Communion, also known as Holy Communion, the Eucharist, Mass, or the Lord's Supper, is the liturgical act celebrated by Christians commemorating the death of Christ. Through the elements of bread and wine (or grape juice), Christians reenact Jesus' last meal with his disciples, recall his sacrificial death, anticipate their reunion with him in heaven, and reaffirm their unity with other believers. Communion is the central act of worship in nearly every Christian church. Only baptism is practiced as universally.
For all its centrality and emphasis on unity, however, communion has often been a source of division among Christians. In the United States, with almost two thousand different Christian denominations, Eucharistic practice and theology vary according to tradition. The major division in American Christianity is between those who understand the elements to convey God's grace and those who do not.
Sacramental traditions, such as those of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Lutherans, teach that communion carries grace necessary for salvation and Christian living. Because the bread and wine are in some way revered, priests, ministers, or specially trained laypersons must be ordained or licensed to serve communion in these churches.
Roman Catholicism teaches transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ through the act of consecration in the Mass. Mass is celebrated every Sunday and on major holy days (and is available daily in some parishes). Minimally, a Catholic must receive communion once a year to remain in good standing. Only baptized Catholics admitted to Mass may receive communion in Roman Catholic churches.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians insist that communion is one of seven sacraments. The Orthodox refer to sacraments as "mysteries" and avoid the difficulties of philosophical ideas such as transubstantiation. Instead, Orthodox churches simply teach that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood and that participation in the mystery is central to Christian holiness. All baptized members receive, and non-Orthodox Christians are welcomed into Eucharistic fellowship by partaking of nonconsecrated bread instead of the consecrated host.
Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, both Protestant sacramental traditions, generally reject transubstantiation. Instead, like the Orthodox, they affirm "real presence" in the Eucharist: Christ is actually present in some mysterious fashion that resists final definition. Lutherans (but not Episcopalians) refer to this as consubstantiation—Christ is present "with, in, and under" the elements. Episcopalians celebrate weekly communion and admit all baptized persons (including infants) into fellowship. Most Lutherans prefer monthly celebration and do not admit infants to communion.
Eucharistic sacramentalism, however, has not been the dominant tradition in American Christianity. In the United States, communion historically has been defined according to prevailing low church practices borrowed or modified from reformed theology.
Reformed thought is split on the issue of communion. Some in the reformed tradition (usually Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and reformed churches) follow the teachings of John Calvin (1509–1564) on communion. Calvin rejected the above views in favor of a doctrine of spiritual presence. He believed that Christ's body remained in heaven during communion while his spirit was manifested in the meal to those who received in faith. Although this is not sacramental in the strictest sense, Calvinism treats communion with the utmost seriousness and believes that the act shapes Christian piety. Because of the serious nature of communion, Calvinism insists that communion should be served by ordained ministers or trained laity. In the Calvinist tradition, communion often precedes personal or communal spiritual renewal.
The most influential reformed thinker on American communion practice, however, was the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), who argued for memorialism and held that Christ was in no way present in the bread and wine. Instead, the meal commemorated Christ's death and served to remind the faithful of God's love for them. According to Zwingli, the elements were only symbolic and the meal was a form of fellowship. His reforms democratized the Mass, shifting the emphasis away from priestly liturgical practitioners toward communion with other faithful believers. As American Christianity developed, Zwingli's views matched the ethos of democratic denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. Memorialism, with its attendant emphasis on the laity, came to define American communion practice and often put the more sacramental traditions on the theological defensive. Sacramentalism was often attacked as "medieval," "superstitious," "papist," or "foreign," all nineteenth-century code words for undemocratic and anti-American ideas. In some denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, arguments over communion became entangled in political and social conflict over issues of nativism, prohibition, women's rights, and slavery.
Although style (such as the Victorian preference for sacerdotal architecture) sometimes dictated its practice, communion in the United States has steadily become more lay-oriented, even in the most sacramental churches. Throughout the twentieth century, the liturgical renewal movement transformed American churchgoing. Begun by European Catholics, contemporary liturgical reform emphasized lay participation in Christian worship. For Catholics this renewal culminated with the Second Vatican Council and its "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" (1963), which legislated the vernacular in worship and the reform of the Mass. These changes had a profound impact on American Catholicism, as they encouraged the implicit cultural ideal of lay authority to (once again) challenge the church's hierarchy. Thus the new Mass served as a rallying point for women seeking ordination and those questioning Catholic teachings on divorce and remarriage. At the same time, movements to reinstate the Latin Mass are linked to Catholic traditionalism regarding women and sexuality.
Protestant liturgical reform renewed the priesthood of all believers, reconsidered Zwinglian memorialism, and has produced some historical ironies. Sacramental Protestants, such as Episcopalians, have affirmed lay ministry, introduced liturgies and hymnals, renovated liturgical space, and attempted to mitigate clericalism. Nonsacramental churches, such as some Baptists and Methodists, have adopted weekly communion and written new liturgies. Since World War II, mainline Protestants have moved closer to each other in communion theology and practice in both formal and informal ways. The theology expressed in the ecumenical movement and documents such as Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) helped restore the sacramental nature of communion. Interdenominational experiments, such as ecumenical social service agencies and the charismatic movement, gave Protestants firsthand experience in sharing worship and communion. Even prominent evangelicals such as theologian Robert Webber at Wheaton College in Illinois have argued for weekly communion and liturgical renewal. In contemporary America, communion is both more lay-oriented in its practice and more sacramental in its theology than at any time in the nation's history.
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Title of a bestselling book by Whitley Strieber, author of such fantasy/horror stories as The Wolfen (1978) and The Hunger (1981). In Communion (1987) Strieber describes what are claimed to be his real personal experiences of abduction and painful examination by strange creatures. These experiences date from age 12 when Strieber claims that one evening, near his backyard, he was attacked by a huge insect resembling a praying mantis, which hit his head with a silver nail.
Strieber also recalls being abducted momentarily from a train during a journey with his family from San Antonio to Wisconsin. Soon afterward, "visiting spacemen" gave him instructions for constructing an antigravity machine. When he connected it to the electrical supply there were showers of sparks and a pulsation of lights in the house. The machine exploded, burning out house lights, and the following night the roof of the house was destroyed by fire. Other nightmare experiences concerned giant insect figures and a headless figure touching him with a silver-tipped wand.
The substance of the book, however, concerns events in 1985 in an upstate New York cabin, where he claims that a number of creatures came and transported him to an alien spacecraft. There, he says, a needle was put into his brain and a triangular object inserted into his rectum. The triangular theme recurs in a later experience; while reading in bed, he had an unexplained time-lapse of four hours, and later discovered two triangles incised on his left forearm.
In 1986 Strieber met and compared notes with Budd Hopkins, who has specialized in the subject of claimed UFO abductions. Hopkins it the author of Missing Time (1981) and Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods (1987). These books discuss other claimed "missing time" abductions.
Following publication of his book, Strieber received more than 500 letters in six weeks, many of them claiming similar mysterious visitations or abductions. He followed the book with a sequel, Transformation: The Breakthrough (1988), and eventually Communion was made into a movie. In 1989 he created the Communion Foundation to focus further debate on his experiences and research on abduction claims. By this time Strieber had developed a more positive view of the abduction experience, a perspective that soon led to his break with the ufological community. The foundation lasted only a few years; it was dis-continued as Strieber withdrew from intense debates on the abduction phenomenon.
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Conroy, Ed. Report on "Communion": An Independent Investigation of and Commentary on Whitley Strieber's "Communion." New York: William Morrow, 1989.
Taves, Ernest H. "Communion with the Imagination." The Skeptical Inquirer 12, 1 (Fall 1987).
com·mun·ion / kəˈmyoōnyən/ • n. 1. the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, esp. when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level. ∎ common participation in a mental or emotional experience: festivals where all take part in joyous communion. 2. (often Communion or Holy Communion) the service of Christian worship at which bread and wine are consecrated and shared.See Eucharist. ∎ the consecrated bread and wine so administered and received: the priests gave him Holy Communion. ∎ reception of the consecrated bread and wine at such a service. 3. a relationship of recognition and acceptance between Christian churches or denominations, or between individual Christians or Christian communities and a church (signified by a willingness to give or receive the Eucharist): the Eastern Churches are not in communion with Rome. ∎ a group of Christian communities or churches that recognize one another's ministries or that of a central authority: the Anglican communion. PHRASES: make one's communion receive bread and wine that has been consecrated at a Eucharist.
Communion ★★ 1989 (R)
A serious adaptation of the purportedly nonfictional bestseller by Whitley Strieber about his family's abduction by extraterrestrials. Spacey new age story is overlong and hard to swallow. 103m/C VHS, DVD . Christopher Walken, Lindsay Crouse, Frances Sternhagen, Joel Carlson, Andreas Katsulas, Basil Hoffman; D: Philippe Mora; M: Eric Clapton.