The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







The Eucharist is either the Christian sacrament of consecrated bread and wine or the ritual surrounding it. The term "Eucharist" is used mainly in Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran traditions, and is based upon the Greek word ευχαριστω, eucharisto, meaning to give thanks or to rejoice. The form of the ritual within the liturgy and its attendant theology vary from tradition to tradition. Many Protestant traditions refer to "Communion", a term used abundantly in Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles as well. See also The Lord's Supper.


Historical roots of the Eucharist

Institution. The three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well as Saint Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians contain versions of the so-called "Words of Institution" spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper: "Take, eat, this is my body.... Take, drink, this is my blood.... Do this in remembrance of me." All subsequent celebration of the Eucharist is based on this injunction.

See also: Historical roots of Catholic Eucharistic theology

Eucharistic theologies

The Eucharist has always been at the center of Christian worship. Every Christian tradition has its own theology to explain the meaning of this central sacrament, agreeing in places with other traditions, disagreeing in other places, and sometimes describing seemingly identical concepts with very different language. In general, the following is true for Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions: The Eucharist is seen as the fulfillment of the Divine Economy (God's plan for the salvation of humanity from sin), a commemoration of Jesus's Crucifixion on Calvary and his Resurrection, the means for Christians to unite with God and with each other, and the giving of thanks for all of these things. Differences in Eucharistic theology tend to be related to differences in understanding of these areas as well.

Roman Catholic Eucharistic theology

The Eucharist is one of the seven Catholic sacraments which assist the believer in the progression toward union with God, and is deemed the "source and summit of Christian life". [1] Belief that the Eucharist literally is the body and blood of Jesus, through a substantial change that occurs by the power of God, is rooted in the earliest church writings. This "mystery of faith" [2] is a critical element of the religion.

Eucharistic union with God is a primary component in the Catholic conception of prayer life, in which one progresses first along the purgative way, e.g., confessing sins before receiving communion, a tradition dating from the earliest period of the church. Later one passes along to the illuminative and unitive ways (see prayer). Nourished by the Eucharist, according to Catholic belief, the faithful seek to live by Christ as Christ lives by the Father.

Because the bread and wine are believed to be truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, any pieces that are not distributed at the Mass must be either consumed by the priest or stored in a special container called a tabernacle. (The wine must always be consumed.) Roman Catholics worship the Eucharistic species stored in the tabernacle. Especially notable is the practice of genuflection when entering into its presence. A special blessing, called Eucharistic Benediction may be given using the consecrated elements.

See Transubstantiation and historical roots of Catholic Eucharistic theology.

Orthodox Eucharistic theology

Since it prefigures the ultimate union with God to which Orthodox Christians aspire (see theosis), the Eucharist plays a central role in Orthodox theology, which teaches, along with Roman Catholicism, that the Divine Liturgy mystically brings the congregation into the presence of both the original Last Supper and the angelic worship in Heaven. The worship is centered around the union of the earthly Liturgy with the heavenly Liturgy, of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross with the bloodless sacrifice on the altar, and of Christ's Body and Blood with the faithful, both individually and corporately, as the Body of Christ (a term which refers both to the Eucharist and the Church).

The bread and wine, referred to as "gifts", are believed, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, to literally become the Body and Blood of Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Less theological emphasis is made on identifying a moment of consecration, such as the moment at which the arcane words are said. The Orthodox typically eschew Aristotelian philosophy, i.e. philosophy tending to categorize and organize, preferring neo-Platonic philosophy, i.e. tending to reconcile distinctions. The language of "transubstantiation" is therefore thought too precise and is avoided, in favor of the language of "participation". St. Augustine, [3] (d. 430) a neo-Platonist, helped the Church to develop a unifying synthetic theology, [4] categorizing many theological concepts yet seeking also their harmonious interrelationship, and of communion stating that "[t]he entire Church observes the tradition" [5], i.e. participates in it, and that the "sacrifice ... is now offered to God by Christians throughout the whole world".

Some Orthodox theologians and scholars do accept the term "transubstantiation", e.g. based on terms found in the Orthodox Confession of 1640 [6] made by Peter Mogila (Mohyla), metropolitan of Kiev, to refute a Calvinist declaration made by another Orthodox, Cyril Lucaris [7]. Orthodox sources are divided on the question of Mogila himself, some saying that he was too much influenced by Western sources, (ibid.) others saying that he was "ahead of his time" in promoting Church unity. [8] Irrespective of terminology, owing to the fact that the various Orthodox Churches employ the form, matter, intent, and apostolic succession that is their heritage and the Catholic universal teaching, they consecrate the bread according to apostolic tradition and teaching. Different apostles went east than west, and one will encounter differences in respective liturgy; for example, the Orthodox generally stand throughout the Divine Liturgy while in the Western Rite the faithful alternate during Mass between sitting, kneeling, and standing. Some theological variety can be attributed simply to a lack of contact since the East-West Schism in 1054.

Protestant Eucharistic theology

The various Protestant traditions hold differing views of the Eucharist.

  • Like the Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Lutherans subscribe to the doctrine of the Eucharistic Real Presence, believing that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They do not endorse any particular view of how this takes place, and regard attempts to explain how the Eucharist "works" in terms of philosophical metaphysics as disrespectful of the Sacrament's miraculous and mysterious character. In order to describe the Real Presence, Lutherans sometimes say that the body of Christ is "in, with and under" the bread and wine. Non-Lutherans sometimes describe the Lutheran doctrine as consubstantiation, but this is incorrect because, like transubstantiation, consubstantiation is rejected by Lutherans as a misguided attempt to philosophically categorize a divine mystery. Their refusal to endorse such explanatory doctrines, particularly transubstantiation, is sometimes interpreted by non-Lutherans as denial of the Real Presence.
  • Most Reformed do not teach that the bread and wine are transformed, but that those who receive the elements with faith are brought into a spiritually real form of fellowship with Jesus Christ.
  • In Methodism, transubstantiation is rejected, as is a rigid memorialism. Methodists generally refer to the Eucharist as a means of grace whereby those who partake experience the presence and the grace of Christ. While Real Presence is generally affirmed, Methodists have preferred to allow the specific details of the sacrament as a mystery. Typically celebrated as a means of grace meant to aid in the process of sanctification and the journey to Christian Perfection, it is also celebrated recognizing that God's prevenient grace may bring a person to conversion or even salvation through the sacrament.
  • Most other Protestant churches see the Lord's Supper as a commemoration of the sacrifice of Jesus, in which the physical elements have a purely symbolic and memorial value, reminding partakers of his salvific work.

Six contrasting views on the "body and blood"

The following six alternatives indicate the broad range of possible views on the nature of the Eucharist:

  • Suspension - the partaking of the bread and wine was not intended to be a perpetual ordinance, and/or was not to be taken as a religious rite or ceremony (also known as adeipnonism, meaning "no supper" or "no meal"); this is the view of Quakers, the Salvation Army, as well as the "ultra-dispensational" teaching of E. W. Bullinger, Cornelius R. Stam and others
  • Symbolism - the bread and wine are symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and in partaking of the elements the believer commemorates the sacrificial death of Christ (also known as Zwinglianism or Zwinglian view after Ulrich Zwingli); this view is held by several Protestant denominations, including most Baptists.
  • Spiritual presence - the body and blood of Jesus Christ are received in a spiritual manner by faith . This view is held by most Reformed Christians, such as Presbyterians.
  • Consubstantiation - the body and blood of Jesus Christ are substantially present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain. (This view is often erroneously attributed to the Lutheran church.)
  • Pious Silence - the bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of Christ in a way that is beyond human comprehension; the specific mechanisms and details of this are not possible to understand nor to explain; this view is held by the Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches.
  • Transubstantiation - the substance (fundamental reality) of the body and blood of Jesus Christ replaces that of the bread and wine, but the accidents (physical traits) of the bread and wine remain; this view is held by the Roman Catholic Church.

See Ecclesial communities contrasted.

Forms of Eucharistic celebration

The Agape feast. The Eucharistic celebration of the early Christians, while centered on the ritual of the bread and wine, also included various other ritual elements, including elements of the Passover seder and of Mediterranean funerary banquets, termed Agape Feasts. Agape is one of the Greek words for love. Such Agapes were widespread, though not universal, through the early Christian world. This service apparently was a full meal, with each participant bringing their own food, with the meal eaten in a common room.

Such banquets, perhaps predictably enough, could at times deteriorate into mere occasions for eating and drinking, or for ostentatious displays by the wealthier members of the community, as was already observed by St. Paul (c.f. ). Because of such abuses, the Agape gradually fell into disfavor, and after being subjected to various regulations and restrictions, was finally dropped from the liturgy of the Church between the 6th and 8th centuries.

Current celebration in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox worship

Liturgical setting. The Eucharist is consecrated and received in the context of a ritual (known as the Mass in Western Catholic or Anglican tradition or the Divine Liturgy in Eastern tradition, which includes Eastern Rite Catholics, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox). It is usually celebrated in a church. Theologically, Eucharist is often used to define "church". The ritual also usually includes Scripture readings, hymns, etc, which may or may not be directly related to the Eucharist. They provide the preparation and context for the Liturgy of the Eucharist or Anaphora. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, the Eucharist may also be celebrated as part of a wedding service.

Participants. The celebrant is usually a priest wearing the vestments of their rank. Catholic and Anglican vestments are very similar, if not identical. Orthodox vestments are somewhat different in both appearance and symbolism [9].

There is usually a congregation. The Mass or the Divine Liturgy is the entire worship service whereas Eucharist is just the specific portion relating to the bread and the cup. Communion is taken promptly by those who are not in a state of sin, preferably by those who have recently been to confession. In Catholic and Anglican practice, consecrated hosts not consumed are reserved. The vessels used for the Eucharist are cleaned in a special basin called the sacrarium or piscina , which is directly connected to the ground. This ensures that any particles of the Eucharist remaining in the vessels is returned directly to the Earth. In the Orthodox practice, all consecrated materials are consumed by the Deacon at the end of the Liturgy, unless specially reserved for the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts during Lent. Thre process of this ritual cleansing is known as ablutions

In Catholicism and Anglicanism, a priest can celebrate the Eucharist alone; in Orthodoxy, laity must be present.

Materials and objects. There is typically an altar, where the bread and wine are set for consecration, usually in a chalice for the wine and a paten or diskos for the bread, although a plate or basket is sometimes used. The wine is usually fermented red grape wine, and the bread is usually made from wheat. In Catholic and Anglican traditions, the bread, often referred to as the "host", is usually unleavened, often in the form of communion wafers, matzoh, or pita bread, in imitation of the Passover seder. In the Orthodox tradition, fermented red wine and leavened bread are always used.

In Catholic and Anglican practice, the Mass involves an altar (for a true sacrifice), the chalice (for the consecrated wine), the ciborium (to hold consecrated hosts), a corporal (white cloth to put over the altar preventing particles of consecrated hosts from being scattered), cruets (pitchers of holy water and wine), paten (to hold consecrated hosts), the tabernacle (where consecrated hosts are reserved, for their transubstantiation is permanent according to Catholic theology), and a sacramentary (book of prayers used at Mass).

In Orthodox practice, there are two altars: the Table of Preparation (Prothesis, Proskemedia) for the preparation of the bread and wine before the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Table, the main altar in the center of the Sanctuary [10]. There is a special cloth called the Antimension (Greek: "instead of the Table") which is signed by the bishop to give permission to celebrate the Eucharist on an altar other than his own. The bread is placed on a diskos and the wine, in a chalice. For part of the Liturgy, the diskos and chalice are covered with individual veils (with that over the diskos supported by a small frame called the Star) as well as a larger veil (the Aer) which is large enough to cover both. A triangular-bladed knife called the Spear is used to cut the bread, and a small spoon is used to give the Eucharist to the faithful. There is also a small container of hot water (the Zeon) which is added to the chalice to symbolize the fervour of faith.

Ritual. The bread and wine are brought to the altar, often in a formal procession. After various prayers, depending on the particular tradition, there is usually a prayer that the bread and wine be changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The clergy and laity then receive the Eucharist. Great care is taken not to mishandle or drop any element. After the consecration, a term often used is Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

In the Eastern liturgical traditions, a small spoon is used to dispense bread and wine simultaneously. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, practice varies somewhat, but falls into two broad categories: clergy-administered and self-administered.

If the clergy administers the Eucharist, it may be received at a central location, or at several points, with the congregation coming forward to receive. The priest places the bread in the communicant’s mouth or hand or the communicant takes it from an offered plate or basket. The cup may be communal with the priest wiping the lip of the cup with a cloth after each person receives.

Individual cups and bread (sometimes prepackaged) may be distributed for the congregation to simultaneously drink and eat. Bread and a common cup may be passed among the congregation, with each eating or drinking as they receive it. The cup may be individual cups distributed to the congregation. Individual cups may be reusable cups that are collected again afterwards or disposable cups, which may or may not be collected.

Open and closed communion

Christian denominations differ in their understanding of who may receive the elements of the Lord's Supper. Churches which teach the Real Presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament - such as the Roman Catholic, conservative Lutheran (such as LCMS or WELS) and Eastern Orthodox - tend to reserve the privilege of receiving to members in good standing of their own church ("their own church" usually means more than just their own local parish). Among theological reasons sometimes given for this restriction are:

  • to protect the sacred elements from misuse by those who have not been instructed in the nature of the sacrament, or who have not been subject to the spiritual disciplines of the church;
  • to protect the uninitiated from negative consequences believed to follow from "unworthy" reception of the sacrament, as described in the Bible at 1 Corinthians 11:27: "Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord";
  • because participating in the sacraments of a church is understood as a public avowal of its teachings and of unity with other members, which cannot be done by those who have not yet been instructed and initiated into membership.
  • because church membership is essentially defined as one and the same as participation in the Eucharist

These restrictions are commonly referred to as closed communion. Mechanisms of enforcement vary from church to church, with some using the honor system while others require the explicit prior approval of the minister, elders, or congregational leadership. Churches which practice closed communion sometimes make exceptions for extreme situations, such as imminent physical peril or geographical isolation. Members of churches which practice closed communion are usually expected to refrain from receiving the Eucharist in churches outside their own denomination.

Closed communion was the universal practice of the early church. The famed apologist St. Justin Martyr, ca. A.D. 150, wrote: "No one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true...." For the first several hundred years of church history, non-members were forbidden to even be present at the sacramental ritual; visitors and catechumens (those still undergoing instruction) were dismissed halfway through the liturgy, after the Bible readings and sermon but before the Eucharistic rite. The ancient Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is still used in the Eastern churches, contains a reference to this practice, although it is not followed at this time.

Most Protestant churches, including some Reformed, evangelical, Methodist, and liberal Lutheran (such as ELCA) practice open communion. Many (but not all) open-communion churches adhere to a symbolic or spiritual understanding of the Eucharist, so that there is no fear of sacrilege against the literal body and blood of Christ if a person receives inappropriately. Believing that the benefits of communion are an individual matter of faith, such churches are unwilling to judge who may or may not be "worthy" to partake. The elements are distributed to all who present themselves. (In practice, this differs little from closed communion churches which depend on the honor system.) However, some Christian groups, such as the Mennonites or Landmark Baptist churches, although they do not teach the Real Presence, may practice closed communion as a symbol of exclusive membership and loyalty to the distinctive doctrines of their fellowship.

In Methodism, the real presence of Christ in the sacrament is affirmed, but left as a mystery, typically unexplained. Methodists hold, however, that the grace of God communicated through the Eucharist is powerful and sustaining as well as (potentially) converting; thus the sacrament is viewed as an evangelical sacrament. Because of this, the open table is practiced, in the hope that the communicant will meet Christ.

Eucharist as a political issue

In 2004, some Roman Catholic bishops stated that they would deny the Eucharist to Roman Catholic lawmakers who voted in favor of legal abortion, as they would be in a state of sin. A special Church task force, headed by the Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, was formed in 2003 in response to a Vatican document. Originally it intended to issue its report after the 2004 presidential election, although this date may be moved forward in response to public statements by other bishops.

References and external links

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy