The Eucharist—The Facts Behind the Ritual
PEOPLE the world over observe the ceremony regularly—whether several times a year, weekly, or even daily. Yet, it is called a mystery of faith, and many of those who practice it do not claim to understand it. It is viewed as sacred and is even supposed to be miraculous.
The ceremony is the Eucharist—that part of the Catholic Mass when the priest says a blessing over the bread and wine and the congregation is invited to receive Christ in Holy Communion.* Pope Benedict XVI said that for Catholics, this ceremony is “the sum and summary of our faith.” Not long ago, the church observed the “Year of the Eucharist” as part of an effort to “reawaken and increase eucharistic faith.”
Even Catholics who struggle with their faith feel strongly about this ritual. For example, in a recent essay in Time magazine, a woman described as a young, progressive Catholic wrote: “Whatever our issues with the tenets of Catholicism the religion, we still cling to what unites us in Catholicism the faith: our devotion to the celebration of the Eucharist.”
What, though, is the Eucharist? Are Christ’s followers required to observe it? Let us first consider how the tradition of the Eucharist developed. Then we can focus on a more important question: Does the Eucharist really reflect the observance instituted by Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago?
The Eucharist and Christendom
It is not hard to see why the Eucharist is viewed as miraculous. The key moment of the ceremony comes during the Eucharistic prayer. At that point, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit” make Jesus’ body and blood “sacramentally present.” The priest, after partaking of the bread and wine, invites the faithful to receive Communion, usually by eating only the bread, or the Host.
The Catholic Church teaches that the bread and the wine are miraculously transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ—a doctrine called transubstantiation. This teaching arose gradually, with the word first being defined and used officially in the 13th century. In the days of the Protestant Reformation, certain aspects of the Catholic Eucharist were called into question. Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation in favor of consubstantiation. The distinction is subtle. Luther taught that the bread and the wine coexist with, rather than transform into, the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Over time, other differences regarding the meaning of the Eucharist as well as the manner and frequency of its celebration developed among the denominations of Christendom. Nonetheless, in some form this ritual has remained of fundamental importance throughout Christendom. What, though, was the original observance that Jesus instituted like?
The Institution of “the Lord’s Evening Meal”
Jesus himself instituted “the Lord’s evening meal,” or Memorial of his death. (1 Corinthians 11:20, 24) However, did he set up a mysterious rite in which his followers would actually eat his body and drink his blood?
Jesus had just celebrated the Jewish Passover and dismissed Judas Iscariot, the apostle who was about to betray him. Matthew, one of the 11 apostles present, reported: “As they continued eating, Jesus took a loaf and, after saying a blessing, he broke it and, giving it to the disciples, he said: ‘Take, eat. This means my body.’ Also, he took a cup and, having given thanks [Greek, eu·kha·ri·ste΄sas], he gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink out of it, all of you; for this means my “blood of the covenant,” which is to be poured out in behalf of many for forgiveness of sins.’”—Matthew 26:26-28.
For Jesus, as for all of God’s servants, asking a blessing on the food was a matter of course. (Deuteronomy 8:10; Matthew 6:11; 14:19; 15:36; Mark 6:41; 8:6; John 6:11, 23; Acts 27:35; Romans 14:6) Is there any reason to believe that in thus giving thanks, Jesus was also performing a miracle, causing his followers literally to consume his flesh and his blood?
“This Means” or “This Is”?
Granted, some Bible translations render Jesus’ words this way: “Take and eat; this is my body,” and, “Drink all of you, because this is my blood.” (Matthew 26:26-28, Conferenza Episcopale Italiana; The New Jerusalem Bible) It is also true that the Greek word e·stin΄, a form of the Greek verb “to be,” essentially means “is.” But the same verb can also mean “signify.” Interestingly, in many versions of the Bible, this verb is frequently translated “mean” or “stand for.”* It is the context that determines the most precise rendering. For instance, at Matthew 12:7, e·stin is rendered “means” in many Bible translations: “If you had known what this means [Greek, e·stin]: I want mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the blameless.”—CEI; Douay Version.
In this regard, many respected Bible scholars have agreed that the word “is” does not accurately render the thought Jesus was expressing here. For example, Jacques Dupont considered the culture and society in which Jesus lived and concluded that “the most natural” rendering of the verse should be: “This means my body” or, “This represents my body.”
At any rate, Jesus could not have meant that his followers were literally to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Why not? After the Flood of Noah’s day, when God gave man permission to eat the flesh of animals, he directly forbade man to consume blood. (Genesis 9:3, 4) This command was repeated in the Mosaic Law, which Jesus obeyed fully. (Deuteronomy 12:23; 1 Peter 2:22) And the apostles were inspired by holy spirit to renew the command against consuming blood, making that law binding upon all Christians. (Acts 15:20, 29) Would Jesus institute an observance that would require his followers to violate a sacred decree of Almighty God? Impossible!
Clearly, then, Jesus used the bread and wine as symbols. The unleavened bread meant, or represented, his sinless body that would be sacrificed. The red wine signified his blood that would be poured out “in behalf of many for forgiveness of sins.”—Matthew 26:28.
The Purpose of the Lord’s Evening Meal
Jesus concluded the first observance of the Lord’s Evening Meal with these words: “Keep doing this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) The observance does indeed help us to remember Jesus and the wonderful things accomplished by his death. It reminds us that Jesus upheld the sovereignty of his Father, Jehovah. It also reminds us that by means of his death as a perfect, sinless human, Jesus gave “his soul a ransom in exchange for many.” The ransom makes it possible for any who would exercise faith in his sacrifice to be freed from sin and to attain to everlasting life.—Matthew 20:28.
Primarily, though, the Lord’s Evening Meal is a communion meal. Those involved are (1) Jehovah God, who arranged for the ransom, (2) Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God,” who provided the ransom, and (3) Jesus’ spiritual brothers. By partaking of the bread and wine, the latter show that they are fully united with Christ. (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17) They also show that they are in “the new covenant” as spirit-anointed disciples of Jesus. These are the ones who will reign with Christ in heaven as kings and priests.—Luke 22:20; John 14:2, 3; Revelation 5:9, 10.
When should the Memorial be observed? The answer becomes clear when we remember that Jesus chose a particular date to institute this celebration—the Passover. God’s people had annually been observing that date, Nisan 14 on their calendar, for over 1,500 years in order to commemorate a remarkable salvation that Jehovah performed for his people. Clearly, Jesus was directing his followers to use the same date to commemorate the far greater act of salvation that God would make possible through the death of Christ. Jesus’ true followers thus attend the Lord’s Evening Meal every year on the date corresponding to Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar.
Do they do so out of love for ritual? Frankly, that is what appeals to many about celebrating the Eucharist. Said the author of the aforementioned Time magazine essay: “There is something deeply soothing about participating in ancient rituals practiced by so many.” Like a number of Catholics today, this author prefers that the ceremony be performed in Latin as it was in the past. Why? She writes: “I want to hear Mass sung in a language I don’t understand because too often I don’t like what I hear in English.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with millions of interested ones, enjoy observing the Lord’s Evening Meal in their own language wherever they live. They delight in improving their understanding of the meaning and value of Christ’s death. Such truths are worthy of contemplation and discussion throughout the year. The Witnesses find that observing the Memorial is the best way to keep remembering the profound love of Jehovah God and of his Son, Jesus Christ. It helps them to “keep proclaiming the death of the Lord, until he arrives.”—1 Corinthians 11:26.
The ceremony is also called the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of the bread, the Eucharistic assembly, the Holy Sacrifice, the Holy and Divine Liturgy, Communion, and Holy Mass. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek eu·kha·ri·sti΄a, which means gratitude, thankfulness, or thanksgiving.
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What was the original observance that Jesus instituted like?
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Jesus instituted the Memorial of his death
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Commemorating the Memorial of Jesus Christ’s death