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What Makes the Eucharist Special?

A month or so ago, I asked my Twitter followers whether they thought the Eucharist was the centerpiece of Christian worship, and if so, why. The responses were varied. Some insisted that only Jesus is the center; others touted the Gospel as the center. I then clarified by saying that unquestionably, Jesus and the Gospel announcement of Him is the center; but what symbol, what act in corporate worship reinforces that center?

Here again the responses varied. Some affirmed the Eucharist as a special act; others refused any ritual or ceremony and spoke of only what the “Spirit leads us to do.” I promised to explore the question of the Eucharist and its place in our worship in a blog series, so here it is.

For this blog series, I simply want to examine the question of the Eucharist–or “Communion.” Is it special or is it interchangeable? Is it a central act or a peripheral one? In Part 1, we’ll look at three broad ways the Church has viewed the Eucharist, drawing–admittedly, selectively–from Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant streams.

1. The Eucharist as SYMBOL.

The word “sacrament”comes from the Latin word, sacramentum. Theologian Stanley Grenz wrote that in the early centuries a sacramentum was “the oath of fidelity and obedience to one’s commander sworn by a Roman soldier upon enlistment in the army.”

Augustine expounded on this idea of the sacrament as a sign by describing it as an “outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.” Centuries later, combating the Medieval belief that communion was the very thing that saved you, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther described the Eucharist as a sign of “God’s promise given to faith”–language that is unmistakably Augustinian. The Eucharist as a “sacrament,” then, is an act of faith, in which we receive and experience God’s promised grace.

2. The Eucharist as MYSTERY.

Because of the dominance of Greek in the early centuries, the Greek fathers appealed to certain New Testament texts that contain the word mysterion–like Ephesians 3:2-3–as the basis for calling these symbolic acts “mysteries” and not “sacraments.” While a sacrament may be a sign, a mystery involves room for something beyond what we can know. The Eastern Orthodox Church, as I understand it, speak of the “mysteries” and not of “sacraments.”

Cranmer, the English Reformer, refused to explain how Christ is present with the church gathered to worship at the Table. He used the words “mysteries” and “mystical” to describe the communion elements in general and the Body of Christ in particular. This may have been a reference to the Greek mysterionThe Eucharist as a mystery is a place where we tremble in worship, for something too great for words or understanding is taking place.

3. The Eucharist as MEMORIAL.

Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer most eager to depart with anything that smelled of the Medieval Church in the Latin West, dismissed any notion of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine. Christ is “spiritually present” with the worshippers who have gathered, just as Jesus had promised to be present whenever “two or three gather” in His name. The focus was no longer on the words of institution from Christ–“This is my body, this is my blood”–but on His injunction to do this “in remembrance.”

Thus, the Eucharist became for Zwingli a “memorial meal.” It is a moment where we reflect on what God has done for us in Christ–the grace and forgiveness that has been poured out. It becomes a place of Thanksgiving–which is what the word eucharist itself means. The Eucharist as memorial is a time to remember and to give thanks.

[SIDE-NOTE: America’s roots in the Reformation’s “free church” movements are part of the reason why so many American Christians are willing to see the Eucharist as an interchangeable part of our corporate worship. From a “memorial meal”, it has devolved into “just one way” to “experience God’s presence.” Most people “experience God” in a song service, with the aid of a skilled band. Certainly, there is something powerful about that; but I think there is something a song cannot do that a sacrament can. We’ll explore that in Part 2.]

How about all three?

Calvin and Cranmer, among other Reformers–tried to pull together the best of these three traditions: the Catholic and Lutheran view of the Eucharist as a sign–sacrament; the Zwinglian/Swiss view of the Eucharist as a memorial meal; and the Eastern Orthodox view of the Eucharist as a mystery.

I tend to agree. The Eucharist is, as Augustine wrote, an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace. It tells us something is happening here, involving our faith and God’s grace.

But the Eucharist is also a mystery because we do not know how it is happening. Explanations have fallen short. The Medieval Church’s notion of transubstantiation–codified by St. Thomas Aquinas–may have gone too far, but with good intentions. Luther’s “consubstantiation” may have been making the best of a deeply-held belief without getting too superstitious. But Calvin and Cranmer’s emphasis on the spiritual presence of Christ through the H0ly Spirit seems more robust–and Trinitarian. Still, if we were to be pressed about how Christ is present, we may be driven to humbly say, “I do not know. It is a Great Mystery.” And so we tremble as we worship.

Finally, the Eucharist is indeed a memorial. Though, as we shall see in Part 2, the Eucharist leads us to look ahead to a great future hope, it certainly also leads us to look back and remember. It is the time for “Great Thanksgiving.” 

So, why not hold the best of all three of these views together?