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
The Words of Institution
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.
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 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.
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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.