What is the Eucharist?

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

In this brief post, I would like to explain my own view of the Eucharist and to respond to common misconceptions that people often have about it.

What is the Eucharist?

In my opinion, the Eucharistic meal which Christians (should) celebrate when they gather together as a body on Sundays and other days is a complex act with a plurality of meanings. I cannot say here everything that might or should be said, but I want to mention at least the following items.

First, the Eucharist is a memorial meal. Christ says to His disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24–25). In this sense, the Eucharist is for Christians akin to what the Passover was for the Jews: a “day of remembrance” and a “celebration” of the liberation of God’s people (Exod 12:14). As an intentional memoriaal meal, it orients our minds to an event which has already taken place, an event which is especially significant for the life of the community of Christians. And because it is a community meal, it strengthens the bond of the community and fosters unity.

Second, the Eucharist is a ritual reenactment of Christ’s death on our behalf. In this way, too, it relates closely to the Passover. God tells the Hebrews: “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when He struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses’” (Exod 12:26–27). Just as the Passover meal is a ritual reenactment of the night of the Hebrews’ liberation from Egypt, so also the Eucharistic meal is a ritual reenactment of the death of Christ by which atonement for the sins of the whole world was made. In this sense, it is a reenactment of an event which serves as the basis for the identity of the community: Christians are those persons who understand themselves to have been set free from sin and death by Christ’s self-offering on their behalf. The unity of Christians is thus strengthened by the Eucharist, not only because they are all doing the same thing, but because the Eucharist represents the death of Christ on their behalf, which is the true basis of their unity.

Because the Eucharist is a ritual reenactment of the death of Christ, there is a specific sense in which the bread and wine are or become the body and blood of Christ. In my opinion, they do not really become His body and blood in the way proposed by the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Neither do I think that Christ’s body and blood are really present alongside or in addition to the bread and wine, as in Lutheranism or perhaps also Eastern Orthodoxy and versions of Anglicanism. Rather, consider how an actor “becomes” and “is” Hamlet by participating in a theatrical performance of Shakespeare’s play. He “is” Hamlet, though not really, but because he and everyone else participating in the theatrical event all take him as such. In the same way, the bread and wine “become” and “are” the body and blood of Christ because the eucharistic meal is a ritual reenactment of His death on behalf of the entire world. They “are” His body and blood because they are taken as such as a part of the ritual.

Third, the Eucharist is a presentation of the Gospel and thus an invitation to accept the offer of Christ’s goodness in faith. People can assume an identity at some point in time and later forget who they are. This happens to the people of God, too. In the Old Testament, God called His people to trust in Him and to commit themselves to Him in fidelity and allegiance. He intervened to liberate them from slavery, and this story became a permanent part of their self-conception and sense of identity: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 24:5–9). In the same way, the Eucharist simultaneously represents the event which forms the basis of Christian identity and invites Christians to remember what is most important for them to know: the death of Christ on their behalf, because of which their sins are forgiven and they have peace with God. “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7–8). This message is personally appropriated in an embodied way by the act of eating, which is the metaphor Christ used to describe the kind of total faith and commitment and dependence which He called on people to have toward Him (cf. John 6).

This, then, is my understanding of the Eucharist: It is a memorial meal by which a particular community of Christians ritually reenacts the death of Christ, thus re-presenting and personally re-appropriating the foundation for its identity in an embodied way.

Responding to misconceptions

Broadly speaking, then, I affirm a kind of “Zwinglian” or “memorialist” view of the Eucharist. I do not consider that Christ becomes really present in the bread and wine, as is affirmed in other theological traditions. Nevertheless, I notice there are a number of popular misconceptions about this view of the Eucharist. I would like to respond to them here.

Misconception 1: If the Eucharist is merely a memorial, then it does nothing or is unimportant.

To the contrary, the Eucharist communicates the basis and essence of our identity as Christians: namely, Christ’s death on our behalf. It reminds us of where we stand with God and of the fact that we belong to Him, having been brought with a price. It also fosters love for God and for Christ in us, precisely because it shows us who God is and what Christ has done for us. In this sense, the Eucharist serves the purpose of cultivating and confirming us in our Christian identity.

Misconception 2: If the Eucharist is merely a memorial, then there is no sense in being solemn about it, as in the traditional liturgy.

To the contrary, the solemnity of the liturgy is eminently appropriate. The Eucharist is the ritual reenactment of Christ’s death, a part of which consists in taking the bread and the wine as His body and blood. It is therefore highly proper and even recommended to celebrate this meal in an air of solemnity and sacrality. Moreover, many people testify that celebrating the Eucharist in the solemn atmosphere of the liturgy is spiritually more powerful and efficacious than doing so otherwise. Of course, this does not mean that there cannot be excesses and exaggerations in the solemnity surrounding the Eucharist. But there is nothing about the memorialist conception which excludes the solemnity of the liturgy as such.

Misconception 3: The earliest generations of Christians believed that the Eucharist was not merely a memorial but a real consumption of the body and blood of Christ.

There is no doubting that at some point in Christian history, the idea that the eucharistic bread and wine are really the body and blood of Christ became quite popular. But it is not obvious to me that the earliest testimonies are so unambiguous. Much of the language of Ignatius, for example, can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with a memorialist conception of the Eucharist. (See here and here.) More would have to be said on this point, but I will mention the following point. If the Eucharist was originally a ritual reenactment of the death of Christ in which the bread and wine are taken and spoken about as if they were the body and blood of Christ, it is understandable that some persons at some point would lose sight of the “theatrical” and “representational” aspect of the ritual, taking it to be a literal eating. Thus, the memorialist conception of the Eucharist can account for the fact that later generations of Christian theologians thought of the Eucharist as a real partaking of Christ’s body and blood.

Conclusion

In my view, the Eucharist is a memorial meal by which a community of Christians ritually reenacts the death of Christ, thus re-presenting and personally re-appropriating the foundation for its identity in an embodied away. There are a number of misconceptions about this view which can easily be answered. First, the Eucharist, although a memorial, is not without effect or unimportant, because it reminds us of the foundational truths of our religion and cultivates faith and love for God in us. Second, even if the Eucharist is not a real consumption of the real body and blood of Christ, it is nevertheless appropriate and even recommended to celebrate it in the solemn liturgy of the Church. This is because it is a ritual reenactment of the death of Christ in which the bread and wine are rightly taken as the body and blood of Jesus. Finally, precisely because it sees the eucharistic meal as a ritual reenactment of Christ’s death which involves an element of “theater,” the memorialist conception of the Eucharist can account for the fact that later generations of theologians wrongly took Christ’s body and blood to be really present in the bread and wine.

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.