EUCHARIST . The Eucharist, also known as the Mass, Communion service, Lord's Supper, and Divine Liturgy, among other names, is the central act of Christian worship, practiced by almost all denominations of Christians. Though varying in form from the very austere to the very elaborate, the Eucharist has as its essential elements the breaking and sharing of bread and the pouring and sharing of wine (in some Protestant churches, unfermented grape juice) among the worshipers in commemoration of the actions of Jesus Christ on the eve of his death.
The word eucharist is taken from the Greek eucharistia, which means "thanksgiving" or "gratitude" and which was used by the early Christians for the Hebrew berakhah, meaning "a blessing" such as a table grace. When Christians adopted the word from the Greek into other languages, the meaning was narrowed to the specific designation of the ritual of the bread and wine.
The ritual attributed to Jesus by the writers of the New Testament is portrayed as a Jewish Passover seder meal in which Jesus reinterprets the symbolism of the traditional celebration (Paul in 1 Cor. 11:23–26, Mk. 14:22–25, Mt. 26:26–29, and Lk. 22:14–20). Passover commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, which was the first step in their becoming a people in covenant with God. It is celebrated to this day by a lengthy ceremonial meal with prescribed foods, in which the story of the deliverance is symbolically reenacted (see Ex. 12:1–28). Selecting from the many symbolic foods customary in his time, Jesus takes only the unleavened bread (the bread of emergency or affliction) and the wine. The tradition of the early witnesses is that Jesus asks the traditional questions about the meaning of the ritual and answers, first about the bread he is breaking, "This is my body, broken for you," and then about the wine, "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many." It is clear that Jesus refers to his death and is interpreting the significance of that death in terms of the symbolism of the Exodus story and the Passover ritual. He invites the disciples to repeat the action frequently and thus enter into his death and the outcome of that death. By placing his death in the context of Passover, Jesus interprets it as a liberation bringing his followers into community as one people in covenant with God (see 1 Cor. 11:17–34).
In the earliest Christian times, Eucharist was celebrated rather spontaneously as part of an ordinary meal for which the local followers of Jesus were gathered in his name in a private home. By the second century it is clear that there were strong efforts to regulate it under the authority and supervision of the local church leaders known as bishops. By the fourth century, Eucharist was celebrated with great pomp and ceremony in public buildings, and the meal was no longer in evidence. At that time, solemn processions emphasized the role of a clergy arrayed in special vestments. The form of the celebration included several readings from the Bible, prayers, chants, a homily, and the great prayer of thanksgiving, in the course of which the words and actions of Jesus at his farewell supper were recited, followed by the distribution of the consecrated bread and wine to the participants.
The Orthodox and other Eastern churches retained this general format with some variations. The liturgy of the Western churches, however, went through a long period of accretion and elaboration of secondary symbolism which obscured the meaning of the action and tended to leave the congregation passive spectators of what the clergy were doing. During the Middle Ages there also emerged the private Mass, a Eucharist celebrated by a priest without a congregation of worshipers present.
The sixteenth-century reformers took action to strip away all accretions and elements that did not seem to be in accord with the text of the Bible. Zwingli and Calvin were more radical in this than Luther. The Roman Catholic church also instituted extensive reforms of the rite in the sixteenth century, leaving a uniform pattern later known as the Tridentine Mass. This, however, was very substantially revised after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), allowing more spontaneity and congregational participation as well as offering more variety.
Eucharist is understood by all Christians to commemorate the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, and to mediate communion with God and community among the worshipers. Beyond this basic concept, the theology of the Eucharist varies very widely among the Christian denominations and has often been a cause of bitter dispute between them.
Both Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians understand the presence of Christ very concretely, taking seriously the so-called words of institution, "This is my body … this is my blood." However, the Orthodox insist that while there is an actual change in the bread and wine that justifies these words, the manner of the change is a mystery not to be analyzed or explained rationally. Since medieval times Catholic Christians have attempted to give an intellectually satisfying explanation, focusing on the notion of a transubstantiation of bread and wine. While the eucharistic theology of the various Protestant churches varies widely, they are united in finding a theology of transubstantiation not in harmony with their interpretation of scripture.
The meaning and effect of the Eucharist have also been discussed in Catholic theology under the term real presence. This emphasizes that the presence of Christ mediated by the bread and wine is prior to the faith of the congregation. Protestant theology has generally rejected the term real presence as one liable to superstitious interpretation.
Orthodox and Catholic Christians also agree on an interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of sacrifice; that is, a renewed offering by Christ himself of his immolation in death. Again, there have been determined efforts in the Catholic theological tradition to give intellectually satisfying explanations of this, while Orthodox theology tends to tolerate a variety of explanations at the same time as it insists on fidelity to the words of the liturgy itself. Protestants believe the theology of sacrifice lacks biblical foundation and doctrinal validity, and prefer to emphasize the role of the Eucharist as a memorial.
It is paradoxical that the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity for Christians yet is a sign and cause of disunity among denominations. In general denominations exclude others from their eucharistic table, usually on account of theological differences. Contemporary initiatives reflect attempts to reconcile some of these differences and to experiment cautiously with "intercommunion" among the churches. Such initiatives appear to be far more extensive among laity than in the official legislation of the churches.
The texts of the eucharistic celebrations of the various Western churches are given in Liturgies of the Western Church, selected and introduced by Bard Thompson (1961; reprint, Philadelphia, 1980). An account of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and its theology is given in Alexander Schmemann's Introduction to Liturgical Theology (London, 1966). A description of the early Christians' Eucharist and eucharistic theology, with identification of sources, is presented in The Eucharist of the Early Christians, by Willy Rordorf and others (New York, 1978). More specifically concerned with the theology of the Eucharist are Joseph M. Powers's Eucharistic Theology (New York, 1967), from a Catholic perspective, and Geoffrey Wainwright's Eucharist and Eschatology (1971; reprint, New York, 1981), from a Protestant, particularly a Methodist, perspective. A discussion of the social implications of eucharistic celebration can be found in my book, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World (New York, 1976).
Monika K. Hellwig (1987)
The early Church and the patristic period saw variety of practice in the ritual, but general acceptance of the idea that the eucharistic elements of the bread and wine were the body and blood of Christ. The notion that the bread and wine were transformed into Christ's body and blood during the eucharistic service became a matter of debate in the West in the Middle Ages, by which time the Eucharist was firmly established as one of the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic church. This debate led to a more precise formulation of transubstantiation of the Fifth Lateran Council (1215) and by Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotelian physics to explain the process by which, during the act of consecration by the priest, the substance of the bread and wine changed into the body and blood of Christ (that is, changed their essence) while remaining in the accidental forms of bread and wine. The later Middle Ages saw great eucharistic devotion, especially amongst religious women who imitated and shared Christ's suffering by eating nothing but the host — that is, Christ's body — so that they might become so united with the body of Christ that their own bodies would be no longer ordinary human bodies, but a body like Christ's. The institution of Corpus Christi (‘Body of Christ’) as a feast day in 1264 indicated a more popular, widespread (and less extreme) eucharistic piety.
The Protestant Reformation saw much dispute about the meaning of the Eucharist, and it was the issue on which the mainstream German and Swiss Protestant reformers broke with each other, at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. The dispute turned on the extent to which Christ was thought to be present in the bread and wine, with Zwingli holding the extreme position that the Eucharist was a mere memorial of the Last Supper and there was no change in the bread and wine at all (thus the Eucharist is simply the Lord's Supper), and Luther adhering to the doctrine of ‘consubstantiation’ in which, during the Eucharist, both the bread and wine and Christ's body and blood co-existed. Their disagreement was expressed particularly in their interpretation of Jesus' words at the Last Supper — ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’, with Zwingli insisting that ‘is’ means ‘signifies’. Behind Zwingli's position lies his belief that ‘the body and spirit are such essentially different things that whichever one you take it cannot be the other’ (Commentary on True and False Religion, 1525). The Roman Catholic Church, in its sixteenth-century reforming Council of Trent, reaffirmed its belief in transubstantiation.
Debate also began in the late Middle Ages, developed in the Reformation, and continues to this day on the extent to which the Eucharist is a sacrifice. In part this debate is about the nature of priestly and lay power, for the notion of sacrifice in the Eucharist suggests that the priest is exercising a particular kind of spiritual power and authority in the re-enactment of the events of the Passion, in which the body of Christ is broken and his blood shed, and in effecting the transformation of the elements from bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ. This spiritual authority is often signified by the bodily gestures of the priest while he or she is consecrating the elements while presiding at the Eucharist. On the whole Protestants have rejected this notion of sacrifice in the Eucharist, partly because it might be seen to detract from Christ's once-and-for-all act of self-giving on the Cross (in which singular act they believe he redeemed humanity from sin), by suggesting that humans constantly have to petition God to act for our salvation, and partly because of their understanding of the priesthood of all believers by which the authority of their ministers lies in their proclamation of the Word and leading of congregations rather than in any form of sacramental ministry. In the West, Roman Catholics and ‘high’ Anglicans have continued to debate the notion of sacrifice in the Eucharist, while the Liturgical movement of the twentieth century emphasized the importance of the Eucharist for the corporate life of the Church, thereby reaffirming the notion of the Church as the body of Christ and the active participation of the laity in the Eucharist. Vatican II also stressed these points.
See also Christianity and the body.
From the earliest times Christians have blessed and shared bread and wine in commemoration of the Last Supper (recorded in the first three Gospels and 1 Corinthians 10–11) and of the self-sacrifice of Christ. The bread and wine are referred to as the body and blood of Christ, though much theological controversy has focused on how substantially or symbolically this is to be interpreted.
The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes via Old French, based on ecclesiastical Greek eukharistia ‘thanksgiving’.
Eu·cha·rist / ˈyoōkərist/ • n. the Christian ceremony commemorating the Last Supper, in which bread and wine are consecrated and consumed. ∎ the consecrated elements, esp. the bread. DERIVATIVES: Eu·cha·ris·tic / ˌyoōkəˈristik/ adj.