The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Eucharist

Bede Clark ceramic Eucharist

Eucharist: Christian liturgical bedrock
Ceramic sculpture by Bede Clark

The bedrock of Christian theology and spirituality is contained in Mark’s account of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth, from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the discovery of his empty tomb a week later. (Mark 11-16) Mark’s is the earliest surviving narrative of this period of Jesus’ life, and one of the linchpin events of the week was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. There has been a long and thoroughgoing debate among scholars as to whether this meal was a Passover Seder (as suggested by the synoptic gospels) or a fellowship meal (chavurah) on the night before Passover (as suggested in John’s gospel). Here’s a typically Anglican summary from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: “Whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal … or not … it is clear that the Eucharist was instituted at Passover time, and Christian writers from St. Paul onwards have stressed that the death of Christ was the fulfillment of the sacrifice foreshadowed by the Passover. It is probable also that the earliest celebrations of the Christian Easter (the Paschal Vigil service) developed from the Jewish Passover rite, while the account of the Exodus and the institution of the Passover have from a very early date provided one of the readings in the Paschal liturgy of the Western Church.” (ODCC, p. 1229)

Regardless of the setting, then, what Jesus did during the meal was extraordinary – it was atypical of either a Seder or a fellowship meal: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11.23-26) This is the earliest surviving account of Christian tradition regarding the Eucharist, likely written a decade or so before Mark’s gospel. To this day, the “words of institution” in our celebration of the Eucharist are drawn from Paul’s account, which, if written about 55, represents well-established Christian tradition that had developed over a generation subsequent to Jesus’ crucifixion.

In Paul’s ancient account, Jesus commands his disciples – the Twelve who were with him and all who would follow him in time to come – to remember him, and by that he didn’t mean simply calling to mind a memory but, in ritual terms, to recall his presence among his disciples and to acknowledge his presence, in Paul’s words, by proclaiming his death. Jesus understood this ritual meal as a Jew who believed the Seder was not just a meal of remembrance of the Passover but a reliving here and now of that key moment in the story of Israel. Jesus urged his disciples to remember him in this way.

Stushie Art Eucharist

Common elements set aside to become the Body and Blood of Christ
Digital art by John Stuart

Proclaiming Christ’s death is Paul’s language for this remembrance, and “until he comes” is the early church’s language for believing that Christ soon would return at the end of time to retrieve his disciples from their tribulations and defeat enemies of the gospel. The first generation of Christians believed this would happen in their lifetimes. It didn’t, and that’s another story, but it did not keep the church from continuing to worship in the breaking of the bread and praying for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is likely that some form of Eucharist has been celebrated at least every Sunday, if not most days of the week, for the past 2,000 years.

It is also clear from Paul’s understanding of Eucharist that bread and wine broken and offered in this unique form of worship were of special value to the community of faith: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Corinthians 11.27-30)

That’s one man’s opinion, but it clearly expresses the sense that this bread and this cup, blessed and consumed as Eucharist, differs substantially from other bread and cups. To this day, Anglicans have a high regard for “consecrated elements” of the Eucharist and take care not to eat or treat them, “in an unworthy manner.” We believe that when we receive Christ in the bread and wine of Eucharist, we are in Holy Communion with our God, whom Jesus called Abba. Christ is indeed present with the community in the Eucharistic ritual, but more than that, he becomes part of us and we part of him in communion. The ritual meaning of this symbolic act expresses our yearning to become one with God in Christ; indeed, to become “little Christs” (Gr. christianous) ourselves – “Christians,” the name first given to followers of the Way in Antioch. (See Acts 11.21-26.)

In the Episcopal Church, Holy Eucharist is always celebrated as the principal service of worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. Ceremonial varies widely from diocese to diocese and from congregation to congregation within dioceses; indeed, ceremonial may vary widely within congregations. Note that the ritual is the same for all three, but ceremonially, the meaning is expressed in a variety of ways.

Holy Eucharist consists of the liturgy of the word, readings from scripture, recitation of psalms and a sermon; the offertory of ourselves and our gifts to God; and the Eucharistic rite, including the Eucharistic prayer in which the elements of bread and wine are set apart to become the Body and Blood of the Lord; and Holy Communion, in which all partake of the bread and wine “that He may dwell in us and we in him.” (See BCP, p. 336.) The form of the Eucharist came about historically: The liturgy of the word evolved from Jewish synagogue worship, and the liturgy of the altar from the unique development of Christian worship, which began in domestic settings but developed as the community of faith grew to need a household of its own, so that the Body of Christ could gather as one in the Spirit.

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