Take and eat it; this is my body… Drink it, all of you; this is my blood, which seals God’s covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom.
Well if you’ve ever spent any time in church these words are burned into your brain. They are the basis of the “words of institution” for Holy Communion, a sacred ritual of the church, where participants reenact this scripture by consuming bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. It is also sometimes called the “Eucharist,” which is based on the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” For many Christians Holy Communion is the high point of the church service, a transcendent experience where we become one with Jesus and with each other.
Yesterday I talked about the rules surrounding communion practices in various groups of churches. While all Christians generally recognize a special presence of Christ in the Eucharist, there is a lot of variation among churches – and individual Christians, about exactly what that means.
At one end of the spectrum, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach that the bread and wine that are used during Holy Communion literally transform into the body and blood of Christ, even though they admittedly remain unchanged according to their outward appearance. In other words, even though they still look and taste like bread and wine, the bread and wine no longer exist because when they are consecrated they are transformed into Christ’s blood and body. This is known as “transubstantiation.”
The Lutherans believe that the consecrated bread and wine become spiritually permeated with the body and blood of Christ, so that one consumes Christ’s blood and body along with the bread and the wine. This is called “sacramental union.”
Methodists regard the Eucharist as a “holy mystery” in which there is a “real presence” of Christ. It is a means of grace through which Christ meets with and becomes present to the participants. Because it is accepted as a mystery, there is no attempt to explain the logistics.
The Reformed and Calvinist Churches advocate the “spiritual” or “pneumatic presence” of Christ in the communion elements through the power of the Holy Spirit. They do not believe that the bread and wine are physically or metaphorically transformed, but that the Holy Spirit is present in it.
Finally, there are the Baptists. Their official position is that Holy Communion is purely “symbolic.” They believe that the bread and wine are shared to help remind everyone about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Baptists do not believe that the elements are literally the body and blood of Christ, nor do they believe that Christ is particularly present in this ritual. Almost all of the newer denominations like the Assembly of God and the Vineyard Churches take this approach to communion.
Oh, I forgot the Quakers. They don’t explain what goes on during Holy Communion because they don’t do it. They don’t perform any sacramental rituals. I guess you could say they choose to abstain from the conversation.
I don’t think people necessarily go along with the theology of their particular Christian denomination. When I talk to people they all seem to have their own views based on their personal experiences. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can standardize. You can try, but it doesn’t work.
Transubstantiation has been on the way out for a long time. One big problem with transubstantiation is that Jesus was a Jew and it is against the Laws of Moses to consume blood. The Jews believed that blood was sacred and should not be consumed.
No Israelite may eat any fat or any blood; this is a rule to be kept forever by all Israelites wherever they live. (Leviticus 3:17).
If any Israelites or any foreigners living in the community eat meat with blood still in it, the LORD will turn against them and no longer consider them his people. (Leviticus 18:10).
Also, there is no documentation in the Bible or elsewhere that what the disciples consumed during the Last Supper was anything other than regular old bread and wine. There was no indication or implication of any physical transformation of the elements that night. And he didn’t ask his disciples to take a bite out of his arm or drink his actual blood. He asked them to think about him and be conscious of the magnitude of what was happening as they ate ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill bread and wine.
Since the Reformation, almost all churches have all shifted away from transubstantiation because they determined that it was theologically unsound. And, to the uninitiated, it’s more than a little weird. It’s something you can’t really be comfortable with unless you were raised with it from an early age.
Think about it. Supposed you were not raised in church, like most people today. Who eats human bodies? Ummm….zombies! Cannibals who live in New Guinea. Psychopaths like Hannibal Lecter or Jeffrey Dahmer. Who drinks blood? Vampires like Count Dracula or those Twilight kids. And really weird people like devil worshipers or something.
So what do I think about Holy Communion? Well, it really doesn’t matter, does it? But in the spirit of sharing and being transparent I would have to say that I believe that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit are present everywhere at all times. Sometimes I experience a strong presence in Holy Communion, sometimes not so much. Sometimes I experience it as a mystery, other times I ponder the symbolism. For me it’s not a matter of doctrine and I try to stay open to whatever God wants me to know or experience at any given time.
I focus on Jesus when I partake of Holy Communion. I remember how he was martyred for trying to reveal the will of God to humankind, and I reflect on his sacrifice and his greatness and his message and his deeds. I really don’t think much about what’s going on in my mouth. I think about Jesus. And, in accordance with the meaning of the word “Eucharist” (Great Thanksgiving) I give thanks. I say, “Thank you Jesus.” That’s how I approach it. It goes by pretty fast. There isn’t enough time to think about anything for very long.
If you believe in transubstantiation that’s great. But when you are talk to non-Christians I wouldn’t make a big deal about it if I were you. It might not exactly entice them into a closer relationship to Jesus. After all, most people are not that wild about the idea of being transformed into a zombie or a cannibal or a vampire. These creatures are not generally known for being gracious, loving, and wise like Jesus was.
Second, the idea of churches being places where parasitical people gather to snack on the dead body of their teacher whom they claim to love could seem more than a little gross to the uninitiated.
Finally, the concept that bloodshed fixes things may be a tough sell to someone who might otherwise be sympatico with Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence and pacifism. The belief that blood sacrifice is the only way to pacify angry gods has ancient pagan origins and is a concept people are no longer familiar with.
Take my advice. It’s better to reserve the blood talk for like-minded friends if you want the church to grow and prosper. It’s something most non-Christians do not appreciate. To them it’s primitive and weird. Not comforting. Not liberating. Just gross.
What does this scripture say to you?