by Jeyan Anketell
from Signs of the Times no 51 - Oct 2013
This is a belated attempt to continue the discussion, begun initially by Graham Hellier and Anthony Woollard nearly three years ago.
We will all have come to our own particular understanding of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, over and above the basic teaching of the Church; that in this service we are in a special way united in communion with Jesus Christ, with God, or with each other. Many of us will have a deep emotional attachment to our own particular understanding. This is one person’s attempt to come to an understanding of the intent and meaning of the Eucharist, without wishing to cause offence to anyone else.
I was taught that the Eucharist is a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us. The outward signs are the bread and the wine. The inward parts are the body and blood of Christ, which are really present, given and received; and that our souls are strengthened and refreshed by Christ’s body and blood, just as our bodies are by the bread and the wine.
Most of us, at some stage or another, have probably had some difficulty comprehending this basic teaching, and this has been a problem throughout the life of the Church. But we who are believers in Christ have to make some sense of this, because it has been presented to us as Jesus’ teaching at the last supper. In the reputed words of Elizabeth I, when she was placed in a difficult situation,
'His was the word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it, and what His word doth make it, that I believe and take it.'
The Church has generally tried to overcome the problem by comparing it to the Incarnation. It is a mystery. The sixteenth century Reformers tried to solve the problem in different ways. Some took a ‘virtualist’ position; we don’t actually receive Christ’s body and blood themselves, but we receive the beneficial consequences as if we had in fact done so. Others took a ‘receptionist’ position; the body and blood of Christ are present in the communicant, as a result of his/her receiving the elements of bread and wine in faith. The benefits of partaking of Christ’s body and blood are gained one way or another.
But then, I am not sure what benefits I should receive by partaking of Christ’s body and blood, by whatever means. Neither do I associate communion or fellowship with someone, with partaking of his/her body and/or blood.
I see another difficulty. The Church sometimes speaks of Jesus as 'The Lamb of God'; and the early Church thought of Jesus’ death as cancelling our sins, just as the Jews’ annual sacrifice of a lamb on the Day of Atonement was thought to cancel their sins. We tend to think of ourselves as having fellowship with Christ at the Eucharist. But when the Jews ate their half of the sacrificial lamb, the other half being offered on the altar to God, surely they did not think they were having fellowship with the lamb. They thought they were having fellowship with God, as represented by the altar.
I can’t help wondering what Jesus and the first Christians really understood by the Eucharist. They would, no doubt, have used the Aramaic or Hebrew language in their private or public worship. But I think we have two clues in the original meanings of the words 'Eucharistia' and 'Sacramentum'. 'Eucharistia' is the Greek for 'Thanksgiving' and 'Sacramentum' is the Latin for an oath of allegiance. You may remember that, in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, the Bishop of London and other plotters participated in the sacrament of Holy Communion as a token of their solemn corporate commitment; in this case to murder someone. Not the original intent of the Eucharist, but you will note the idea of allegiance and corporate commitment.
There is an example of an early Jewish-Christian prayer which may help us to see how the early church understood the Eucharist. It is found in The teaching of the apostles or The Didache. This is a document that was found about 130 years ago and is now thought to be the work of a Jewish-Christian church in Syria, between 60 and 100 CE. It was very widely used in the Eastern Christian church, up to about 350 CE; but it was not well known in the Western church. The two relevant passages are slightly repetitious, but the whole thing is fairly short, and I reproduce them below.
Give thanks in this manner. First, over the cup: ‘We give thanks to thee, Our Father, for the holy vine of thy son David, which thou hast made known to us through Jesus thy Son. Thine be the glory for ever. Then over the broken bread: ‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Son. Thine be the glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered over the mountains and was gathered together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the Earth into thy kingdom: for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
Let none eat or drink of this Eucharist of yours except those who have been baptised into the name of the Lord. For on this point the Lord said,’Do not give what is holy to the dogs’. And when you have had enough, give thanks in this form. ‘We give thanks to thee holy Father for thy holy name, which thou has made to dwell in our hearts. Thou almighty Master, didst create all things for thy name’s sake; thou didst give food and drink for men for their enjoyment, so that they may give thanks to thee; and on us thou didst bestow spiritual food and drink and eternal life through thy Son. Above all we give thanks to thee because thou art mighty. Remember O Lord, thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in thy love: and gather it together from the four winds - the sanctified Church into thy kingdom, which thou didst prepare for it: for thine is power and the glory for ever.
Let grace come and this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any man is holy, let him come: he who is not, let him repent. Come, O Lord. Amen.
But allow the prophets to give thanks as much as they will.
(Perhaps this last sentence is a reference to the possibility of extempore prayer.)
I wonder what you make of this as a main Eucharistic prayer or 'Prayer of consecration'. This is so different from many of our traditional Eucharistic prayers that some people thought it must be to do with some other fellowship meal, which they called the 'Agape'. But I have no real doubt that this is a Eucharistic prayer, and of a very early Jewish-Christian church at that. It could be different from what we are used to because the church was transmitted in history through the Gentile or Greek-Christian church, rather than the Jewish-Christian church. Modern liturgical scholars have recognised the value of the Didache, and parts of this Eucharistic prayer have been incorporated into some of our newer Eucharistic prayers.
We may well find our own deepest communion with God in our private prayers, infrequent though they may be, and wherever they may be; when we are on our own --- at home, in a church, or just walking along somewhere. But I do find a particular richness in the corporate prayers and hymns of praise at the Eucharist. I feel strengthened by the presence of others at the Eucharist, and I feel weakened by their absence; and I realise that I strengthen others by being present myself, I have been aware of myself growing in the Christian communities to which I have belonged; particularly by sharing in the growth of others.
To conclude then, this is how I would summarise my understanding of the Eucharist. We thank God for the gift of life itself; and for the new life, knowledge, faith and immortality which he has made known to us through Jesus. We identify ourselves with Jesus, who thoroughly committed himself to his Father’s work; we identify ourselves with, and commit ourselves to, each other; and together, we bind ourselves to God’s service.