Communion, sometimes referred to as “Eucharist”, “Lord’s Supper”, or "the Lord’s Table”, is the ceremonial consumption of bread and wine. It is a sacrament. It defines on-going or “practicing” Christian life.

The ceremony itself may have its origins in the meetings of early Christians. Believers would gather together, sing songs, hear readings, hear a speech by the presider, pray and give thanks, share a meal, and then collect leftover food and money to be given to the poor.

As the meetings became more ritualized (for example, instead of gathering in the evening at someone’s house for dinner, the meeting occurred at a regular place and time, usually Sunday morning) the meal took on ritual qualities, as well. There was a significant body of pre-Christian myth and ritual to draw upon.

Today, the bread may be wafers, and the wine may be grape juice, but it still retains at least a symbolic connection to the sacrifice of God’s son, which the early Chistians also compared to the Jewish Temple rituals of animal sacrifice.

Mythic Background

Throughout the ancient Mediterranean region, there was the myth of the young god who is killed and then resurrected. Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysos: each is torn or cut into pieces, then reassembled by a goddesss and resurrected.

Mystery cults, such as the Greek cult of Dionysos, had ceremonies in which food or a sacrificial victim was torn to pieces and consumed by the cultists. The Roman cult of Mithras, more or less contemporaneous with the early Christian church, ate bread and wine which represented the god Mithras,thus obtaining a symbolic union with the god and with each other.

How the Sacrament was “Instituted” by Jesus in the New Testament

The “Words of Institution” as they appear in Paul’s letters (generally agreed by modern scholars to have preceded the Gospels as the first written documents of Christianity):

The Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in rememberance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remeberance of me.” I Corinthians, 11:23-25

Similar account can be found in all the Gospels except John (see Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:14-20) one of the many reasons these three are called the “Synoptic Gospels” to distinguish them from the more mystical Gospel of John.

How Communion is performed or perceived.

Seemingly insignificant details have divided Christian sects. The Catholic and Orthodox churches once disputed whether leavened or unleavened bread was appropriate.

Catholics recognize seven (7) sacraments. Except for communion, the sacraments are generally performed once, at a significant stage on life’s way: birth, marriage, ordination, death. Communion, on the other hand, is performed regularly. It is the central feature of the Mass. Protestants recognize only two (2) sacraments: baptism and communion, but again, baptism only needs to be performed once, communion is a regular practice.

It is occaisionally deemed significant by some Protestants that in the Catholic Mass, the Words of Institution are recited by the priest over the elements, at the altar hidden in the back of the church, with the priests back to the congregation. The implication is that the priest desires to hide the miracle of the Transubstantiation, which these Protestants view as mumbo-jumbo. Some modern Protestant churches put the altar out toward the congregation, so that the pastor can get around behind it and face the congregation when reciting the Words of Institution, which is intended to signify that the Words are educational or edifying, not mumbo-jumbo. Be that as it may (and I have been to many Protestant churches where the altar is against the back wall of the nave, in the traditional Gothic cathedral manner) there are theological differences regarding the sacrament among the major Western sects:

The three major theological theories of the presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist are:

  • Transubstantiation: The bread and wine are transformed by the sacrament into the body and blood of Christ. (Catholic)
  • Consubstantiation: The actual bread and wine remains bread and wine, but the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and amidst” (”im, mit und unter”) the bread and wine. (Luther: present day Lutherans, Episcopals)
  • Symbolic: Christ is not really present; Christ is in heaven. The bread and wine are symbols, to remind us of Christ, for he said: “Do this in rememberance of me”.(Calvin: other Protestants)

Modern churches seem to prefer to gloss over these differences. Historically, however, fine theological distinctions regarding communion represented large scale socio-political conflicts. The Reformation began when Martin Luther was “excommunicated” by the Church: i.e. formally denied permission to participate in Communion. Bohmeian armies in the 1500-1600’s, went to battle with a flag displaying the Communion cup. This symbolized Bohemia’s acceptance of the proto-Reformation activism of Jan Hus, who sought among other things to restore the use of both elements, bread and wine, to the Mass. The Church had gradually withheld the distribution of wine from the ceremony, passing out only pieces of bread to the people. Hus was burned at the stake for his troubles.