Eucharist is the central rite of the Christian religion, in which bread and wine are consecrated by an ordained minister and consumed by the minister and members of the congregation in obedience to Jesus’ command at the Last Supper, Do this in remembrance of me. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and in the Anglican, Lutheran, and many other Protestant churches, it is regarded as a sacrament, which both symbolizes and effects the union of Christ with the faithful.
Baptists and others refer to Holy Communion as an institution, rather than a sacrament, emphasizing obedience to a commandment. Traditionally, Jesus’ command to his disciples at the Last Supper to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of me constitutes the institution of the Eucharist. This specific command occurs in two New Testament accounts of the Last Supper, Luke 22:17-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Older theology asserts that Jesus gave this command on this occasion to ensure that Christians would break bread and drink wine in his memory as long as the church endured.
A critical approach to the Gospel texts, however, has made this conclusion less certain. The command Do this in remembrance of me does not appear in either Matthew’s or Mark’s account of the Last Supper. Consequently, a number of scholars have supposed that the undoubted experience of communion with the risen Christ at meals in the days after Easter inspired in some later traditions the understanding that such communion had been foreseen and commanded by Jesus at the Last Supper. The matter can probably never be resolved with complete satisfaction.
In any case, the practice of eating meals in remembrance of the Lord and the belief in the presence of Christ in the breaking of the bread clearly were universal in the early church. The Didache, an early Christian document, refers to the Eucharist twice at some length. The Didache and the New Testament together indicate considerable diversity in both the practice and the understanding of the Eucharist, but no evidence exists of any Christian church in which the sacrament was not celebrated.
The development of Eucharistic doctrine centers on two ideas: presence and sacrifice. In the New Testament, no attempt is made to explain Christ’s presence at the Eucharist. The theologians of the early church tended to accept Jesus’ words This is my body and This cup … is the new covenant in my blood as sufficient explanation of the miraculous transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, although some interpretations reflect the influence of Platonic philosophy on the early church.
During the Middle Ages Scholastic philosophers under the influence of Aristotle developed a more elaborate doctrine of the Eucharist. Aristotle taught that earthly things possessed accidents perceptible to the senses, and substance, their essential reality, known by the mind. According to Scholastic speculation, the substance of the Eucharistic bread is, by the power of God, wholly transformed into the body of Christ. This view of the presence of Christ, called transubstantiation, was most elaborately formulated by the 13th-century Italian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.
It has been the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church since the Middle Ages, although the Council of Trent, which reasserted the doctrine against the Protestant reformers in the 16th century, did not include any philosophical speculation in its statement, asserting simply that an actual change occurred in the bread and wine. In the 16th century Protestant reformers offered several alternative interpretations of the Eucharist. Martin Luther taught that Christ is present in, with, and under the elements.
The Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli denied any real connection between the bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. He believed that at the celebration of the Supper, which recalls to worshipers the words and deeds of the Lord, Christ is with them by the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Zwingli, the bread and wine recall the Last Supper, but no metaphysical change takes place in them. The Swiss Protestant theologian John Calvin argued that Christ is present both symbolically and by his spiritual power, which is imparted by his body in heaven to the souls of believers as they partake of the Eucharist.
This position, which has been called dynamic presence, occupies a middle ground between the doctrines of Luther and Zwingli. The Anglican doctrine affirms the real presence of Christ, without specifying its mode. Some modern theologians have attempted to recapture the ancient Judaic sense of remembering the acts of God. By invoking the presence of God and by remembering in his presence the events by which he has delivered them, worshipers live through those events as present events.
Thus, just as each generation of Israelites participated year by year in the exodus, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the crossing into Canaan, so each generation of Christians, week by week, participate in the Last Supper, the cross, and the resurrection. Eucharistic doctrine also concerns the sacrificial character of the sacramenthow the Eucharist is related to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches have traditionally taught that the Eucharist is a means by which believers can partake of Christ’s sacrifice and the new covenant with God that it inaugurated.
In popular belief this idea was sometimes interpreted to mean that each celebration of the Eucharist is a new sacrifice, rather than a partaking of the original sacrifice of Christ as officially taught by the church. Protestants in general have been hesitant to apply sacrificial categories to celebrations of the Eucharist. The service is called the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion in most Protestant churches; the Divine Liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy; and the Mass among Roman Catholics and some Anglicans. It is the central and most solemn Christian liturgy.
Normally the service consists of two parts. The first, the ‘service of the Word, consists of Scripture readings, a sermon, and prayers. This part of the Eucharist, apparently adapted from Jewish synagogue worship, has been prefixed to the service of bread and wine at least since the middle of the 2nd century. The second part of the service, the service of the Upper Room, consists typically of an offering of bread and wine; the central Eucharistic prayer; the distribution of the consecrated elements to worshipers; and a final blessing and dismissal.
This particular part of the service has its roots in the ancient traditional table prayers said at Jewish meals. The central Eucharistic prayer, the Anaphora, which is Greek for offering, typically contains a prayer of thanksgiving for the creation of the world and its redemption in Christ; an account of the institution of the Last Supper; the oblation, or Anamnesisthe offering of the bread and wine in thankful remembrance of Christ; the Epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine and on the congregation; and prayers of intercession.