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  • Last Updated: March 4, 2014
  • Originally Published: November 20, 2012
  • Christian Eucharist

Introduction

The consuming of bread and wine or juice during a Christian church service or religious gathering is called the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It is commonly referred to, particularly in Protestant traditions, as Communion or the Lord's Supper. This sacrament commemorates the sharing of Jesus's last meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. Christians partake in the Eucharist in remembrance of Jesus’s sacrifice for humanity on the cross.1Bible: Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:15–20

Christian Eucharist

The Last Supper, by Joan de Joanes, is a famous 16th century painting that depicts biblical eucharist

Historical Eucharist

The Last Supper serves as the biblical precedent for the Sacrament of the Eucharist.2Bible: Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20 According to the gospel accounts, Jesus knew in advance that he would be betrayed and sentenced to death. On the night before his betrayal, he brought his disciples together to share one final meal—the Passover seder, practiced as part of the Jewish tradition. During the meal, Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples, and alluded to his coming sacrifice:

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.3Bible: Matthew 26:26-28

The New Testament records that early Christians practiced the Eucharist regularly.4Bible: Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:26 To these early Christians, the Eucharist was a full meal, celebrated with other Christians, just like the Jewish seder. It wasn't until the 2nd century CE that the sacramental meal became distinct from a full meal.

By the 4th century CE, the frequency of receiving the Eucharist began to decline, being observed only at special times of the year. By 1215 CE, receiving the Eucharist annually at Easter became the standard in the Catholic Church. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church placed a renewed emphasis on the regular participation in the Eucharist by the faithful and specified that it should be given only to baptized church members.

Modern Eucharist

In most modern Christian churches, the Sacrament of the Eucharist consists of the reception and ingestion of a small piece of bread and the consumption of a small amount of wine or juice that had been blessed by ordained clergy or other church leaders. The bread and wine represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and Christians use the Eucharist to remember the suffering and death of Jesus on their behalf. Traditionally, Christians used communion wafers (a type of unleavened bread) and wine, and that practice continues among Catholics. More recently, some churches have chosen to use grape juice or water instead of wine, and white bread is similarly used in some churches.

Unlike baptism, which is generally performed only once per person in their life, the Eucharist is received frequently. Some churches and denominations distribute the Eucharist weekly, whereas others only receive the Eucharist monthly, or on major Christian holidays such as Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. Christians revere the Eucharist as a powerful symbol of community and thanksgiving.

After the sacrament has been received for the first time, most Christians may partake of the Eucharist as often as they like, though Catholics may receive it no more than twice in one day. Most of the Protestant traditions consider it a holy rite, or an ordinance expressing faith in Christ.

Some Christian churches recite prayers during Eucharist, such as the Lord's Prayer. Others reflect in silence while the Eucharist is received.

Participation in the Eucharist

Some Christians believe that participation in the Eucharist should be open to all Christians; others hold that only those who have been baptized or who are full members of the particular church that is distributing the Eucharist should receive it. The Eucharist has always been a focus of discussions of the ecumenical movement, which has the ultimate goal of reuniting Christianity into a single tradition. The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions generally exclude non-members from receiving the Eucharist.

The Protestant tradition is divided on the issue of participation in the Eucharist. Some denominations, such as the Mennonites and Baptists, view the Eucharist as a symbol of exclusive membership to their church and thus close Communion to outsiders. Other Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical, Methodist, and Reformed churches, practice open communion. This means that they allow all baptized Christians (regardless of their denomination) to participate regardless of their denomination. Other denominations, such as Lutherans, Various Lutheran churches include both practices among their various branches or divisions.5The Lutheran Denomination is divided to conservative and liberal branches. The LCMS , the WELS , and the ELS practice closed communion, meaning they require those that will be receiving communion to have received catechetical instruction. Catechetical instruction refers to the reading and understanding of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, which reviews the Ten Commandments, The Apostle’s Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, The Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Office and the Keys of Confession and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It is included in the Lutheran Book of Concord and is considered to be an official statement on what Lutheran’s believe concerning these matters. However, the ECLA , practices open communion as long as the person is a baptized believer in Christ’s presence at the Lord’s Supper.

Distinctive Eucharist Customs

  • In the Catholic Church, a Catholic’s first reception of the Eucharist is designated a sacrament. The Eucharist is distributed as a part of Catholic's mass, or weekly religious service. In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, the doctrine of transubstantiation states that during each mass, the bread and wine become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus even though they maintain the appearance of bread and wine.
  • After the break from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, some Protestant reformers tended to reject physical or outward manifestations of faith, like participating in the Eucharist or the other sacraments. In their view, grace was freely offered by Jesus Christ and received directly from the Holy Spirit without the necessity of participating in formal rites or rituals of the Catholic Church.
  • The Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation states that the body and blood of Christ are co-present with the substance of the bread and wine.
  • The Religious Society of Friends (commonly known as "Quakers") do not celebrate communion. They believe it to be too formal and that it thus constrains the Holy Spirit. In fact, they do not practice any sacraments based on the belief that all of life is sacred and therefore there is no need to single out a certain religious practice. Therefore, for a Quaker, a common meal shared in the presence of other believers would be equal to that of participating in communion.
  • Among Seventh-day Adventists, the communion service is celebrated quarterly. It includes two sacraments: the washing of feet, as demonstrated in the Gospel of John,6Bible: John 13 and the Eucharist. Unleavened bread and grape juice are used, and all Christians may partake in the Eucharist.