The Reality of the Eucharist
The Reality of the Eucharist
The Very Revd Dr John Shepherd AM, Dean Emeritus
The Eucharist is something about which almost every Christian has strong views. It has featured spectacularly in ecclesiastical disputes, particularly at the time of the Reformation, and in a way that baptism did not.
From the earliest times, it was part and parcel of the daily life of the Christian. Theologically it was reckoned to be the principal ‘means of grace’. In the later medieval period it was rare for worshippers actually to receive communion; that is, the bread. Once a year was the accepted rule and it was set in the context of a strict penitential discipline. But as weekly attendance at the Eucharist was the custom, this rarity of receiving communion was compensated for by a deep reverence for the sacrament, and the elevation of the consecrated Host was reckoned to be the high point of the service.
Primary evidence of the Eucharist is found in what we call the New Testament. But these documents are not of the precise time of our Lord. They belong to the generation which succeeded him. Even later. And the approved list of contents as we now have it came about very slowly. We have to wait until AD 382 until we find an official list the same as that of the present New Testament, when a Council at Rome under Pope Damasus made a declaration about the contents of a Canon.
This means that the early Christians didn’t say, with regard to the Eucharist, ‘We shall do this or that, or believe this or that because it’s in the New Testament’. Instead they would have been saying ‘This is what has been done or said by Christians who’ve been taught by those who knew Jesus, and have passed on their knowledge to us, either directly or through others’. Scriptural evidence is therefore a part, but only a part of the total truth about the Eucharist. For the rest we have to look into the liturgies of the earliest times, and also into the writings of the Doctors of the Church, who wrote against a background of the current practice and belief of the Church.
This means that if we understand that the writings of the New Testament develop out of the Eucharistic community, we can see a great deal more than the routine accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. For example, we can see that from the very beginning the Church was a eucharistic community. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Eucharist was the first fruit of the experience of Pentecost and of the preaching which followed: ‘They met constantly to hear the apostles teach and to share the common life, to break bread, and to pray’ (Acts 2:42). And here we’re told it was a daily affair (2:26). In his Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin mentions a practice of meeting on the first day of the week.
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians touches on the details of the Lord’s Supper as it was practised by the early Church. It’s not meant to be a blueprint of the service, but like so much else in the Letter it deals with an enquiry or report about how the Corinthians went about it, which seems to have been pretty haphazard, to say the least. They’d caught on to the idea of eating and drinking in honour of the Lord, but in much the same vein as did a famous (infamous?) parishioner in the nineteenth century who received the chalice, held it firmly, and said ‘Your very good health, Vicar’.
This is not the point, says St Paul. If you want to have a party, have it at home. Don’t confuse it with the Eucharist, which was instituted by Our Lord and solemnly done in the night that he was betrayed. Not only is it ringing with overtones of the Passion but it is the means by which we join ourselves to Christ, and because we are made one in him we become united to each other (I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34).
The three Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) all have accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. They are all similar. And they all contain a reference to what seems to be a future and final event: ‘Truly I tell you: never again shall I drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’ (Mark 14:25). This gives the Eucharist its special role in keeping alive the hope that eventually all sacraments will disappear and we will see him as he is.
In the meantime, we follow his instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ and an essential feature of this memory was a ‘doing’ - it brought the reality of Christ into the present – not just as a memory, but as a reality.
In the Eucharist we therefore experience the living Christ as eternally present, and eternally present in his resurrection glory.
The key episode is Luke’s account of the meal which followed the meeting of Jesus with some of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. As they walked along the road, our Lord, now in his Risen Life, explained the meaning of the events at Jerusalem, beginning, unsurprisingly, with Moses, the Law and the Prophets. Despite all this they were unable to recognise this mysterious stranger. It was not until he broke the bread that he was known to them. With that action, the pieces fell into place, for here was the means to share his risen life, to become united with the body of his Resurrection.
It is this action which is at the heart of our Eucharist today. It is not merely a recounting of the scriptural accounts of the Last Supper and thus remembering Christ in faith, but an actual ‘doing’ of that remembrance by being brought into living contact with the substance of the divine life, and in the language of the patristic writers, divinized. The Eucharist is the action of setting forth Our Lord himself and becoming incorporated into this divine reality.
And when in all our other prayers we end with the words, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord …’ we recall this action all over again. We receive the gift of his life which transforms us and renews us and fits us for heaven.