What is the Eucharist?

There are as many theologies of the Eucharist as there are denominations of the Church, as people throughout the ages have tried to make sense of this gift that Jesus has given to us. These theologies have been the source not just of devotional discussion but of impassioned argument and even geo-political strife. 


So let's take a look at the main theologies of the Eucharist.


Perhaps the best known of those theologies, and perhaps the most notorious for us as Anglicans, is the theology of transubstantiation. It’s difficult to spell, and even more difficult to comprehend but it essentially proposes that when the words of institution are recited by the priest (those are the words that repeat what Jesus said in the Upper Room on the night before his death) the elements of bread and of wine actually become the flesh and blood of Christ. There are some issues with this view: first and foremost, no matter what we say, the bread and the wine still resolutely look like bread and wine. Now, those who subscribe to transubstantiation say that the actual change IS effected in every way except for appearance. But is this a cop-out?  When Jesus became incarnate – that is to say he became human and lived among us as a human being, he really was human. He looked human, and he was human. He was the real deal. He was as much human as he was divine. The whole point about Jesus becoming human was, not to put too fine a point on it, that he actually became human. Either he was human or he wasn’t. For many of us, the doctrine of transubstantiation hits the buffers because our experience surely teaches us that when God says he will do something, he actually does it. Compare this with the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Now, whatever we conclude about that miracle, what seems to be overridingly clear is that what those folks were eating was actually bread and fish, and that it wasn't just some elaborate disingenuity.


Martin Luther by Cranach

Martin Luther by Cranach

When Martin Luther was taking issue with many aspects of Roman Catholicism, he alighted, not altogether surprisingly, on the doctrine of transubstantiation. For him, transubstantiation was problematic largely because of the points raised above. The incarnation: God becoming human, meant that Jesus was wholly and completely human and wholly and completely divine. Although this is somewhat mind-bending a concept for our small human brains, if we can deal with it in terms of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, then consistency would dictate that the Eucharist must also therefore be as much human as divine. In other words, that the bread and wine coexist with the body and blood. That the bread and the wine are still fully human elements, but that they are also the fully divine entities of the body and blood of Christ. This is perhaps not too surprising a theology from Luther, as he was a Roman Catholic monk. Today, most Lutherans would subscribe to a theology similar to this, and they refer to it as ‘sacramental union’.

Crucially, there is a subtle yet vital distinction that Luther makes when contrasting his theology with the medieval Roman Catholic theology of transubstantiation: at the Eucharist we are not re-creating Christ, but making him present.

Another vital distinction that can be made from the historic Roman Catholic position is this: when Christ died on the cross, it was once for all, and surely not each and every Eucharist requires Christ to be re-sacrificed again and again.

All of that having been said, the issue of the issue of the appearance of the bread and wine - as mentioned above with the doctrine of transubstantiation, remains.


Huldrych Zwingli by Asper

Huldrych Zwingli by Asper

For the German Luther’s Swiss contemporary, Huldrych Zwingli, the Eucharist was simply a memorial meal. That wasn’t to say that it wasn’t significant, but that it wasn’t recreating or invoking Christ’s actual bodily presence but, rather, was a way of us being faithful to Christ’s teaching by doing what he commanded us to do the night before he died. For Zwingli, we were holding a special, sacred meal where we intentionally recalled what Jesus said, and why he said it.


There is a phrase often used to sum up Anglicanism: the tradition to which, of course, we subscribe. It is the ‘via media’. What it means, literally, is ‘the middle way’. Anglicanism often charts a path between extremes, and embraces the best from different traditions. The Anglican position on the Eucharist is often summed up by the phrase ‘the Real Presence’: that the words of institution (spoken on behalf of us all by the presider) invite Jesus, through the action of the Holy Spirit, to be present with us in a special, mystical, way as we take the bread and the wine and intentionally bless them as holy. Now, I should point out that there is a wide range of views in the Anglican world on what the Eucharist is about. You will find every shade of opinion from medieval Roman Catholic to Zwinglian. But Anglicanism has always been a broad church, a big house capable of accommodating many different kinds of people. That’s fine. In fact it’s more than fine. Generally, all people are trying to do is to make sense of what it is that Jesus did in the Upper Room the night before he died, and to honor that, and be reverential towards it. People do that in different ways, and reach different conclusions. I really don’t think God minds too much. What God smiles on is that each of these traditions, in their own ways, represent our human attempts to get into closer and deeper relationship with God.


In conclusion, two final thoughts about the Eucharist. First, let’s not devalue the basic , everyday bread and wine: the ordinary things of the world, in our attempt to make the Eucharist special and holy. That we have bread, a wonderful, essential food, created from the nurturing of a tiny seed with sunlight, air and water into something that keeps us alive, and wine through a similar process, is miraculous enough itself to speak of God’s power and glory and care for the world. When we receive communion in church, let’s celebrate that miracle of creation and nature. Second, let’s remember that in the words of institution, Jesus says ‘do this for the remembrance of me’. Theology has spent an awful lot of time and energy on what is meant by the word ‘remembrance’ and much less on the word ‘this’. When Jesus asks us to do ‘this’ in remembrance of him, what is the ‘this’ he talks about? It's surely much more than taking the bread and wine.

The Last Supper by Bouveret

The Last Supper by Bouveret

It’s HOW we take the bread and the wine. In that Upper Room Jesus was among his friends. Our Eucharistic Prayers often actually say that. And he didn’t just take the bread and wine, he shared the bread and wine. And when he took the bread and wine and spoke of his impending death, he made himself vulnerable to those around him. When we approach the altar in the Eucharist, whether we are followers of Luther, or Zwingli, or Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin in this regard, let’s keep uppermost in our minds that what God’s calls us in this act of worship is sharing, among friends, among whom we are prepared to make ourselves vulnerable.