Holy Communion
Elements of Holy Communion (Photo from Crosswalk

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’ ” (Luke 22:19 – 20).

Anyone who has attended a Christian church for a length of time has encountered Holy Communion, also called Eucharist. In the Catholic Church, Holy Communion falls in as one of the seven sacraments ^{[1]}. Wine and unleavened bread are the traditional elements, but many churches also use grape juice ^{[2]} and plain bread, unleavened or not. Taking communion is one of those practices that you follow and whose significance you recognize, and which I didn’t think could be cause for denominational division until a few years ago.

In fact, the issue of communion was one fierce criticism Martin Luther, so-called Father of the Reformation, had against the Catholic Church. Martin Luther dedicated his life to the Lord early in his life, foregoing his father’s dream for him to become a lawyer and instead entering a monastery. He taught theology at the Univeristy of Witenberg and, in this dual position of professor and monk, began to question some of the practices then common in the Catholic Church.

In 1517 Luther penned a list of propositions, called the Ninety-five Theses ^{[3]}, against the selling of indulgences. (Indulgences, according to Part 2 Section X of the Catholic catechism ^{[4]}, are “remission[s] before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.”) From there he wrote numerous other pamphlets decrying the abuses of the church, including the 1526 Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper.

At the Fourth Lateran Council ^{[5]} in 1215, the Church established the doctrine of transubstantiation concerning Holy Communion. By this view, bread and wine during communion literally transforms into the body and blood of Christ. While seemingly harmless, the transubstantiation doctrine bred superstition ^{[6]}. The laity came to view the bread and wine itself as holy and priests began to withhold both from the congregation, so that Holy Communion morphed from sacrament to spectacle.

Martin Luther proposed a new interpretation of Luke 22:19 – 20 and the meaning of communion: consubstantiation. According to the consubstantiation view, the bread and wine maintain their physical identities and the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood co-exist with these elements during communion.

Luther’s Swiss contemporary Ulrich Zwingli took a different view, called memorialism. Zwingli suggested that the bread and wine are merely symbols of the body and blood, designed to commemorate His death and resurrection. Memorialism rejects the need for Christ’s presence during Holy Communion because it is just a memorial. Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, a German ruler who supported the Protestant Reformation, brought Luther and Zwingli together to reach an agreement ^{[7]} about Holy Communion, as the question had festered into a grand controversy. The discussion failed.

Later John Calvin, the Swiss theologian who founded Calvinism ^{[8]}, promoted a view of communion that blended Luther’s and Zwingli’s. His Reformed view recognized the spiritual presence of Christ in the elements as well as the commemorative purpose of the sacrament.

Today, these four perspectives -transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorialism and reformed – remain the main interpretations of Holy Communion among Christians. Each church differs in its treatment of it and, ultimately, each church member decides for him or herself how to interact with it.

Do you celebrate Eucharist? Which interpretation do you adhere to?

[1] “Sacraments of the Catholic Church.” Catholic Online, n.d. Web.
[2] Iovino, Joe. “Methodist history: Controversy, Communion, & Welch’s Grape Juice.” UMC.org, United Methodist Communications, 28 June 2016. Web.
[3] Luther, Martin. “The 95 Theses.” Luther.de, n.d. Web.
[4] “Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 2.” La Santa Sede, Vatican, n.d. Web.
[5] Leclercq, Henri. “Fourth Lateran Council (1215).” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. New Advent, n.d. Web.
[6] Wax, Trevin. “Luther vs. Zwingli 2: Luther on the Lord’s Supper.” The Gospel Coalition, Foundation Documents Leadership Council, 11 February 2008. Web.
[7] Burns, Jesse. “Luther and Zwingli.” LutheranReformation.org, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 11 June 2017. Web.
[8] “Calvinism.” Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, n.d. Web.