I didn’t think much about the Lord’s Supper while growing up. The church I attended as a child and teenager was a non-denominational place with a couple thousand people. We celebrated the supper once a month at most. Typically, ushers passed trays with tiny bread chiclets and miniature plastic cups of grape juice through the aisles, a pastor read a few verses from a gospel account of the Last Supper, and then everyone ate the elements at the same time in their seats. On occasion, when we had a more youthful service, everyone was invited to come to the front to pick up and consume the elements on their own. Those who grew up in different traditions and denominations may find my experience strange, but until my early twenties this was my idea of what it meant to celebrate the Eucharist.
Since then I have gotten a chance to witness celebrations of the Eucharist in other churches. I have seen the opposite of the above at a Latin mass where the priest turned his back to the congregation and prayed before the altar for minutes in a whisper that no one could hear. The host, not the audience, was the focus of the service, and I, who was not part of the Roman Catholic Church, could not eat of it. In the process of getting outside my own tradition, I have seen that the Eucharist has, historically, played a more significant role in Christian worship than that which I grew up with.
A Very Short History
The very day that Jesus rose from the dead, people are said to have gathered to break bread. It is in the breaking of bread that the disciples at Emmaus recognized Jesus’ presence. The words which conclude that passage, “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” are still important for understanding the role of the Eucharist in the Church (Lk. 24:35). Acts 2:46 mentions that the breaking of the bread was a regular practice of the infant Church. Whether the breaking of bread there was the celebration of the Eucharist or an ordinary meal, it quickly developed into a celebration that was a significant part of Sunday worship.
Justin Martyr, writing at or a little after 150 AD, gives us a picture of church worship a generation or two after the apostles. Christians gather on Sunday, he writes, “because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead” (First Apology, Ch. LXVII). Justin discusses the order of the service and explains what the Eucharist is and why it is practiced (First Apology, Ch. LXVI-LXVII). His explanation for why Christian’s practice the Eucharist is quite simple: Jesus commanded it to be done. Through the following era of the church fathers and into the Middle Ages, the Eucharist continued to be central to Christian worship. The major change that took place seems to be that its practice grew more prescribed and ritualized, as did many other aspects of worship and ecclesiastical organization.
In the second half of the Middle Ages, adoration of the bread and wine increased as did efforts to officially define what “This is my body” means. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 established transubstantiation as church doctrine, meaning that the substance of the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, even though their sensibly qualities remain that of bread and wine. It would be tempting for Protestants to view this merely as the heavy handed decision of the church, but the determination reflects a consensus that developed after centuries of debate and discussion. The Fourth Lateran Council simply affirmed a particular explanation of Christ’s presence that drew on the best natural philosophy of the day.
Such a definition may appear to be a theological splitting of hairs. The exact nature of Christ’s presence in the the Eucharist has certainly been a source of division in the church. Reformers like Wycliffe, Luther, and Zwingli disagreed with the Catholic church on it and, in the case of Luther and Zwingli, with each other. Raising the stakes even higher, the Council of Trent, ending in 1563, reacted to the Reformation by declaring that anyone who held a different view about the Eucharist from church doctrine should be considered anathema. Yet these distinctions, and the significance that people placed on them, make more sense when one considers the role that the Eucharist plays in the shaping of Christian worship. It is no accident that Christian traditions that view the Eucharist as merely a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross celebrate communion less frequently than other traditions.
Church architecture, too, is shaped by views on the Eucharist. Historically, the altar on which the elements are consecrated is located at the center-front of the church building. As certain traditions took a more symbolic view of the Eucharist, their layout changed. The altar became merely a table and was moved from the focal point of the church. Modern Evangelical churches typically do away with the altar altogether. At the same time, the lectern and pulpit, which, historically, are located on the sides of the church, became merged into a single pulpit that occupies the visual focal point of the sanctuary. This reflects a change whereby the proclamation of the Word takes priority over the celebration of the Word made flesh. In many contemporary churches, the place occupied by the pulpit is now increasingly being overshadowed by the stage as a space where the worship leader and/or band perform. What this implies, if anything, I leave for the reader to ponder.
The ordering of the service also changes depending on how one views the Eucharist. In traditions that take a higher view of the Eucharist, its celebration comes at the culmination or climax of the service. In churches that don’t celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, the sermon, which is usually much longer than its liturgical counterpart, takes the position of the Eucharist. Depending on the tradition, some version of “the altar call” may function as the climax of the sermon. Like the change in church architecture, the change in structure of services reflects the prioritization of the speaking of the Word and oration over the tangible celebration of the Word and ritual in worship. The altar call points to the primacy that Evangelicals give to conversion and evangelism in Christian life.
Thus, views on the Christ’s presence in the Eucharist have a noticeable effect on what happens in churches on Sunday. Indeed, the behavior of the priest in the Latin mass that I mentioned above makes sense if one believes that Christ is fully and bodily present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Imagine the reaction to Christ coming and standing bodily in the middle of a contemporary worship service. It is only natural that the worshipers should cease to receive so much attention.
It would be foolish for me to give some sort of finished opinion about Christ’s presence in Eucharist here. The subject is quite deep and complex and I have only dipped my toes in thinking about it. Instead, I will offer a few thoughts about where I am at the moment in my understanding of the Eucharist.
The first is that Is is a weighty word. When someone says “One plus one is two,” they really mean 1 + 1 = 2. When someone says “This work is my life,” they are expressing something more complex than a mathematical relationship. When John writes that “God is love,” our mind struggles to comprehend all that is encompasses. We could and should look at a church history to see how past Christians, especially those closer in time to Christ, interpreted the words “This is my body.” Justin Martyr’s description of the Eucharist above shows a deep reverence for the Eucharist, suggesting that a purely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist is not enough, but his words still turn on that ambiguous is.
There is an old joke that the only words in the Bible that Fundamentalist don’t take literally are the words “This is my body.” Turning this around, I find it interesting that Catholicism, which has a history of allegorical, moral, anagogical, etc. interpretation, insist on a literal, almost mathematical interpretation of “This is my body.” My own view is that legitimate ambiguity in Scripture should be accompanied by charitable disagreement. Scripture does not give an answer to the question of transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation vs. spiritual presence and thus the Church should avoid declaring anyone anathema for not accepting a definition that was arrived at over a thousand years after Christ rose from the dead. Of course, most Roman Catholics no longer see someone as damned to hell for not accepting the doctrine of transubstantiation. I do think that one doesn’t withhold medicine from someone because they don’t believe that it works the same way as you do. A Roman Catholic might respond that those who have not been properly prepared for a medicine may find that it is a poison to them. I would agree with that (see 1 Cor. 11:27-30), but would, charitably, quibble that their requirements are unnecessarily restrictive.
On the opposite side, I find the view that the bread and wine are only symbols or a memorial to be reductionistic. Such a view also ignores the belief of large portions of the body of Christ throughout history. The memorial view also inevitably leads to a diminishing of the importance of the Eucharist that I don’t think is in line with the significance that Jesus put on the practice or the practice’s importance in the early church. For this reason, I find myself outside the memorial camp, yet not ready to accept transubstantiation. Transubstantiation relies on an Aristotelian understanding of matter; I think C.S. Lewis captured the methodology of Aristotle well when he writes “Aristotle is, before all, the philosopher of divisions.” Accidents, for me, are not so separable from substances. I also think that as Jesus could be fully God and fully man, the bread and wine might by fully Christ and fully bread and wine. This leaves open the meaning of “fully Christ” and whether it includes Christ’s physical substance, something that I dare not try to answer. Beyond this I will not go at the moment, knowing that there are others with a richer understanding of Eucharistic theology.
Why the Eucharist?
What I think Christians should agree on is that the Eucharist is important for Christian worship. The Eucharist reminds us that we must worship God with word and body. Reading and proclaiming the Word should be balanced with the eating of the Word made flesh. Eating of the Word is a reminder that the practice of the Christian life is not just a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right things, it is also a matter of what we do with our bodies and with our senses. Tasting, eating, and swallowing are, along with sex, bearing children, and excreting waste, some of the most bodily activities that humans can engage in. (Our bodies and their functions are the site of complex emotions: embarrassment, shame, pride, pleasure, banality, ecstasy). God cares about our souls and minds and our bodies.
The Eucharist is also a potent reminder of Christ’s importance in Christian life. Food and drink is what nourishes us and gives us the strength to go about our daily lives. Christ, likewise, should be as necessary to our existence as food and drink. The more we rely on him and nourish ourselves with him, the more alive we will be. This is one area where a more than symbolic view of the Eucharist is helpful. What we do in the Eucharist on Sundays should be practiced in various ways throughout the week.
The celebration of the Eucharist is also a reminder of the unity of the body of Christ. In the Eucharist members of the church share in one body and one cup, not just in a spiritual sense, but in the physical (bodily) sharing of a food. (This is even more true when the Eucharist is served from one loaf of bread and a single cup.) Along with this is the practice that Justin Martyr mentions of taking the host to people who cannot come to church. People who are physically absence are enabled through this to share in the meal of the Body.
The Eucharist also joins us with Christians that are separated from us by time. As someone who appreciates history, this is one of my of my favorite aspects of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist I am linked to Justin Martyr nearly two-thousand years before and all the Christians in-between. On might think of the Eucharist as a single meal, endlessly repeated, so that we are participating in and sharing the same supper that Christians in the past have eaten. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that history will culminate with a meal when all Christians eat together at the marriage supper of the lamb. The Eucharist is a foreshadowing of and practice for that great feast. Thus, the Eucharist connects our bodies to the here and now of daily life and reaches across space and time.
Lastly, I think the Eucharist is particularly important for a modern generation. I have found that the younger generation of Americans are, in general, not hostile to Christianity; instead, they are profoundly apathetic. It is not that they don’t like Christianity, though they dislike its political baggage, rather they don’t see the point. They common solution to this is that churches try to become more “relevant.” Ironically, the more relevant that some churches try to become in order to break through this apathy, the more irrelevant they become. When a church simply copies the styles of music, teaching, or entertainment present in popular culture, a younger generation may find that they like the popular culture better, without the baggage that comes from religion. I am not against trying to be relevant to an age. The danger is when relevancy is used like bait to lure outsiders into the church where they can be “saved” by the old/timeless teaching. (I have heard the pastor of a church that put a lot of effort into creating a trendy atmosphere describe his method in much this way.) Yet, as fishermen know, fish may come only to nibble on the bait. As soon as a church with more appetizing bait comes along, and it always will, people turn elsewhere. There is also a problem with understanding the form of worship as bait that is somehow separable from the message. The Word made flesh reminds us that, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”—something the Eucharist calls attention to. Form of worship and teaching are one, which leads many seekers and perennial church-shoppers to associate the “bait” with Christianity itself. A thoughtful relevancy recognizes this as well as the deeper longing and spiritual needs of a generation and shapes worship to meet them.
If I can continue my digression for a moment longer, I will give an example. I am surrounded by screens in daily life, the moving images that flicker across them, and the instant access to infotainment. There is the TV in my living room, the computer on which I work, and the ever present screen in my pocket. A church that strives to be relevant in the first sense will include screens, and that which comes with them, in worship. However, a deeper look at our spiritual needs shows how distracting those screens can be and how they pull us away from relationship with others and with God. There is no going back to a time before the digital screen, but churches can model restraint in their use. I have come to appreciate a church service in which the words of a song and the order of the service are printed on a physical piece of paper. It provides a time of escape from the flashy, distracting lights.
This is an example of how digital technology has made a younger generation infinitely more connected than a previous generation, but also more isolated, distracted, and fragmented. Technology has made it possible to listen to a sermon or great worship music without participating in the relational messiness that is in church. The Eucharist, however, is something that one cannot get from a podcast or book; it requires physical presence. Even if someone attends a service through a live stream, he or she cannot take communion that way. Someone must physically bring them the bread and wine from the same meal that others shared. Thus the Eucharist provides something that cannot be gotten elsewhere. It promotes bodily presence in more ways than one. In this way, it shapes a manner of worship or a liturgy, which itself should be shaping the way we live, that a younger generation desperately needs.