The Eucharist of Christendom, 30-1520 AD

The first account of the celebration by Jesus of the Eucharist

(thanksgiving) is in St. Paul's First letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:15-21; 11:23-26). The accounts in the Gospels (Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20) are very similar except for Matthew's addition of "For the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28). Christ enacted the rite at Emmaus on the day of his Resurrection ([passage=Luke 24:30). Acts 2:42; 2:46 continues the narrative. The Didache (c100-150) mentions special prayers; Justin Martyr c150 reports the Eucharist as a special service separate from an ordinary domestic meal; and St. Hippollytus c310 mentions the Presidency of a bishop or priest.

In the Middle Ages the central table was replaced by an altar at the East end of churches behind a screen; the Eucharist was a drama and a mystery and people received Communion perhaps twice a year.

Changes in Eucharistic practice reflected changes in theological understanding. From the outset people believed that at the Eucharist Jesus came among them but in the Middle Ages His presence was focused in the bread and wine. This trend was under-written by the absorption of the philosophy of Aristotle by St. Thomas Aquinas into the Church which led to the concept of Transubstantiation, where the bread and wine remain the same in appearance at the Consecration but their essence, their reality changes into the actual body and blood of Christ. What had begun as an act of fellowship and thanksgiving became a mysterious re-enactment of Jesus' sacrifice of himself.

Anticipated by John Wycliffe (1324-84) and John Hus (1369-1415), the 16th Century Reformation sought to simplify the Eucharist in ritual and theology. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), firmly believed in the "Real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist but rejected the mechanical explanation of Transubstantiation in favour of the idea that we receive the elements and the benefits of the Sacrament together (sometimes termed 'Consubstantiation) although Calvin's theology in this regard is complex and changed over time; but Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) rejected this doctrine and said the Eucharist was simply a memorial. The first two said that Jesus was remembered in his presence, the last in his absence.

The reformers believed in receiving Communion in both kinds and this practice persisted but Luther and Calvin were deeply misunderstood by their followers who 'wanted' them to be Zwinglians. Both had affirmed the 'Real Presence" and the frequent receiving of Communion but churches named after them believed and practiced the opposite. This misunderstanding had  a profound effect on the English Reformation.

KC i/06

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