In the early church, when the Followers of Jesus had diverged from Judaism (about 88 CE), they gained the reputation of being cannibals. They were a mysterious group. They met in secret places like catacombs and had strange signs and signals such as a fish—in Greek, ichthus. If two people met on a road, one might innocently doodle a fish in the dirt. If the other person wasn’t a believer, that sign would mean nothing. If he was a fellow Christian, he would draw the same sign. This group also wore crosses, resembling the two pieces of wood the Romans used for crucifixions, a symbol of torture. That’s strange! One might wonder if this group were masochists seeking pain and suffering. They had another secret ceremony in which it was reported that people ate the flesh from a man’s body and drank his blood. That’s cannibalism!
What’s the truth about these rumors? The truth is that Followers did gather in private homes to commemorate what Jesus said and did at what we now call the Last Supper. There is some confusion in the Gospels about when this really happened. Three of the Gospels suggest it happened on the eve of Passover at a meal Jesus and his disciples were having in an upper room. However, the Gospel of John states that they were at a meal before the festival of Passover. John’s Jesus did not use the bread and wine imagery; instead, Jesus took off his shirt, wrapped a towel around himself, and washed the disciples’ feet. For me, this imagery has always made a powerful statement.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the authors tell about the same story. This final gathering was a religious ritual meal, maybe a Seder meal (the night before Passover) in which Jesus performs this Jewish custom but with a different spin on it. At the beginning of the meal, Jesus blessed the bread but then adds these words: “This is my body which is offered for you” (Luke 22:19). The bread was passed along and each person took a piece. Then, as was the custom, Jesus took a cup of wine to bless and said: “This is my blood of the covenant which has been poured out for many.” It’s all symbolism and not reality.
Here’s the untruth. The body and blood are not real flesh and blood. These days, the “flesh” is a loaf of bread or a thin wafer, often made by a group of nuns. The “blood” is either grape juice or a special sacramental wine. So that people don’t become confused, some churches use white wine. This always interests me: Would people really confuse red wine with blood?
This meal has many different names: the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Holy Communion, the Eucharist (Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”), the Blessed Sacrament, and more. Whatever one calls it, the ceremony is similar, but the significance becomes nutty.
Roman Catholic believe, or at least are supposed to, that this ordinary bread and the wine become the real body and blood of Jesus. Believers call this process “transubstantiation.” (I love saying that word!) One’s faith transforms it into the real McCoy. For me, we are now back into cannibalism and/or silliness.
The next belief about this is called “consubstantiation.” It is sort of a Lutheran belief and infers that the real body and blood of Jesus comingles with the bread and wine or grape juice. I don’t even start to understand that idea.
My Episcopal church calls it “Real Presence,” which means you can believe that this is Jesus’s real body and real blood or not. I’ve chosen the latter.
What does this sacrament mean to me? It’s rather simple. It reminds me that as a Follower, 24/7, I am to do agape (love), which translates into loving people of all sorts and conditions, no matter where they are in their life’s journey. I can have no lists of those whom I, or my denomination, deem(s) undeserving, for example, the LGBTQUI community. I am to forgive—not forget—very quickly, no matter the offense. My role as a Follower is to care for my fellow human beings.
What does this sacrament mean to you?