God is everywhere. His whole creation is sustained by His ever-present divine power. No one can escape from God. “Whither shall I go from Thy Presence?” “In Him we live and move and have our being.” But as human beings we require points of contact with God if we are to receive the benefits of His divine energy. That is the function of the Sacraments. I grope in spiritual shadows while God is all around me. I go to the altar, partake of Holy Communion, make the connection, the spiritual energy flows through, and I find illumination.
Five names are widely in use for this the second of the great Sacraments commanded by our Lord. It is called “Holy Communion’, the ‘Lord’s Supper’, the ‘Holy Eucharist’, the ‘Mass’, and the ‘Liturgy’. They all mean the same thing but each places a particular emphasis on one phase of the same Sacrament.
The Holy Communion points to the partaking of spiritual food. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”
The Lord’s Supper emphasizes the memorial feature of the Sacrament. Our Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” It is a memorial act – not merely calling something up to memory, but identifying ourselves with the thing that was done.
The Holy Eucharist is the name used most commonly by the early Christians. The word “eucharist” means thanksgiving. While this Sacrament is a memorial of our Lord’s death on the cross, it is more than that. The name “eucharist”, in general use among the first Christians, adds the Resurrection to the Crucifixion. It is the Risen Christ whom we meet at the altar, and the whole sacramental service is an act of gratitude for Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended.
The Mass lays its stress upon the sacrificial aspect of the Sacrament. “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The entire life of our Lord is an offering to the Heavenly Father which reached its climax on Calvary and was certified in the Resurrection. That offering was “once for all.” It can never be repeated, but it can be reiterated. In the Sacrament we not only re-enact His sacrifice, but we personalize it by throwing our own lives in with His – “Here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” We receive something and we give something.
The Liturgy is the name particularly venerated by the Eastern Orthodox churches. It emphasizes the worship expressed in the Sacrament. Worship is the acknowledgment of God, the recognition of God, the appreciation of God. In no way can this be more completely done than by dramatic participation in our Lord’s self-offering. We render praise as well as thanksgiving.
Whichever name we use, the Sacrament itself is a memorial, a communion, a thanksgiving, an offering, and an act of worship.
The Lord’s Supper must have been a matter of supreme importance to the first Christians because its institution is recounted four times in the New Testament. Each of the first three Gospels tell the story. The fourth Gospel, which was written as a supplement to the other three, goes a step further with its remarkable passage about the Bread of Life.
Four peculiar marks of the apostolic Church are given in the Acts of the Apostles – “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Clearly the breaking of bread, grouped as it is with these other features, must have meant a sacred religious rite. Therefore it is not at all surprising that in the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament the Holy Eucharist stands out vividly as the very heart of the corporate life of the Church.
During the first six centuries the Church fought many a battle to preserve the purity of the Gospel against the corruptions and distortions of the classical “heresies,” but in all of those troubled times there were no controversies about the Eucharist. All accepted it as a sacred gift from our Lord. They guarded it with the greatest care.
Sacraments are the vehicles for the conveying of divine grace. Think, for a moment, of a medicine prescribed for one’s physical health. It consists of certain chemical elements which have been brought together. Those elements taken separately, are possessed of certain qualities, but when they are combined, a new medicinal virtue is produced. You take the medicine and dispose of the elements, but the virtue remains with you and acts upon your body. It may not produce results until you take the medicine, but the virtue is there nevertheless whether you take it or not.
Something like this is meant by the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The bread and the wine still remain bread and wine, but by combination with the spiritual act of Consecration they are invested with a peculiar spiritual virtue which is identified with the Body and Blood of Christ. “This,” said our Lord, “is My Body … and this is My Blood.” Christ is spiritually present under the forms of bread and wine. The virtue of His Presence produces its results when the Sacrament is received by the communicant, but the Presence is still there whether received or not.
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures… He was buried, and … He rose again the third day.” When he instituted the Sacrament our Lord said, in effect, “I give Myself to you. Tomorrow I lay down My life. I do it through the agency of the Cross, but My death is only the termination of My human ministry. My risen life will still be available to you and to those who through you shall wish to receive Me. This is My Body. This is My Blood. It is My life I am giving to you under these sacramental symbols. Do this in remembrance of Me.”
So He provides food for our souls. For our souls need spiritual nourishment just as our bodies need physical nourishment. You do not wait until you are physically famished before you go to a meal. You take your food at regular intervals in order to avoid becoming hungry. So your regular Communion keeps your spiritual life fit for its duties. The Holy Eucharist is a witness to the spiritual bond which unites us – we eat of the same bread and drink of the same cup, enjoy common spiritual privileges and recognize common spiritual responsibilities. It is a sign of Christian unity.
Both matter and form for the Holy Eucharist were given by our Lord Himself. The matter is bread and wine similar to that which He used at the Last Supper. The bread may be either leavened or unleavened, though it is most probable that the kind used the night before the Crucifixion was unleavened. The wine is the fermented juice of the grape mixed with a little water. There is no reason whatever for thinking that our Lord used any description of unfermented grape juice.
At the Last Supper our Lord Himself administered the Sacrament to the Apostles and commanded them to perpetuate what He had begun. With the passing of the Apostles the bishops succeeded to their leadership in the Church and it was they who celebrated the Eucharist for the people. The bishop consecrated the elements at his own altar and the Bishop’s Eucharist was sent from that altar to Christians who lived any distance away. As congregations increased in number this became more and more difficult to do. So the right to consecrate was gradually delegated to the local priests, and this became the prevailing custom throughout the Church. Down to the time of the Reformation nobody but a bishop or a priest was authorized to perform this function, and in line with Christian history it has been consistent practice down to the present day.
Always the consecrated Bread has been administered individually to each communicant, but there has been some difference in the use of the chalice. From early times it became the custom in the Eastern Church to dip the consecrated Bread in the Wine and administer both together. In the Western Church each communicant received directly from the common chalice until well down into the Middle Ages. After the twelfth century it was common practice to communicate the people “in one kind,” that is, by administering only the consecrated Bread. A return to the common chalice came at the time of the Reformation.
Some people are frightened by the possibility of germs. The danger is so remote that it might reasonably be dismissed, but the feeling is nevertheless present with many people. In some places administration by “intinction” if offered – whereby the wafer is moistened in the Wine and so given to the communicant. Any person, if he so desires, may receive the Bread without partaking of the chalice, and in doing so makes a full communion. Christ cannot be divided. He is fully present in either of the consecrated Elements, and the benefits of the Sacrament are obtainable whether received in “both kinds,” in “one kind,” or by method of intinction.
Christian people were accustomed to make their communions at the beginning of the day. It has been a mark of reverence that the Sacrament should be received before any other food is taken for the day. Obviously the Sacrament itself is more important than the time of receiving it but the discipline of fasting has a spiritual value. The bishops of the Church have described fasting communion as “reverent in its intention, with the guarantee of long usage, and with the commendation of very saintly men.” In modern times people sometimes observe a three-hour fast before receiving communion.
When the Bishop’s Eucharist was celebrated in the early days and the consecrated Elements were sent out to those who lived at a distance, it was necessary that the Sacrament should be “reserved,” that is, part of the consecrated Elements were kept after the service itself was over. It was considered important for the faithful to receive their Communion that provision was thus made for those who might be sick – the Reserved Sacrament was carried to them. Particularly was this true in the case of imminent death. No Christian wanted to die without his last Communion – the Viaticum. So reservation for the sick and for the dying was embedded in the normal tradition of the Church. In many churches the Reserved Sacrament is kept in the “Tabernacle” on the High Altar or a side Altar.
So when WE make our Communion, we come with a special intention – that is, we bring a special need, petition, or intercession and give it to Him. Incompetent as we may be in ourselves to make any claims on God, we find dependable access to the Heavenly Father by identification with Him who has made the Perfect Offering.
First Communion Classes are offered here at St. James ACC. Call Fr. Jim at (H) 210.521.7048 to make arrangements.