See Part I for more on Holy Communion.
Historical Overview-Roman Catholic Understanding
Over the centuries, various understandings of Holy Communion emerged. Roman Catholicism teaches that the substance of bread and wine are literally changed (although not visibly) into the actual body and blood of Christ. This is generally referred to as transubstantiation.
The Roman Church takes completely literally the words of Christ: “This is my body” In Latin it is “Hoc est corpus meum”, from which we get the expression hocus pocus, which is obviously a put-down of the Catholic Mass. Transubstantiation had been the dominant but one of several possibilities for centuries, but it became official Roman Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s.
Historical Overview-Reformation Understanding
Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century unanimously rejected transubstantiation, but had diverse ideas among themselves. Much of their differences centered around what has come to be called the “Real Presence” of Christ in the sacrament. In the Lutheran belief, coming from the Reformer himself, the elements don’t become Christ’s body and blood, but Christ is present within the bread and wine when they are consecrated.
On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that the sacrament is a memorial (or reminder) of Christ’s sacrifice, and nothing more. Christ can’t be present in any way because he is in heaven. In addition to being a remembrance, it is also an affirmation of faith and a sign of Christian fellowship, but not necessarily a means of grace.
A sort of middle position is taken by Churches in the Reformed tradition. They believe that when Holy Communion is received with true faith, the power of the Holy Spirit nourishes those who partake. This Reformed Church belief affirms that communion is a means of grace, but also takes the position that Christ is not present.
In the Wesleyan tradition, we believe that in the partaking of communion, we open ourselves to the divine love that’s already there, and through grace we become more ready to receive it and to respond to it. Methodists believe that communion can be a means of prevenient grace, which refers to that aspect of grace which encourages nonbelievers to come to Christ. Thus our communion is open to nonbelievers, allowing prevenient grace to work in them. Communion can also be a means of sanctifying grace, that aspect of grace by which we grow spiritually and become the kind of disciples Jesus wants us to be.
Methodists believe Holy Communion is a family meal, and all Christians are members of Christ’s family. Therefore, in each congregation, when we receive the bread and cup, we join with millions of brothers and sisters across the ages and around the world. We recognize that Holy Communion is a mystery, and its meaning will be different for each of us. But three essential meanings are in this proclamation in our Communion service: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
More on Holy Communion in a future post.