In earlier posts I did a three part series on the Sacrament of Holy Communion. This post goes into more depth about the sacrament, if you want to understand its meaning better. Much of this information comes from the United Methodist study of the sacrament called “This Holy Mystery” which is referenced in this post. While “This Holy Mystery” looks at the United Methodist/Wesleyan understanding of the sacrament, I believe most of what it contains applies to the majority of denominations.
The Six Aspects of the Eucharist
In studying the Bible and church tradition, we can discern six aspects of the Eucharist. We clearly see these aspects in many communion liturgies. Let me summarize those six ideas about Holy Communion, with the focus on the United Methodist liturgy:
The first aspect of the Eucharistic feast is thanksgiving. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek word for thanksgiving. The Eucharistic liturgy is called “The Great Thanksgiving” in the Methodist hymnal and in other denomination’s liturgies.
What are we thanking God for? Everything: God’s mighty acts in history, and his mighty acts thru Jesus Christ, especially our salvation. “This Holy Mystery” tells us:
“The Great Thanksgiving is a recitation of this salvation history, culminating in the work of Jesus Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. It conveys our gratitude for the goodness of God and God’s unconditional love for us.”
After thanksgiving the second aspect of Holy Communion is fellowship. “This Holy Mystery” says:
“Holy communion is the communion of the church – the gathered community of the faithful, both local and universal. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event.”
Like the Last Supper in the upper room, the Lord’s Supper in churches today is a communal event. You can’t have communion alone: communion is a sharing by God’s people gathered together around the table. Note that in the Roman Catholic Church, the priest can celebrate the Eucharist and have communion alone.
After thanksgiving and fellowship, the third aspect of communion is remembrance. Holy Communion is remembrance, commemoration, and memorial, but it is more than just recalling. Communion is, in the words of “This Holy Mystery” “a dynamic action that becomes a re-presentation of past gracious acts of God.”
The one thing we must understand that communion is a lot more than just a remembering of the Last Supper. Jesus established communion at the Last Supper, using bread and wine as visual means for us to remember what Jesus did for us: die, and then rise again in glory. The Last Supper is also important is because, as a Seder, it looked back to the first Passover. We as Christians believe that the events of the first Passover pointed to the future acts of Jesus. You really can’t separate the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection.
From the fellowship, thanksgiving, and remembrance aspects of communion, we can think of it as similar to the Passover Seder or the American Thanksgiving Day meal.
The fourth aspect of Holy Communion is sacrifice. In Protestant understanding, it is a re-presentation, not a repetition, of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. In communion we remember the body of Christ, given for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you. Note that the Roman Catholic belief is that the Mass itself is some sort of repetition of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, hence the name “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
Not only do we recall Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, but communion also reminds us of the sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of Christ. As part of the liturgy, we present ourselves as a sacrifice in union with Christ so that we can be used by God in the work of redemption, reconciliation, and justice in the world.
5. Action of the Holy Spirit
The fifth aspect of communion is the work of the Holy Spirit. Many Christian churches believe that the sacrament of Holy Communion is a means of grace. The Holy Spirit works through the sacraments to impart grace to us, grace being God’s unmerited favor that helps us in the world in various ways. In Protestant belief, there are many means of grace besides the sacraments, but the sacraments are powerful means of imparting grace to us that go back to the time of Christ.
Our communion liturgy invokes the Holy Spirit, saying: “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.” The Great Thanksgiving goes on to ask: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” By this prayer, we are asking to be formed into the image of Christ and to be made God’s instruments for transformation in the world.
The sixth aspect of Holy Communion is that it is also eschatological, meaning that is has to do with the end times and heaven, the outcome of God’s purpose in the world. “This Holy Mystery” tells us that: “We commune not only with the faithful who are physically present, but with the saints of the past who join us in the sacrament.” In other words, we are joined in the sacrament by those who have already left this world and are in glory as part of the Church Triumphant.
We believe that in celebrating the sacrament, heaven and earth come together for a time in some mysterious way. At that time we are one in Christ, one with each other, one with all believers in the world, and one with those who are in the heavenly realms.
In communion, we receive a foretaste of the future, a pledge of heaven “until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” When we participate in the Eucharist, we are anticipating the heavenly banquet celebrating God’s victory over sin, evil, and death. In other words, we become partakers of the divine nature in this life, while looking forward to life eternal where we will have everlasting fellowship with Christ and see the ultimate fulfillment of the divine plan.
This may have been more than you ever wanted to know about Holy Communion, but hopefully it will put the sacrament into better perspective for you and give you an appreciation for what it means. May God bless you in your journey of faith.