As we approach Holy Week there are a number of texts that will need their fair share of time, so I thought I’d start working through them a bit early. Palm Sunday is tomorrow (you can read about it here or listen to me preach about it here), and I will celebrate it with some friends who are Catholic and decided to return to Nashville to visit for the weekend.
I wasn’t raised Catholic, but my husband was. Between the two of us I think we have, in some form or fashion, participated in almost every Christian denomination. Each denomination has its own nuances in theology and polity (which means how they’re organized and what they do as a group). Communion is one of those topics that has divided congregations due to matters of both theology and polity, and the specificity required to discuss it can make the topic seem daunting. So I thought I’d create a little Guide To The Theology And Polity Of Eucharist as we prepare to approach the Last Supper this week. It’s not Eucharist For Dummies; rather, it’s Eucharist For All of Us Because The Topic Is SO Complex.
A Guide To Eucharist:
- Transubstantiation — This is the belief that when a priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance and the essence of the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of the Catholic Church.
- Consubstantiation — Martin Luther developed this belief in response to the Catholic Church’s understanding of transubstantiation. Rather than believing that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ, Luther instead said that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. They dwell together. This view also goes by the name “Sacramental Union,” and the Lutheran Church subscribes to this understanding of Eucharist.
- Receptionism — This is the view that the Holy Spirit can work in the bread and wine to deliver the actual body and blood of Christ to the individual who consumes the elements. Christ’s presence is spiritual, rather than physical, and relies heavily on the faith of the individual who participates in the sacrament. The Presbyterian Church and Reformed traditions hold this understanding of Eucharist.
- Memorialism — Christ is not present physically or spiritually with the bread and wine; rather, Communion is a time to reflect and remember the life and passion of Christ. Baptists and a number of other denominations follow this view; it also goes by the name Holy Communion and The Lord’s Supper. (For more information on the Theology of Eucharist, click here).
- Wine vs. Juice — You’ve heard of Welch’s Grape Juice? It was created as an alternative to wine. Thomas Bramwell Welch was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which strongly rejected the sale and consumption of alcohol. In 1869 he found a way to stop grape juice from fermenting, and began marketing it to a variety of churches who were also a part of the temperance movement. Some denominations continue to use grape juice because of their stance against alcohol, while other use it out of sensitivity to members who have struggled with addiction. Still, many other churches continue to use wine.
- Shared Cup — A number of churches serve communion to their congregants from a single cup. The individual receives the bread and either dips the bread into the cup of wine, or drinks from the cup itself. The minister then drinks whatever is leftover in the cup (including the sopping, gooey bits of bread that coagulate in the bottom of the cup).
- Intinction — If you’re ever at a service and the minister says you will take communion “by intinction,” it means you dip the bread into the cup of wine or juice. A few years ago while I was officiating a Sunday service, I announced that we would take communion by intinction, and the first person who approached the altar grabbed the cup and took a large gulp of it. I was confused, the congregants were confused, and eventually they caught on that they should dip their wafers rather than swigging from the cup.
- Individual Cups — Mr. Welch is a part of this story as well. When he developed his unfermented grape juice, some churches continued to try to drink the juice from a shared cup. Within a few weeks, the entire congregation would come down with same illness. One of the beautiful properties of wine is that it kills germs — the unfermented juice didn’t. Shortly after committing to using unferemented grape juice, churches realized they couldn’t all drink from the same cup without spreading germs and sickness, so they began either practicing intinction or using individual cups.
I hope this has been a nice primer on the nuances of communion. It certainly did not cover all of the nuances in theology and polity, but perhaps you learned just a little more about the sacrament we celebrate together.