So I want to take a look at the underlying roots and historical development of the Eucharist and at the basic meanings of the elements of the liturgy as we practice it today.
All four of the canonical gospels tell us that Jesus shared a last supper with his closest circle of disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that it was a Passover meal, while John locates it before the Passover.) The chronologically earliest testimony we actually have to what we now consider Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist comes in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, written about twenty years after Jesus’ death. In the letter, he gives us the words we repeat each time we celebrate the Eucharist:
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Cor. 11:23-26)
The meal Jesus shared with his friends – whether a Passover meal or not – followed established patterns rooted deep in Jewish tradition. They are the same patterns we repeat today. The Jewish sabbath meal took place after the liturgy of the word in the synagogue (in which the family would have listened to scripture, shared in prayer, and likely heard a sermon). After ritual ablutions, assembling at the table, participants in the sabbath meal thanked God for bread, broke it and shared it along with the common dishes making up the meal.1
After the meal the diners shared a cup of wine that was first blessed by the father, who called the group to stand in thanking God: “Lift up your hearts. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” after which an extended recitation of remembrance and gratitude would follow.2
The fact that several of the resurrection appearances took place in the context of a meal reinforced the breaking and sharing of bread becoming a crucial way for the disciples to remember Jesus and his presence with them. Within the New Testament period the meal moved from the Jewish Sabbath to “the Lord’s Day”, the first day of the week, and the ritual of sharing the bread and wine became separated from the meal as numbers grew and accommodating crowds with a full meal became impractical.3
Numerous other elements of today’s eucharistic liturgy developed during the period of the early church: the presider began with the salutation “God be with you”; readings, a psalm, hymns, and a sermon often followed; the deacon led prayers “of the faithful”; and the service of the word concluded with “the kiss of peace”. As the liturgy of the table began, a table covered in a white cloth was brought forward and offerings presented from the people in attendance. The celebrant (and any other priests present) laid their hands on the bread and wine, and then offered a Great Thanksgiving to God with arms raised, entreating the descent of the Spirit. At the close of the eucharistic prayer the bread and wine were distributed to members of the congregation present, and after the service, deacons left to take the bread and wine to community members who had not been present.4
In the following centuries a variety of developments took place as aspects of the liturgy were formalized. Sacramentaries, or collections of eucharistic prayers and prefaces specific to particular occasions and seasons appeared; processions were added; excess consecrated bread and wine were kept in reserve for communion for the sick.5
In the 9th century and after, major shifts began to take place. The mass began to become less participatory for the people. It continued to be spoken and sung in Latin, which was less and less understood by the faithful. Screens or veils separating the congregation from the altar were erected in some churches, and portions of the Great Thanksgiving were said inaudibly by the celebrant while the choir sang elaborate settings of the Sanctus. The Eucharist moved from something celebrated by the people to something done for the people.6
These developments contributed to a sense of fear and awe associated with the Mass. The use of wafers replaced real bread to ensure that stray crumbs of sanctified bread could not be dropped and overlooked. The priest began placing the consecrated wafer in the communicant’s mouth for the same protective reason. The receiving of wine was discontinued. During this period the practices of kneeling and genuflection during the key parts of the service came into practice. Altars were moved against the wall and seeing the elevation of the bread and wine became more important than receiving it. By the end of the 15th century churches began having to enact legislation requiring members to receive communion once a year.7
And then came the Protestant Reformation, which we spoke about a couple of months ago. Luther, Zwingli and their colleagues sought to “purify” the service of the Eucharist, returning it to what they believed to be a more authentic form by removing what they considered to have been add-ons and restoring such elements as the Prayers of the People, as well as the receiving of both bread and wine. The service was to be spoken in the language of the people.8
As you might expect, if you recall what we said earlier about the Reformation in England, there were controversies. It has been said that virtually no one other than its compiler, Thomas Cranmer, was satisfied with the 1549 first edition of the English Book of Common Prayer. Too conservative for some, too liberal for others: what else is new?
The faithful were to receive the elements kneeling, with the bread placed in their hands, and they received from the common cup, as well. The fierce controversy over what Christ’s presence in the elements of communion meant – more about that later - was reflected in a rubric, in that first book. The posture of kneeling to receive was a gesture of thanksgiving, it instructed, and not intended to imply “adoration of the sacramental bread or wine” or “any real or essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood”.9
Our first American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer was published in 1786 and closely reflected the Anglican Prayer Book of that time; it was revised in 1892 and 1928, the version of the Prayer Book that many of us grew up with, although none of the revisions to the practice of the Eucharist in those books was substantial. The period of lively liturgical reform in the Episcopal Church began in the 1970s: again, probably many of us can remember the almost hysterical outrage stirred up by the trial “Zebra Book” (because of its striped cover) that appeared in 1973.
For a liturgy whose language and practices changed only incrementally in four hundred years, we have come a long way since the 1970s. The last General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 passed a resolution encouraging experimentation with diverse liturgical language to be “more inclusive and expansive” and better reflect “the continual movement of the Holy Spirit among us and the growing insights of our Church.” (Resolution 2018-AO63) As you know, here at James and Andrew we rotate through the four eucharistic prayers from the 1979 Prayer Book along with six additional prayers from American, British, Canadian, and New Zealand Anglican sources.
So that’s the historical background. It seems important to observe that in our modern post-Reformation world, Christians observe a considerable variety of practices in the service of the Communion. While we Episcopalians celebrate Eucharist weekly (so long as we have a priest available to preside and consecrate the elements), some denominations share communion less frequently. Some churches use grape juice or water, rather than wine, and some administer the wine in individual cups, rather than sharing a common cup as we do (at least in the pre-pandemic world.)
Who can receive the sacrament is also a point of divergence and disagreement, including in our Episcopal Church. Many denominations require that worshippers be baptized (or complete instruction or another initiation such as Confirmation) before receiving communion. It is still the official policy of The Episcopal Church that only baptized persons receive the bread and wine at the Eucharist. As you know, however, in this parish we declare each week that “This is God’s table, and all are welcome, no exceptions.” We are not alone in our practice of “open communion,” but we do so only because our Bishop permits it. Some Dioceses and congregations in the Episcopal Church are resolute in allowing the sacrament only for those who have committed themselves to Christ through Baptism. Proposals relating to the practice of open communion have come before the Church in recent General Conventions, and Convention has repeatedly opted NOT to take on discussion of policy change.
The service of the Eucharist follows a set form rooted, as I have said, in both Jewish tradition and the apostolic church. I don’t know whether you’ve had the wonderful experience of attending eucharist in another country or culture. Many years ago I went to a Lutheran service while visiting with a friend in Helsinki, Finland. I couldn’t understand a word, and I knew exactly what they were saying and singing. Despite the complete language barrier, I felt totally at home. It gave me a new awareness of what it means to be part of the universal Body of Christ.
The word “eucharist” itself, from the Greek eucharistia, means “thanksgiving”: in the gathering for Eucharist, God’s people both express our gratitude to God and are blessed, strengthened, and renewed by encountering God in the hearing of God’s Word, in receiving the bread and wine, and through experiencing being part of the gathered community.
Let me say it again: in the Eucharist we are blessed, strengthened, and renewed by encountering God in at least three ways
Let’s talk a little bit about what is probably the trickiest and most mysterious part of it all. What is essentially going on in our remembering and re-enacting Jesus’ Last Supper, and in our consuming the elements of bread and wine?
Very early in the Church’s history Christian leaders began to refer to the bread of the Eucharist as “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ”10, and for much of its history before the Reformation, the Church taught that when the Eucharist is properly celebrated, the elements of bread and wine literally become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ at the time of the fraction (or breaking of the bread), even though in physical appearance they appear to remain unchanged. This change in substance is referred to as “transubstantiation”, and remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
At the other end of the spectrum, some Reformed churches see the Eucharist as a purely symbolic memorial re-enactment, a way of remembering, as Jesus commanded, his self-sacrifice, just as a family might ritually remember a departed member by using her favorite tablecloth each Thanksgiving.
Somewhere in the middle, other churches believe that Christ is “spiritually present” in the elements of the sacrament even though the substance of the bread and wine remain physically unchanged. “Consubstantiation”, a doctrine which Martin Luther espoused, holds that the bread and wine, at consecration, BOTH take on the “real presence” of Christ while also retaining their original form as bread and wine.
Episcopalians and other Anglicans hold most closely to this Lutheran theology (though we do not use the term “consubstantiation”), asserting that Christ is “really and truly present”11 in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Anglicans have quite steadfastly declined to attempt explanation of what this means or how it occurs: we remain happy to celebrate the mystery.
In the Eucharist God gives us God’s self. In a way that our words cannot articulate or our brains fully grasp, the God who took on flesh in the life of Jesus is again offered to us, becoming part of us, nurturing our spirit as the physical grain and fruit of the bread and wine nurture our bodies.
Richard Norris, 20th century Episcopal theologian, talks about it this way:
“Jesus took the ceremonial actions which were customarily performed [at the sabbath meal] and explained them as signifying his forthcoming death. His body was to be broken, like the bread, and his blood was to be poured out, like the wine. What was about to happen would not just be another unhappy dying. It would be a death through which God would create a New Covenant with his people…..
People who take bread and wine and give thanks over them for the New Covenant which God has made with humanity in Christ, perform an action through which they enter into Jesus’ dying and the new life which came through it…
The bread and wine, given to God in thanksgiving, is God’s way of speaking Christ to us…. In being joined to Christ, they enter into Christ’s life.”12
The Eucharist IS, at its heart, mystery. It is gift and blessing to us. It signifies our unity with God and one another despite our doubts and confusions and differences. It expresses our hope that through the receiving of Christ in the sacrament we may ever more fully enter into the life of the resurrected Christ and be God’s love in the world. Amen.
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