. We participate in Jesus with our senses.
But, Liturgy in this modern world has presented us with yet another challenge. For most of us, when seeking the sweet scents of liturgical worship, our noses are no longer beset by beeswax candles, flowering plants or (*gasp*) Three Kings incense.
My Jesus smells like hand sanitizer.
It is understandable and right that, in caring for the common good, we are taking precautions during this continued global pandemic. In fact, when I consider all the past situations in which we did not use sanitizer, I shudder: bank ATM’s, ball pits at children’s play areas of yesteryear, door handles EVERYWHERE. In short, sanitizer is amazing. And, sanitizer at public, communal worship events makes a lot of sense.
And yet, we are beset with an unintended consequence of our enlightened understanding of hygiene, and our own spritzing of antiseptic fluid on our hands before distributing (or receiving) communion. What hits our noses is not the sweet fragrance of the body of Christ—but the hospital grade punch of aloe-infused ethyl alcohol.
This assault on our olfactory senses has repercussions for our taste buds. I don’t know about you, but when I get that sniff of hand sanitizer right before Eucharistic reception, my Jesus pretty much tastes like Purell.
Is there a solution for this modern challenge? I’m not advocating for a ban on sanitizer. But if the ritual matters, if our bodies matter, and if we come to know the living God through the very senses that were blessed by our baptism…maybe there is a third way? Perhaps there is a better “moment” for using hand sanitizer…perhaps there are less, shall we say, “pungent” varieties which are best used in churches?
Or, we could get really crazy and start crafting something like “Three Kings Sanitizer.”
In the meantime, when I go to the altar of our Lord, I will try to remember to at least use one strategy. I won’t hold my nose (rule no. 1: thou shalt not distract the faithful). But, at least I can hold my breath.
Well unless Jesus sanitizes our feet, we have no share in him. Maybe that applies to hands too?
For sterilization of unclean lips, consult Isaiah 6:1-6.
I think the issue is that ‘body’ comes with ‘risk.’ Human physical interaction or proximity is, if you are a hygiene geek, absolutely to be avoided. But then so is the Eucharist …
… and gathering in the Pub, and watching a film together, and (extra care about this one) making love …
… and just about everything else that makes us human and keeps us sane!
I have noticed recently that the Church of England churches near me are returning to the chalice at Holy Communion. Good for them.
Haste is the enemy of many good things in liturgy, and I think the Purell phenomenon is one of the ugly things that results from this widespread problem. Hand sanitizer dries. It takes a minute, but once it has dried, the taste of it no longer transfers to the host.
Here’s my suggestion: Those receiving communion, if they want to sanitize their hands, should do so immediately after the sign of peace. Those who distribute communion — including the priest at the altar — should wait until their hands are dry before touching the host.
Unfortunately this seems not to be true of all hand sanitizers. If you can still smell santitizer on your hands, which is frequently the case for at least two to three minutes after application even if the hands appear to be dry, that smell can easily transfer to the host. The FDA recommends that hands be air-dried before touching food — this doesn’t mean waving them around in the air but placing them in or under a forced-air hand-dryer, which will remove the molecules that cause the scent and so also the taste.
I regularly experience what Katharine Harmon has noted. I find that it is helpful to position oneself at or near the end of the Communion procession, by which time the smell may have worn off and transference is no longer such an issue..