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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

The Eucharist (or Communion)

What is the Eucharist?


In the Christian religion, the Eucharist, also known as Communion or Lord’s Supper, is a sacrament (so-called by Roman Catholicism) or ordinance (so-called by Protestantism) carried out in Christian churches as an act of obedience to the instructions of Jesus Christ about commemorating his death on the cross given the night before he died.

The Eucharist elements are bread and wine; the bread recalls Christ’s body and the wine recalls his blood.

The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” The word is found, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:23-24,

:For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me." (KJV)

Early Christian literature, such as the Didache, used the word “Eucharist” to describe the commemoration. Commonly, the word today is used by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian church traditions.

The Lord's Supper

Other Protestant traditions prefer names such as “the Lord’s Supper.” The term is found, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:20-21,

"When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken."

Other Protestant traditions prefer the word communion, which isn't derived from New Testament Greek, but from Latin. Still other Protestant traditions prefer the phrase “breaking of bread." An example of where the phrase is found in the New Testament is Acts 2:42,

"And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."

All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:13-20) contain the story of Christ’s instructions regarding the commemoration. John 6 also is associated with the Eucharist, which is where Jesus says that he is the bread of life. The book of 1 Corinthians also contains detailed passages about the Eucharist.

The Theology of the Eucharist

Christian denominations and churches understand the significance of the Eucharist differently. Some believe it is a sacrament; meaning, it is believed to dispense divine grace, although not necessarily “saving grace,” but grace that strengths, assures, equips, and more. Other Christians consider the Eucharist a sacrament; meaning, it’s a memorial and largely symbolic.

The Nature of the Elements

Christians also disagree about the nature of the elements in the commemoration. The Roman Catholic Church commonly teachings that the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. This is based on the literal understanding of Christ’s teaching when he established the Eucharist – “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” This belief is commonly referred to as “transubstantiation” (i.e. “changed substance”).

lord's supper

The Lutheran tradition follows the teaching of Martin Luther, which is a position that is often seen as a belief that falls in between Roman Catholicism's views and the views of other Protestant churches.

Many Lutherans believe that Christ is present in the elements, but not literally. In Luther’s words, Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements, yet the bread and wine don’t literally transform into the body and blood of Christ.

Presbyterian churches and Anglican churches believe that Christ is present spiritually in the elements.

Other Protestant churches believe that the Eucharist is a memorial, and while Christ is present among believers gathering together to recall his death on the cross, the elements are unchanged natural substances.

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