The Meaning of the Eucharist

The Holy Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper is a Sacrament of the Christian churches.

A sacrament is: "an outward sign of inward grace ordained by Jesus Christ" and, as such, the Eucharist ranks alongside Baptism as one of the two "Dominical" Sacraments.

The origin of this Sacrament is the last meal which Jesus shared with his Apostles (and maybe others) which is why it is sometimes called "The Lord's Supper"; its other name, the Eucharist, derives from the Greek word which means "thanksgiving” in that Jesus took the elements and gave thanks (Matthew 26:20-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

For the first millennium of Christianity, the Eucharist was thought of as a memorial or re-enactment of Jesus' sacrifice of himself in the bread and wine. This is an important definition as "memorial" was later taken to mean simply a remembering of, as opposed to a re-enactment. In seeking to reconcile Christianity with the re-emergent philosophy of Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) formalised the concept of Eucharistic transubstantiation in which the bread and wine retained their appearance or "accident" but had their "form" transformed by the Priest in the power of the Holy Spirit (Epiclesis) into the very body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Because of the emphasis on the priestly mediation, characterised as magical in the worst sense of the term, Reformation theologians rejected the formulation of Aquinas not because of the Aristotelian terminology but because of the power it gave to the priest, a strange reaction given that the Eucharist had been presided over by a clerical entity since the middle of the Second Century at the latest:

The Oxford Movement (launched 1833) re-introduced the concept of the "real presence" of Jesus with us in the Eucharist without specifically accepting the Thomist formula so that today, in the Church of England, views of the Eucharist span all the different interpretations so far mentioned.

After Baptism, which is much less controversial, the Eucharist is supposed to be a unifying instrument of Christianity so that any Eucharistic celebration takes part with the whole church but at a practical level it has been a source of deep division.

Interestingly, there is now a strong postmodernist movement, notably among Roman and Anglican Catholics, which accepts that any event is a combination of what the author or producer brings to it and what the recipient or consumer brings so that, in effect, the experience of receiving the Eucharist is not an objective event engineered by a priest but is a subjective event experienced differently by each communicant. Nonetheless, official Roman Catholic doctrine maintains that only its priests (and those of the3 Orthodox Churches) can effect the presence of Jesus Christ in the elements through the power of the Spirit. Many Christians, including Catholics, reject this monopolistic position.

What is at stake?

Why do so many of us find the Eucharist sustaining?

KC 08/11

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