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What use is Holy Communion?

Neither Matthew nor Mark advises us to repeat the blessing of Jesus “in remembrance of me”. Some but not all ancient manuscripts of Luke specify this repeated act of remembrance, along with Paul in 1 Corinthians – but he was no more present at the Last Supper than the Gospel-writers were.

In any case, the “do this in memory of me”, if it was said at all, is addressed to the disciples present at the Last Supper and not obviously to the whole body of Christians in centuries to come. We cannot say from what the New Testament tells us that Jesus “institutes” the eucharist. The fact that Jesus uses a verb in the imperative is not the same as his actually instituting something. Jesus often speaks in the imperative – if the Church took every example as an institution, it would sink under the weight of the institutions involved! Nor does the “real presence” so precious to the Reformers really have biblical warrant. We can claim that Jesus is present at all times and in all places in the hearts of his faithful, but no New Testament text implies that he is especially present during future commemorations of his final Passover meal. In the same way, the notion of a sacrament is an invention of the Early Church which Luther did not dare reject entirely. A sacrament has no biblical foundation.

The Didache, a late 1st century text written within a Christian community which did not owe its foundation to St Paul, gives instructions for celebrating the eucharist. It specifies that thanksgiving be offered to the Father for the knowledge which he has given us through Jesus, then speaks of eating and drinking the bread and wine. There is no question of this being the body and blood of Christ, nor even of it being a memorial of the Last Supper. The elision of the eucharist, originally a simple Jewish blessing, and the words specifically spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, was not universal in the Early Church.

Nothing prevents the Christian community from repeating a gesture or phrase attributed to Jesus, in memory of him. There is no harm in this. But nothing obliges us to do it, as the classic Protestant churches insist that we should do. The important thing is to remain mindful, as Jesus says himself.

Why then did the eucharist, transformed into the body of Christ, become so important so early in the Church’s history? In many contemporary religions, eating the divinity was a means of appropriating its power; so for the Church, the eucharist became a means of possessing Christ. The eucharist is also rooted in human psychology: the meal is a place of sharing, of sharing bread as well as personal news. Wine helps loosen tongues, helps those participating to talk. Communion is an expression of solidarity which enables those participating to share joy and pain.

Consider Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”: all the disciples are very animatedly taking part in vigorous discussions with their neighbours. Consider our Protestant eucharists: glacial silence, a total prohibition on speaking. The eucharist has become a place where nothing can be said. But straight after the service, most parishes organise drinks: we eat and drink a second time, but this time with natural sympathy and human warmth. Maybe this is the true Communion? Maybe this is the place of Jesus’ real presence?

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