The idea for this blog post came from a memo (maybe closer to a tome) from my bishop about how to deliver the Eucharist during a time of crisis—namely, the current COVID-19 pandemic. That memo went on and on about the minute details of properly administering the sacraments, especially the process of intinction. I thought, “Here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and this guy is rambling on about irrelevant silliness. Why isn’t he addressing the role the clergy should play during a crisis and how we can minister to the least of these?” I wanted to write a letter expressing my feelings to the bishop, but I’m afraid he cares more about legalism than loving. So, I decided to share my frustration with my readers instead.
Many churches “eat” Jesus every time they gather for worship. This practice is based on an event the church calls the Last Supper, which supposedly happened the night before Jesus’s execution.
The details of the Last Supper story vary from gospel to gospel, but they aren’t important in this blog post. What baffle me are Jesus’s words in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
The tale begins with Jesus blessing the bread, as was customary for Jewish folks sitting down to a meal. Then he said, “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:19), which is not customary. Luke says Jesus added that the bread-turned-body “is offered for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Then the three gospels tell us he also passed around a cup—from that point on, the details vary. Matthew 26:27–28 and Mark 14:23–24 say Jesus gave thanks and told his disciples, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for you.” Matthew adds that the blood-wine is poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” The account in Luke 22:20 specifies that the covenant is “new.”
This is a story about Jesus and his friends that took place almost two thousand years ago, so here are a few reminders:
- None of the gospel accounts were written down for at least forty years after Jesus died. No journalists or photographers recorded this event—but thanks to artists, most people envision the Last Supper with a white Jesus.
- I suspect that over the years, this story diverged radically from the events of the real Last Supper—if it ever actually happened.
- The Gospel of John replaces the account of eating Jesus with a tale of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (13:1–20). I like that story better.
What does all this mean?
The Roman Catholics say that what looks like bread and wine is really the flesh and blood of Jesus. My Catholic friends call this process transubstantiation. Science tells us that no matter what a priest says or does, the Eucharist is still only bread and wine.
My Lutheran friends call what happens to the bread and wine consubstantiation, meaning that the body and blood of Jesus coexist with the bread and wine. Science refutes this.
The Anglican Communion subscribes to the doctrine of real presence, which means you can believe that Jesus’s actual flesh and blood are in the bread and wine or that he is just spiritually present in the Eucharist or anything in between.
I recently learned a new term, concomitance, which means you still eat both the body and blood of Jesus even if you take only the bread or wine. Huh?
When I take Communion at Irvine United Congregational Church, it’s simply bread (some of which is gluten free) and sugarless grape juice. I participate in this ritual because it maintains a common bond among all Christians and reminds us that sharing gives us the power to transform the course of civilization—not with tanks and bombs but with unconditional love, forgiveness, and caring.
I think that Jesus could care less about all those big words and their meanings and would also see the symbolism attached to the Eucharist as cannibalism.
To me, eating Jesus is repugnant. I see Communion more as a constant reminder to love the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
What does Communion mean to you?