It goes by several names: holy communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, and Christian Passover. We commonly understand it as the point in mass or service when we take bread (or a wafer) and wine (or grape juice) that has been blessed by a priest or pastor. But is there more to it? What does it mean, and why do we practice it?
There are a few key scriptures which detail this sacrament. The first and most obvious is the Lord’s Supper, which is depicted in all four gospels (though the depiction in the Gospel of John is a bit different, in that it lacks the communion itself). This is the account from the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 14):
22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
25 Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.
26 And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.
This is repeated and expanded upon a bit in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (from Chapter 11):
23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another.
34 And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.
“This is my Body”?
What does this mean? Many have attempted to address the question of what Christ meant when he said the bread and wine were his body and his blood, and three major answers have come from it.
The first answer is favored among the Catholics and the Orthodoxies. Saint Thomas Aquinas attempted to explain that, when a priest blesses the bread and wine, they become Christ’s body and blood. Now, we know that the bread still tastes like bread, and the wine still tastes like wine, but Aquinas explained that the essences of these things change while the accidens stay the same – that is, they become Christ’s body and blood without appearing to change in any way. This is called transubstantiation – the belief that the rite is a true sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in which all believers partake every time the sacrament is offered.
The second answer is favored by most Protestant and non-denominationalists. They say that the sacrament is symbolic, bringing to remembrance how Christ died for us that we might live. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for us and how we are beneficiaries of his death and resurrection. This is commonly known as the “Symbolic Presence.”
The third answer is not an answer at all, and it was favored by Martin Luther. Luther was unsatisfied with the sacrificial explanation of communion, but was also not prepared to call it a purely symbolic gesture. Luther focused on eight words: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” So it was that he couldn’t call it purely symbolic, as surely Christ would have said, “This is like my body” or “This represents my body.” At the same time, Christ died once for all. This position is known as the “Real Presence” among Lutherans.
Given to the Priesthood?
Another question naturally arises. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions believe that the priests are given special authority by God, and that among the powers granted is the authority to perform sacrifices, even the sacrifice of our Lord at the Lord’s Supper. However, if it is a purely symbolic act, then there is no need for such special authority and absolutely anyone can participate at any time.
Looking at the text of 1 Corinthians, you will not see any declaration that a priest or apostle is required. Indeed, as Paul was not in Corinth, it is highly unlikely that any of the apostles were present. Paul said that as often as we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we show the Lord’s death (that is, we proclaim or declare his death).
As I am not Catholic nor Orthodox, and as I do not accept the traditions outside of Scripture as necessary or true (for such was the way of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, which Christ himself condemned), I believe that there is no special power by which communion is performed. However, I believe that it can only be truly performed among other believers, for Christ has said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” Further, as we see from the text of 1 Corinthians, we ought to treat this ceremony with proper reverence, for we are not eating to satisfy the needs of the flesh but rather to proclaim the Lord’s death.
When, and How Often?
When ought we to perform communion? There are no clear guidelines given in Scripture, and it’s not even clear whether we ought to do so more than once.
The answer comes from 1 Corinthians 11:26 – as often as we eat of the bread and drink of the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. This means that we can do it as often as we please, because doing so is itself a minor act of confession of faith. We ought to do it often and joyously, knowing what our Lord has done for us.
Even so, you are not condemned for not taking communion as often as another. We do this to remember Jesus Christ and all that he has done and continues to do; it is not a condition for salvation.
A key question remains: why do we do it at all? After all, our Lord has indeed died and risen from the grave, and he lives and reigns even now.
Paul explains this clearly with three major parts. The first and most significant to all believers is that we are told to do so. Christ has said to eat and drink, and so even in ignorance we are to obey. The same answer can be given for why we pray (for God is not a man that he should change his mind, yet we are commanded to pray), or why we baptize (the Holy Spirit baptizes with fire, but we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because Christ commanded us to), or why we preach (we know preaching to be foolishness, but we are commanded to preach).
The second reason is found in verse 33, when Paul encourages us to tarry with one another. “Communion” means coming together to spend time with one another, and this is a valuable aspect to the sacrament. We do not only celebrate the Lord’s death ourselves, but we celebrate with the whole host of believers, our brethren who are the Church.
The third is found in the gospels as well as the writing of Paul. What is it that we celebrate but Christ’s death and resurrection? We eat the body of Christ which was slain for our salvation and raised up again, and we drink the blood of Christ shed for the remission of our sins. And we know it is not bread and wine that save us, but the very real death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By partaking of the supper, we proclaim anew his love for us and his mighty sacrifice that has given us new life.