Mass, Holy Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Breaking of Bread are names for a ceremony that almost all Christian denominations celebrate. Every denomination that practices this rite includes the use of bread and wine[i] saying that bread represents Christ’s body, and wine represents Christ’s blood. They then eat the bread and drink the wine. Malicious rumour in the pagan Roman Empire spread accusations that the Christians engaged in cannibalism, and it’s not hard to understand why this slander was believed. Even symbolically, eating human flesh and drinking blood is a gory concept.
Sadly, Christians have often argued about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Roman Catholics[ii] teach that the symbols are miraculously changed into the actual body and blood of Christ, whilst keeping the form and taste of bread and wine[iii]. Although most Protestants reject that view and regard the bread and wine as symbols, evenMartin Luther argued that Christ’s words were “This is my body…” so (he said) it must be more than a symbol. It’s a puzzling argument. In my view, a transformation that can’t be seen doesn’t qualify as a miracle. Despite using different titles and varied details of how they do it, all agree that Communion is important. Why is that?
There is a sizeable minority of Christians who decline taking Communion. Some believe that the ritual should only take place at Easter. Some feel that the Last Supper ritual was not meant to be repeated. Some feel unworthy to engage in it, either because they feel disqualified because of actual, recent sin, but some because of an inappropriate sense of guilt.[iv] Some disengage because they are uncomfortable about priesthood, and I counted myself among that group for a time. I wanted to emphasise that the death of Jesus was a “once for all”[v] and “perfect”[vi] sacrifice that can never be repeated. I found it easier to engage when the symbols were shared hand-to-hand among the assembled worshippers as equals before God. But it remained a problem to me for several years.
The story of the Last Supper is told in all four Gospels, and “breaking bread” is frequently mentioned in the book of Acts. The words Jesus spoke over those simple, everyday elements were enigmatic[vii]. St Paul describes the ceremony in such detail that the practice must have been well-established in his time. But, if you view it in simple terms, it’s an odd ceremony. The mystery is increased by Paul’s comment about people who observe the ceremony “in an unworthy manner”[viii], a factor that worries some people. However, it’s not that Communion is magical event that can damage us, but that the Cross, which it reminds us of, is our protection from the corrosive forces of guilt, fear, and self-loathing.
Communion is familiar to most Christians, but why did Jesus institute this symbolic act? He foretold his violent death several times, but the disciples failed to understand him. Why couldn’t he just tell them again? Symbolism is part of the answer. We remember pictures more easily than words, and the Last Supper was outstandingly memorable. It was simple in its imagery, graphic in its symbolism, and critical in its timing. Jesus knew that, within hours of this Passover meal, his disciples would face one of the greatest ordeals of their life. The prophetic ritual and its fulfilment would be so bound together in their minds that they would be certain to tell the story – and it was essential that they should.
Consider the circumstances leading up to this event. Jesus knew that Jerusalem was the most dangerous place he could go to. As he entered the city, he performed the deliberately provocative act of riding into the royal city on a donkey to fulfil a well-known messianic prophecy. He drew attention to himself even more provocatively by turning over the tables of the merchants and money changers in the Temple. This was so inflammatory that the temple authorities were bound to attack him. He obviously wanted to be noticed. The authorities weren’t sure what he looked like (they couldn’t track him on CCTV!) When they set out to arrest him, they needed a traitor to identify him – so he could easily have run away and hidden. Was he rashly gambling that his followers might rise up violently under his leadership?[ix] Or did he really intend to be captured, tried, and executed? The Last Supper answers those questions.
The enigmatic parable-in-action that we call the Last Supper is absolute proof that Jesus made a deliberate, purposeful choice to go to the cross. The death of Jesus was not the tragic end to a noble mission, but the core objective of his life. By acting out this prediction of his execution he was making sure that the disciples understood that his sacrifice was voluntary. Not only that, but that it was the core and centre of the gospel they should teach after he left them. He was not a helpless victim, nor a failed rebel leader, nor a hapless martyr. Rather, he was consciously motivated by a divine mission. His suffering was real and agonising, but his expectation was victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).
We shouldn’t overlook the significance of his timing; Passover was an act of remembrance, and so was the ritual Jesus performed at that Last Supper. St Paul summed it up in those memorable words, “…whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death...”[x]. Some scholars have defined Jesus’ mission as an attempt to improve humanity by promoting good behaviour. It wasn’t. Without the Last Supper we would be less clear about his true object. We would be looking on him as one more wise teacher who came to a sad end. But, by instituting this memorial, Jesus proved that his death didn’t shatter his plans – it fulfilled them. He intended to die. Without Communion, we would be reading the parables and teachings of Jesus much as we read Aesop’s fables. Communion doesn’t create, provide, or renew salvation. It reminds us of it. Through this ritual, Jesus put the cross at the centre of the Christian message. You can’t have Christianity without the cross.
I re-engaged with Communion some years ago, but that doesn’t mean that I understand it – not really.
I do understand that it was an essential act and that repeating it is a vital reminder of what Jesus did for us.
I don’t understand his willingness to leave realms of glory to take on human form.
I don’t understand his grace that, having become man, caused him to accept death – even the torture of crucifixion.
I don’t understand but, faced with a love that great, I can only wonder again and again, each time I take Communion.
[i] Or a non-alcoholic alternative.
[ii] Who call it the “sacrifice of the Mass”
[iii] The doctrine of the “real presence”
[iv] If you feel a sense of guilt but don’t know of any specific reason, your guilt is unnecessary – the Holy Spirit convicts of sin in order to lead you to repentance and forgiveness. A general sense of guilt doesn’t come from God.
[v] Roman’s 6:10, Hebrews 7:27 Hebrews 10:2,10
[vi] Hebrews 10:14
[vii] Enigmatic statements are so common to the sayings of Jesus that we can be in no doubt that the Last Supper stories record his genuine words.
[viii] 1 Corinthians 11:27 NIV
[ix] Considering his earlier teachings it is extremely unlikely that Jesus had any violent intentions.
[x] 1 Corinthians 11:26 NIV