What do you think of the Eucharist? I’ve always had a hard time seeing it only as a symbol but maybe that’s just because I’m such a sensualist!
I totally do not think you’re being a sensualist when you find yourself dissatisfied with a purely “symbolic” or “memorialist” view of the Lord’s Supper. Not at all. I think that those two views are reactionary and flat, and don’t accurately or robustly represent either the Scriptural presentation of communion or the practices of the church (which I find helpful here).
First, what do we call it? I don’t think it matters. Eucharist just comes from the Greek word “eucharisto” meaning “to give thanks.” The Lord’s Supper is what a lot of evangelicals call it. The term communion just has to do with the fellowship and unity we share as we take the bread and wine.
Second, do we call it a sacrament or an ordinance? I think we can call it both or either. Typically evangelicals shy away from the word “sacrament” because of its association with the Catholic view of communion, but I don’t think that’s necessary. There IS something sacred about the body of Christ fellowshipping together over this meal. But it’s also an “ordinance” because Christ ordained, or commanded, it. That’s why we have only two sacraments/ordinances (baptism and communion) vs. Roman Catholics and Orthodox who have seven (confirmation, marriage, ordination, confession/penance, last rites/extreme unction) — because we believe that Christ instituted only those two as commands for all believers.
Third, views of the Lord’s Supper:
(ALL Christians believe that we take communion in memory of Christ’s death, and that he commanded us to do so. The arguments arise from Jesus’ so-called “words of institution” — “This is my body, broken for you… this is my blood, shed for you” — and what they actually mean in our communal lives as the church, and also from the effect of communion on the body of Christ.)
1. Catholic – the mass (celebration of the Lord’s Supper) re-offers the sacrifice of Christ, who is bodily present in the elements. It is a continuous re-sacrifice of Christ. Transubstantiation means that the wine becomes the blood of Christ, in its very substance, once it’s consecrated by a priest, and the bread becomes the body of Christ. Only the outward form remains but in every spiritual and actual way, Jesus is bodily present in the elements. This has been discussed and debated and refined and nuanced for hundreds of years. They really, really, really mean that the bread = flesh and the wine = blood. Period. They even claim to know how it all happens. For Catholics, participation in the Sacraments actually saves people. The sacraments are the means God uses to confer his saving grace.
2. Orthodox – the Divine Liturgy has the Eucharist at its center. Their view is very similar to the Catholic view in that they believe that the “real presence” of Christ is in the elements in a bodily, actual way, but they just haven’t flogged it out to such a ridiculously complex extent as the Catholics. Same problems exist, though — re-sacrifice, transubstantiation, saving element of sacraments, etc.
3. Anglican/Episcopalian – there is a “real presence” of Christ in the elements, but it’s whatever Christ says it is. This is a typically vague Anglican position… 😉 And there’s a range of opinions on it. I’d say most faithful Anglicans avoid the Catholic view but don’t go as far as the Protestants do in reducing it to mere symbolism. The elements are a means of grace.
4. Lutheran – Christ is present in a “sacramental union” with the elements. The typical way Lutherans talk about Christ’s presence in the elements is that he is “in, with, and under” the elements. Luther utterly rejected the idea of the mass as a re-sacrifice of Christ, rightly arguing that it undermines the once-for-allness of Jesus’ death on our behalf, and adds human works to salvation. God uses the sacraments to confer grace to us in the community of faith. (On a side note, I am strongly attracted to this view in many ways.)
5. Methodist – Christ’s presence is real but a great holy mystery experienced by faith. The sacraments are an experience of Grace for the believer.
Up to this point, the actual elements have to be guarded with some care and disposed of properly (or never, in the case of the Catholics and Orthodox, but instead stored and venerated or worshiped), because they contain the actual presence of the Lord. Beyond this point, that’s not the case.
6. Calvinist/Reformed – The presence of Christ in communion is not “actual” but “spiritual.” The body and blood of Christ, spiritually present in the elements, feed our souls, not our bodies, by faith — but real nourishment and a real experience of the incarnate Christ occurs to those who have true faith and thus the Holy Spirit. Believers feast with Christ in heaven during the Lord’s Supper, as though they were carried by the Spirit to his immediate presence there. Thus communion is an image of the unity and joy to be found at the marriage feast of the Lamb. When we participate in communion, the community of faith becomes the Body of Christ in a truer way. (This probably describes my view best, although I like to borrow from the Methodists and Lutherans too.)
7. Zwingli/many modern evangelicals — Mere memorialist view, often called the “no presence” view. Christ is not present in any meaningful way in communion, and we participate in it because Christ commanded us to do so in order to remember his death.
I think we really miss out on a sense of connectedness and symbolism and mystery when we forget that Jesus Last Supper was the Passover — that the bread he blessed and broke was the “bread of affliction,” symbolizing the Israelite’s hasty deliverance from their bondage in Egypt, and that the wine he lifted up was the “cup of salvation/redemption,” which should have been blessed with the words, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you” but instead Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”
I also think we have a pretty dim view of symbolism, representation, and memory — those things are faith-building, deep, and real. Christ is present with us when we gather, and he has graciously given us these elements of bread and wine to stir our minds and hearts, lest we forget his sacrifice on our behalf. It’s not “merely” a picture, it’s a drama or a “story time” for our childish, stubborn hearts to hold on to in our moments of doubt and difficulty. It symbolizes the unity of the Body of Christ. It depicts Christ’s death. It gives us a foretaste of the glory to come. It lets us feast with and on Christ for our spiritual nourishment. It’s a beautiful, amazing, mysterious gift from God.
We must reject the idea that communion is a sacrifice in any sense — which means we also must reject transubstantiation, because the two go hand in hand — because it directly contradicts Scripture. But I think any view that doesn’t contradict scripture, speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, or over-emphasize OUR works rather than remembering and giving thanks for God’s grace is fine for believers to hold.
Geez… it’s like a book.