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What is Holy Communion (The Eucharist)?
Christianity's Supreme Sacrament

Holy Communion is the one sacrament nearly all Christians practice, while variations in what it means and how it is administered remain one of the chief differences separating the various denominations.

This sacrament is unquestionably rooted in the Bible, reflecting the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples just prior to his arrest and crucifixion.

The Words of Institution

At the conclusion of the meal, he took bread, broke it, and said to the small gathering of his closest followers, "This is my body, broken for you."

He also took wine as tradition holds, in a chalice, and as he passed it to each of those gathered on that fateful night, he said, "This is my blood, given for you." And, "This is the blood of the new covenant, poured out for many." These words, with slight variations, figure in the sacrament as celebrated by Christians everywhere and are referred to as the "words of institution."

A central part of Christian worship

From the earliest days, whenever Christians assembled for worship and prayer, they re-enacted this supper, symbolically sharing in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. This reminded the faithful not only of the tremendous sacrifice that Christ had made on their behalf, but also recalled the love and joy that Jesus brings to the community of the faithful whenever it gathers in his name.

The role and function of the celebrant

Catholics insist that when a priest intones the words of institution over bread and wine, these "elements" quite literally become the body and blood of the crucified Christ. This is known as "transubstantiation." Protestants explain what happens in the sacrament differently. The presence of Christ is very real in the sacrament, Protestants hold, but the divine presence is not to be found in any transformation of the bread and wine, but rather in the event itself.

Also, Catholics tend to focus on the role of the priest as "representing" Christ in the sacred drama. Thus, the role of the priest becomes a factor in Catholic opposition to the ordination of women. For if the priest represents the man Jesus, it seems inappropriate in this understanding for a woman to preside at a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Protestants tend to see Christ's presence as residing in the community of faith including both laity and clergy. Thus, both men and women, lay and clergy, have equally important roles in the sacred festival of God's love.

Who may participate

There is also an important difference between Catholics and Protestants about who may participate in the sacrament. In theory, Catholics hold that the sacrament is meant for members of the "one, true Church." Thus only Catholics in good standing are invited to participate. In practice, many Catholic priests are somewhat more relaxed in welcoming all believers to the "table of the Lord." Protestants, by contrast, welcome all believers to participate.

Frequency of celebration

Finally, there are differences in the frequency of celebrating the sacrament. For Catholics, the Eucharist is the distinguishing mark of the mass. It is celebrated each and every Sunday, as well as at other times. Some Protestants also include Communion in every Sunday service; others schedule it once a month, and a few denominations even less often.

The meaning of Eucharist

The word "Eucharist" derives from the Greek term meaning "thanks." Thus each time Christians celebrate the sacrament they are "giving thanks" for the love of God poured out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

What are the sacraments?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.