Eucharistic Wafer

Eucharistic Wafer

(pop culture)

The holiest ritual of Christianity is that of Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Especially among the older liturgical churches—the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Church of England (and those Anglican churches in fellowship with it)—is the belief that under the elements of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ is somehow mystically present. They are treated as holy objects that embody the sacred. Among most Protestants and Free Church members, the sacramental elements are also considered symbols of the body and blood of Christ. They are handled with respect but are not in themselves holy.

The treatment of the eucharistic elements as holy objects—for Roman Catholics the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ—made them open to various superstitious and magical considerations. At the end of the mass, the worship service in which the bread (usually in the form of small wafers) and wine were consecrated, all the wine was consumed. However, some wafers usually were left on the altar, as was a lighted candle to signal their presence. Such wafers had various uses, and in his famous treatise on vampires, Dom Augustin Calmet, a Roman Catholic scholar/priest, related a number of old stories of their involvement in destroying vampires. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590–604 C.E.) told the story of two nuns who died in a state of excommunication. At a later date, they were seen at the local church. They departed when the deacon called for any excommunicants to leave. St. Benedict sent some consecrated bread to their former nurse in order that it might be offered for their reconciliation. From that time on the nuns remained quietly in their graves. Gregory also related the story of a Benedictine priest who died after leaving his monastery without permission. He was buried in consecrated land, but the next day his body was found above ground. A consecrated wafer was placed on his breast and his body reinterred. It was also related that St. Basil was buried with a piece of the eucharistic wafer he had saved to be interred with him. He died with it in his mouth. Calmet’s stories most likely stand behind Bram Stoker‘s use of the eucharistic wafer in his novel as an effective weapon against vampires. Vampire expert Abraham Van Helsing brought the eucharistic wafer—the Host—with him from his Roman Catholic parish in Amsterdam. As he was trying to demonstrate that Lucy Westenra had in fact become a vampire, he used a crumpled wafer mixed with putty to seal the door to her tomb, first to block her entrance and then to keep her inside until the men could arrive and finally kill her. To defeat Dracula, Van Helsing armed each man in his cadre with a wafer that he had placed in an envelope. The men set about their work of sanitizing the boxes of native soil that he had brought with him from Transylvania. In each box as it was treated, they placed a portion of a wafer. Meanwhile, Mina Murray (now Mrs. Harker) had encountered Dracula and had been forced to drink of his blood. She considered herself unclean. Van Helsing tried to comfort her, but to little avail. As the men left to do their work, he took a wafer and placed it on Mina’s forehead as a talismanic protection. Mina screamed as the wafer branded an image of itself on her skin, leaving a red mark that remained until Dracula was killed at the end of the novel.

In subsequent dramatizations of Dracula and other vampire films, the vampire’s resting place would on occasion be sanitized with the Eucharist (or in its absence with a crucifix or garlic). Otherwise, the Eucharist has been used only rarely, while the crucifix has become a standard item in the vampire hunter’s kit. The crucifix also absorbed the eucharistic wafer’s power to brand the flesh of a vampire or someone bitten by a vampire. Only in the 1992 movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the scene of Mina’s being burned by a wafer dramatized.

Like the crucifix, the role of the eucharistic wafer in vampire lore has been called into question by more secular writers. The vampires of Anne Rice, for example, are not affected by sacred objects. Such is also the case with vampires from outer space and those created by some disease. The modern vampire hero, which has grown out of the writings of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and of which the leading characters in the novels of Elaine Bergstrom are an example, also are not affected by sacred objects. This abandonment of both the crucifix and the eucharistic wafer can be attributed largely to the loss of belief in Satan as a force opposing God (or of vampires being evil or Satanic), and to the relativizing of Christianity, which is seen as but one religion among many.

Sources:

Calmet, Dom Augustin. The Phantom World. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1850.
References in periodicals archive ?
The symbolic disconnect with the eucharistic wafer left me wondering.
The Eucharistic wafer that he used as the prop to illuminate medieval drama is now replaced by Christs body that is gone from the tomb in the Quem Queritis trope.
The Latin phrase "Ecce panis angelo(rum)," (Behold the bread of angels) shown on a cloth covering the platform beneath the vessel, along with the translucent pall over the container, confirms that the eucharistic wafer is held inside.
In this context, the act of auto-testimony at the origin of the eucharist dissolves the body proper of the participant into the constituted mystical body of the Church in the same way that the eucharistic wafer dissolves and becomes the body of Christ without ever losing its specificity and status as a memory and a recollection of the originary and founding transfiguration it is reenacting.