The Eucharist is a sacrament or rite of the Christian church in which a congregation will use bread and wine to re-enact the last meal of Jesus before his crucifixion. It is also known as Communion, Holy Communion or The Lord's Supper.
WHAT IS THE EUCHARIST?
Christians usually celebrate the Eucharist-a Greek word that literally means "to give thanks"-in the context of a worship service. During the worship service, an ordained pastor or priest leads the congregation in a liturgy that usually includes a chance to confess sins. Most congregations also "pass the peace of Christ" by shaking hands, hugging, or kissing to show that there is no bad will between members of the congregation. The liturgy retells some of the story of God and God's people. While these liturgies may vary across Christian traditions, almost all include what are referred to as the Words of Institution, which are taken from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, and Luke 22:19-20. More prayers are offered, and people come up to receive the bread and wine.
How congregations receive the bread and wine varies a lot by congregation. Some receive a piece of bread to eat and then drink out of one big chalice or cup of wine. In other traditions, people receive a small, individual cup of wine. While some congregations kneel at an altar, others walk to the front of the church, receive the Eucharist, and return to their seats. In other churches, members pass the bread and wine to one another and help themselves. With the exception of a few denominations, how people take the bread and wine is more often than not a matter of congregational preference.
What determines how often a community practices the Eucharist is sometimes, but not always based on theology. Roman Catholics typically celebrate the Eucharist every week out of deference to their theological tradition that places tremendous importance on The Lord's Supper. Some Christian communities take communion four times a year or less. In their tradition, it is purely a symbolic meal that does not need to be celebrated very often. Most United Methodist and Presbyterian churches celebrate the Eucharist about once a month, despite the fact that their respective founders, John Wesley and John Calvin, believed that more frequent celebration was important.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Christians partake of the Eucharist because, according to the gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew and to Paul's letter to the Corinthian church, Jesus commands them to do so in remembrance of him. On the night of the Passover feast, Jesus revealed that he knew one of his disciples was going to betray him. He then offered bread and wine from the table, saying "this is my body" and "this is my blood." He told the disciples that they were his blood and body as signs of a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. He then commanded them to "do this in remembrance of me." Since that event, the Christian church has spent nearly 2000 years debating the meaning of the word is. While some of the greatest divisions on the subject arose during the Reformation, there has always been debate within and between different Christian churches. Some theologians, including most Baptists, believe that Jesus' use of the word is was purely symbolic-that obviously the bread could not have been Jesus' body because his body was still in tact as he stood in front of the disciples. Others, such as Roman Catholic theologians, argue that Jesus was capable of any supernatural miracle: if Jesus said that bread "is" his body, then it is his body. This miracle can be repeated by ordained priests who use the words that it is believed Jesus used.
Just as different Christians have different beliefs about Jesus' use of the word is, different traditions have diverse opinions as to what "happens" in the Eucharist. Some take a more mystical approach that holds a more supernatural understanding of the sacrament. It is an especially powerful ritual for members of more sacramentally focused denominations such as the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and to some extent, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions. Although each denomination has its own perspective on what actually happens in the Eucharist, all of these traditions believe that Jesus is especially present in the meal.
Roman Catholics believe that the essence of the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus (this is called the doctrine of transubstantiation). Lutherans believe that Jesus is mystically integrated into the bread and wine but do not believe that the physical components themselves change (this is called the doctrine of consubstantiation). Other Protestant traditions hold that Jesus is mystically connected to the bread and wine through the Holy Spirit (another aspect or part of God) but that Jesus' body has ascended into heaven and cannot, therefore, be present in a church service. Regardless of these differences, all of these traditions maintain that whoever takes part in the Eucharistic ritual and believes in Jesus receives God's grace and experiences greater intimacy with the Christian community.
Other traditions, such as most Baptist churches, take a much more symbolic approach to the Eucharist (this approach is called memorialism). In this perspective, generally attributed to Zwingli, followers do not believe that anything supernatural occurs in the Eucharist. Rather it is a way of remembering Jesus that has been given to the church before he died. Because it is not as central to Christian living as it might be in a more sacramental tradition, Christians in these denominations tend not to celebrate Communion as often-celebrating four times a year or less. This is not to say that the Eucharist does have special meaning to Christians with this perspective. The bread and wine are still special because they are associated with Jesus-just as an old toy might be considered special to someone because it was given to them by a family member or loved one.
The Eucharist is a meal of contrasts that simultaneously observes joy and sorrow, death and life. That the first Eucharist took place at a Passover meal is significant. The Passover feast celebrates the night before the Israelites left slavery and began their journey into the promised land. This was seen as a great act of God's power, mercy, and love. Likewise, Christians see the death and resurrection that came after the Eucharistic meal to be an awesome act of God's love, power, and mercy. Therefore the Eucharist is not just a solemn memory of the sacrifice Jesus made. It is also a celebration of the great things that God did despite the pain of Jesus' crucifixion. Wine is simultaneously bitter and sweet. Some see this as a reflection of the Christian lifestyle that brings both joy and hardship. Eucharist comes from the Greek verb, eucaristw or "eucharisto," which means to celebrate. Ultimately, Christians remember that the bread and wine become or symbolize the body and blood of Jesus-a powerful reminder of the belief that their God loved them so much that God was willing to suffer for them (cf. Phil. 2).
That the Eucharist is a meal is also significant for Christian understanding. By sharing in a meal, communities become more like a family. Sharing in the same food symbolically represents the idea that Christians are all nourished from the same source and that they do so in community-not in isolation.
Eucharist in the early church may have actually looked less like a worship service and more like a potluck supper in which members of the community brought food to share. Although there was certainly some liturgy in these gatherings, Paul makes it clear that the meal is intended to bring the community closer together and help people to settle their differences (cf. 1 Cor. 11-12). In fact, Christians are encouraged to do so before coming to the communion table. When a member of a Mennonite Christian community has an issue with another member, the two may be denied communion until they are able to resolve whatever it is that comes between them.
Regardless of different interpretations of exactly what happens in the Eucharist, it is universally agreed that it represents and reminds the Christian community of one of the most important nights in Christian history-the night in which Jesus, whom Christians believe to be God on earth, willingly decided to sacrifice his life for the good of God's creation.