Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Eucharist is either the Christian sacrament of consecrated bread and wine or the ritual surrounding it. The term "Eucharist" is used mainly in Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and is based upon the Greek word ευχαριστω, eucharisto, meaning to give thanks or to rejoice. The form of the ritual and its attendant theology vary from tradition to tradition. Many Protestant traditions refer to "Communion", a term used abundantly in Catholic and Orthodox circles as well. See also Lord's Supper.

Table of contents
1 Historical roots of the Eucharist
2 Eucharistic theologies
3 Forms of Eucharistic celebration
4 "Open" vs. "Closed"; Communion
5 Eucharist as a political issue
6 References and external links

Historical roots of the Eucharist

Institution. The three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) contain versions of the so-called "Words of Institution" spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper: "Take, eat, this is my body.... Take, drink, this is my blood.... Do this in remembrance of me." All subsequent celebration of the Eucharist is based on this injunction.

Eucharistic theologies

The Eucharist has always been at the center of Christian worship. Every Christian tradition has its own theology to explain the meaning of this central sacrament, agreeing in places with other traditions, disagreeing in other places, and sometimes describing seemingly identical concepts with very different language. In general, the following is true for Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions: The Eucharist is seen as the fulfillment of the Divine Economy (God's plan for the salvation of humanity from sin), a commemoration of Jesus's Crucifixion on Calvary and his Resurrection, the means for Christians to unite with God and with each other, and the giving of thanks for all of these things. Differences in Eucharistic theology tend to be related to differences in understanding of these areas as well.

Catholic Eucharistic theology

The Eucharist is one of the seven Catholic sacraments which assist the believer in the progression toward union with God, and is deemed the "source and summit of Christian life". [1] Belief that the Eucharist literally is the body and blood of Jesus, through a substantial change that occurs by the power of God, is rooted in the earliest church writings. This "mystery of faith" [1] is a critical element of the religion.

Eucharistic union with God is a primary component in the Catholic conception of prayer life, in which one progresses first along the purgative way, e.g., confessing sins before receiving communion, a tradition dating from the earliest period of the church. Later one passes along to the illuminative and unitive ways (see prayer). Nourished by the Eucharist, according to Catholic belief, the faithful seek to live by Christ as Christ lives by the Father.

See Transubstantiation and historical roots of Catholic Eucharistic theology.

Orthodox Eucharistic theology

Since it prefigures the ultimate union with God to which Orthodox Christians aspire (see theosis), the Eucharist plays a central role in Orthodox theology, which teaches, along with Catholicism, that the Divine Liturgy mystically brings the congregation into the presence of both the original Last Supper and the angelic worship in Heaven. The worship is centered around the union of the earthly Liturgy with the heavenly Liturgy, of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross with the bloodless sacrifice on the altar, and of Christ's Body and Blood with the faithful, both individually and corporately, as the Body of Christ (a term which refers both to the Eucharist and the Church).

The bread and wine, referred to as "gifts", are believed, as in the Catholic tradition, to literally become the Body and Blood of Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Less theological emphasis is made on identifying a moment of consecration, such as the moment at which the arcane words are said. The Orthodox typically eschew Aristotelian philosophy, i.e. philosophy tending to categorize and organize, preferring neo-Platonic philosophy, i.e. tending to reconcile distinctions. The language of "transubstantiation" is therefore thought too precise and is avoided, in favor of the language of "participation". St Augustine, [1] (d. 430) a neo-Platonist, helped the Church to develop a unifying synthetic theology, [1] categorizing many theological concepts yet seeking also their harmonious interrelationship, and of communion stating that "[t]he entire Church observes the tradition" [1], i.e. participates in it, and that the "sacrifice ... is now offered to God by Christians throughout the whole world".

Some Orthodox theologians and scholars do accept the term "transubstantiation", e.g. based on terms found in the Orthodox Confession of 1640 [1] made by Peter Mogila (Mohyla), metropolitan of Kiev, to refute a Calvinist declaration made by another Orthodox, Cyril Lucaris [1]. Orthodox sources are divided on the question of Mogila himself, some saying that he was too much influenced by Western sources, (ibid.) others saying that he was "ahead of his time" in promoting Church unity. [1] Irrespective of terminology, owing to the fact that the various Orthodox Churches employ the form, matter, intent, and apostolic succession that is their heritage and the Catholic universal teaching, they consecrate the bread according to apostolic tradition and teaching. Different apostles went east than west, and one will encounter differences in respective liturgy; for example, the Orthodox generally stand throughout the Divine Liturgy while in the Western Rite the faithful alternate during Mass between sitting, kneeling, and standing. Some theological variety can be attributed simply to a lack of contact since the East-West Schism in 1054.

Protestant Eucharistic theology

The numerous Protestant denominations have diverse understandings of the Eucharist.

Six contrasting views on the "body and blood"

There are generally six views of the significance of the body and the blood, arranged here in progressive order from symbolism to literalism:

It should be noted that the last two views are identical in their belief that the bread and wine literally become the Body and Blood of Christ, but differ on whether or not that change can be understood or explained.

See Ecclesial communities contrasted.

Forms of Eucharistic celebration

The Agape Feast. The Eucharistic celebration of the early Christians, while centered on the ritual of the bread and wine, also included various other ritual elements, including elements of the Passover seder and of Mediterranean funerary banquets, termed Agape Feasts. Agape is one of the Greek words for love. Such Agapes were widespread, though not universal, through the early Christian world. This service apparently was a full meal, with each participant bringing their own food, with the meal eaten in a common room.

Such banquets, perhaps predictably enough, could at times deteriorate into mere occasions for eating and drinking, or for ostentatious displays by the wealthier members of the community, as was already observed by St. Paul (c.f. 1 Cor 11:20-22). Because of such abuses, the Agape gradually fell into disfavor, and after being subjected to various regulations and restrictions, was finally dropped from the liturgy of the Church between the 6th and 8th centuries.

Current celebration in Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox worship

Liturgical Setting. The Eucharist is consecrated and received in the context of a ritual (known as the Mass in Western Catholic or Anglican tradition or the Divine Liturgy in Eastern tradition, which includes Eastern Rite Catholics, the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox). It is usually celebrated in a church. Theologically, Eucharist is often used to define "church". The ritual also usually includes Scripture readings, hymns, etc, which may or may not be directly related to the Eucharist. They provide the preparation and context for the Liturgy of the Eucharist or Anaphora. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, the Eucharist may also be celebrated as part of a wedding service.

Participants. The celebrant is usually a priest wearing the vestments of their rank. Catholic and Anglican vestments are very similar, if not identical. Orthodox vestments are somewhat different in both appearance and symbolism [1].

There is usually a congregation. The Mass or the Divine Liturgy is the entire worship service whereas Eucharist is just the specific portion relating to the bread and the cup. Communion is taken promptly by those who are not in a state of sin, preferably by those who have recently been to confession. In Catholic and Anglican practice, consecrated hosts not consumed are reserved. In the Orthodox practice, all consecrated materials are consumed by the Deacon at the end of the Liturgy, unless specially reserved for the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts during Lent.

In Catholicism and Anglicanism, a priest can celebrate the Eucharist alone; in Orthodoxy, laity must be present.

Materials and Objects. There is typically an altar, where the bread and wine are set for consecration, usually in a chalice for the wine and a paten or diskos for the bread, although a plate or basket is sometimes used. The wine is usually fermented red grape wine, and the bread is usually made from wheat. In Catholic and Anglican traditions, the bread, often referred to as the "host", is usually unleavened, often in the form of communion wafers, matzoh, or pita bread, in imitation of the Passover seder. In the Orthodox tradition, fermented red wine and leavened bread are always used.

In Catholic practice, the Mass involves an altar (for a true sacrifice), the chalice (for the consecrated wine), the ciborium (to hold consecrated hosts), a corporal (white cloth to put over the altar preventing particles of consecrated hosts from being scattered), cruets (pitchers of holy water and wine), incense (rising smoke symbolizes prayers reaching to God), paten (to hold consecrated hosts), the tabernacle (where consecrated hosts are reserved, for their transubstantiation is permanent according to Catholic theology), and a sacramentary (book of prayers used at Mass).

In Orthodox practice, there are two altars: the Table of Preparation (Prothesis, Proskemedia) for the preparation of the bread and wine before the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Table, the main altar in the center of the Sanctuary [1]. There is a special cloth called the Antimension (Greek: "instead of the Table") which is signed by the bishop to give permission to celebrate the Eucharist on an altar other than his own. The bread is placed on a diskos and the wine, in a chalice. For part of the Liturgy, the diskos and chalice are covered with individual veils (with that over the diskos supported by a small frame called the Star) as well as a larger veil (the Aer) which is large enough to cover both. A triangular-bladed knife called the Spear is used to cut the bread, and a small spoon is used to give the Eucharist to the faithful. There is also a small container of hot water (the Zeon) which is added to the chalice to symbolize the fervour of faith.

Ritual. The bread and wine are brought to the altar, often in a formal procession. After various prayers, depending on the particular tradition, there is usually a prayer that the bread and wine be changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The clergy and laity then receive the Eucharist. Great care is taken not to mishandle or drop any element. After the consecration, a term often used is Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

In the Eastern liturgical traditions, a small spoon is used to dispense bread and wine simultaneously. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions, practice varies somewhat, but falls into two broad categories: clergy-administered and self-administered.

If the clergy administers the Eucharist, it may be received at a central location, or at several points, with the congregation coming forward to receive. The priest places the bread in the communicant’s mouth or hand or the communicant takes it from an offered plate or basket. The cup may be communal with the priest wiping the lip of the cup with a cloth after each person receives.

Individual cups and bread (sometimes prepackaged) may be distributed for the congregation to simultaneously drink and eat. Bread and a common cup may be passed among the congregation, with each eating or drinking as they receive it. The cup may be individual cups distributed to the congregation. Individual cups may be reusable cups that are collected again afterwards or disposable cups, which may or may not be collected.

"Open" vs. "Closed"; Communion

According to the ancient tradition, evident in the works of Jesus, the Didache, Scripture, and numerous Church Fathers, communion in the Catholic faith is only for those who have accepted that faith. E.g., St Justin Martyr, ca. A.D. 150: "...no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true...." In those ecclesial communities, communion is therefore closed, in that people who are not members of the church are asked not to participate. Denominations that practice closed communion will only share the Eucharist with members of their own church and with members of churches they consider to be in full communion with themselves. Not all churches practice closed communion. Some churches have what is called "restricted communion", a way of ensuring communion only for those of similar, perhaps "evangelical", churches. [1] Other churches practice open communion, i.e., they make communion available to anyone who requests it.

Eucharist as a political issue

In 2004, some Catholic bishops stated that they would deny the Eucharist to Catholic lawmakers who voted in favor of legal abortion. A special Church task force, headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC, was formed in 2003 in response to a Vatican document. Originally it intended to issue its report after the 2004 presidential election, although this date may be moved forward in response to public statements by other bishops.

References and external links