Here’s a question for you on communion that I’ve been thinking about recently…. Back in the day of the last supper, wouldn’t bread and wine have been common foods? So, when Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me,” wouldn’t that be a be a daily thing? A tangible, daily reminder of Christ’s sacrifice? How did it become something that is only done in church, and even there it is something very guarded and set apart?
The above question was posted on another thread and IMO it needs (and deserves) a post of its own, so here goes. This is a really good question, and I don’t have a complete answer that I’m satisfied with yet. So for now I’ll jot down what I know, incomplete as it is, and see what else I can come up with and post more later.
First off — the sacrament of Communion, or the Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”) is the most sacred aspect of our faith, the greatest mystery, the greatest sorrow, the greatest blessing, the very heart of our Lord’s teaching. Approach with humility, confidence, and prayer.
Yes, back in Jesus’ day bread and wine were common foods. BTW hubby agrees “Do this in remembrance… (etc)” means “whenever you eat remember Me”. I have a sneaking suspicion this particular interpretation is Presbyterian in origin, and I don’t disagree with it — I think giving thanks for food at mealtimes is an excellent practice, as well as thinking about and talking about Jesus (remembering Him) while eating — but I don’t think this interpretation alone is enough.
At the Last Supper Jesus was celebrating the Passover, and He gave new significance to the broken unleavened bread and the 3rd cup of wine, as follows:
The Unleavened Bread – this was called the “bread of affliction” because it was made and eaten in haste before the Exodus (no time to let it rise). When the bread is eaten during the Passover meal, the host breaks the bread and says something along the lines of: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in want come and celebrate the Passover with us. May it be God’s will to redeem us from all evil and from all slavery.” It was at the serving of this bread to His disciples that Jesus said “this is my body broken for you”.
The 3rd Cup of Wine – During the Passover service four cups of wine are served. The third is the “Cup of Blessing”. We know Jesus took the third cup because the gospels say “after supper he took the cup”, and the third cup was the one served after supper. At this point the people celebrating Passover say (in part) : “I will take the chalice of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.” It was at the serving of this cup that Jesus said “this is my blood shed for you…”, pointing to Himself as the blessing and our salvation. Btw even if the gospels have been misinterpreted and Jesus’ cup is actually the fourth cup, it still fits: the fourth cup was the “Cup of Melchizedek”, and Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
All the above by way of saying the scriptures make it clear communion is tied to the Passover, not just to everyday mealtimes. As for how communion became what it is in churches today, that was a slow process which I’ll try to summarize briefly.
Worship in the early church was divided into two parts: The first part was open to anyone, and included prayers, singing of psalms and songs, readings from scripture, and teaching. The second part was for baptized believers only — anyone not baptized had to leave before the second half — and included the “love feast” we now call Communion. Back then it was an actual meal that included the elements of bread and wine in memory of Jesus.
In the early church, communion and the meal were presided over by the apostles, and later by people trained by the apostles (called “bishops” meaning “shepherds”, not “church hierarchy”). Also in the early church the people met secretly in private homes. Buildings dedicated exclusively to Christian worship didn’t come into play for 100 years or more, mostly because Christians, being members of an illegal religion, could not openly own property. Strictly speaking church buildings were illegal until the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 300s AD.
Once Christians started meeting in church buildings, communion moved to the church buildings as well — but by the 300s many generations had come and gone, most believers were baptized as babies (there was no longer a need for two parts to the worship service) and something like the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was beginning to emerge. The words of the mass as we know it was also pretty much in place by then. (Note btw I didn’t say “Roman Catholic” — at this point the “Catholic” church still meant “worldwide” and there were five large churches that were sort of ‘leaders of the pack': Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Hippo. Hippo was overrun by invaders as its last bishop, the great theologian Augustine, lay dying, and its church is no more. The other four still survive to this day: the Jerusalem Church, the Coptic Catholic Church (Alexandria), the Eastern Orthodox Church (Constantinople) and the Roman Catholic Church. All four have essentially the same communion service, with only slight variations which they do not consider slight.)
It should also be noted that the Protestant churches kept most of the wording of the mass in their communion services. Every church I’ve ever been in uses the words “In the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread…” etc. It’s the meaning of the sacrament, not the wording, that changes as one moves into the Protestant Reformation. (I’ll leave transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and representation, along with their respective proponents, for another post.)
So how did it become “guarded and set apart”? That’s the bit I don’t have a satisfactory answer for yet, only partial answers.
First: in the early church, the leaders of the church presided at the love feast, and the deacons helped serve. The idea was that these folks were “the servants of the servants of God” (which btw is now one of the Pope’s titles). Over time, humanity being what it is, these became treated as positions of authority rather than service, then positions of power, then positions of state(!) and by the Middle Ages these posts were actually being bought and sold. The priests and bishops became keepers of the sacraments, and if you didn’t behave you would be excommunicated, that is, prevented from taking the sacraments, and yes they actually believed this meant ‘cut off from God’. (What a thing to hold over people’s heads! It amazes me God in His mercy didn’t come down right then and give ’em what-for. But I digress…)
Second: at some point, the doctrine of transubstantiation comes into play. This is a doctrine that evolved over time, and was not universally taught for… I forget, but at least the first 5 centuries or so. Anyway, if you believe that the bread and wine actually become the physical body and blood of Jesus, it is necessary to have a priest to say the proper words and perform the proper actions.
Third: after the Protestant reformation, items #1 and 2 are no longer huge issues for Protestants, but you still have 1400 years of church tradition to deal with (and you know how slowly churches change!) plus the Reformers took the scriptures quite seriously when they say that anyone who eats and drinks the sacrament unworthily eats and drinks judgement on themselves. So in all but the most “free” of Protestant denominations, only ordained clergy may do communion… sort of a spiritual safety net.
BTW most Protestant churches, in some fashion or another, allow laypeople to serve communion that has been blessed by ordained clergy. Giving home communions is one example.
Having said ALL that! I think when Jesus returns He is going to have some choice words to say about what we’ve done with his sacrament. (Remind me to do Robin Williams’ version of the Second Coming next time we talk…)
Oh! And one other thing from the early church: the early believers, taking their cue from “This is the bread of affliction” — which was broken by Jesus — they saw communion as a celebration. It was a time to remember that Jesus broke the chains of our affliction, and brought us redemption and freedom. It was not, as so many churches today teach, a somber time to remember our sins and His death. While I would not ever want us to forget His sacrifice, I think churches would do well to recapture a little of the early church’s thinking.
Hope this helps! Thoughts?