In the Early church, the Lord's Supper was called "the Eucharist", which comes from the Greek word meaning to "give thanks." There seems to be a fog that hovers over exactly what the Eucharist is in the history of the church until we reach the Fourth Lateran Council in AD 1213, where the doctrine of transubstantiation is decreed, which basically says that the bread and the juice literally become the body of Jesus and his blood. But what was thought of the Eucharist up until that point? There are a number of things we know.
The Didache, which was a Christian document from the second century, talks about the emphasis of the Eucharist of the unity of the believers. The bread is one body, and we are one body. Ignatius refers to this unity by emphasizing one bishop, one cup and one body. Ignatius also connects the idea of sacrifice to the celebration of the Eucharist, but that is as far as he goes. Pliny the Younger describes the meetings that the early church were having as possessing some type of “ordinary meal” at their meetings. This seems to present more of what is seen in the Gospel accounts than what is seen in most churches today. Yet we do not really know what the churches thought of the physical make up of the meal. Justin the Marty presents the Eucharist as the climax of the service, so we know that it is important. Yet, to define a doctrine of the Eucharist is not seen until the Fourth Lateran Council.
After the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the next decade or so Christianity came into a favored state with Rome. It was not only allowed, but was seen as the official religion of the Roman Nation. Because of this, official liturgies were formed to have a standard worship service throughout the empire. Basilicas were the common place that people met for worship, yet a number of developments occurred during this time to separate the laity from participating in the worship service. Instead of sitting at the Lord’s supper every week together, all partaking of the Lord’s supper, the altar was raised, a chancel screen set up, and the worship music became so complex that the laity became observers instead of participants in the Liturgical service. It was such a separation that the chancel screen covered up everything that occurred in the service except for the host being raised above the screen, the climax of the service. It was said that one time a man in the back of the church could not see the host and yelled in the middle of the service, “Higher!”. During this time it was rare for the laity to partake of the Eucharist at all, and the more privileged received it once or twice a year.
During the Fourth Lateran Council in the year AD 1213, there were a number of changes that occurred in the partaking of the Eucharist. The first is that the doctrine of transubstantiation was argued by Thomas Aquinas and was accepted at the council as the official doctrine of the Catholic church. Transubstantiation says that the bread and the wine, at the point of the service when the Eucharist is administered, turns into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus. Jesus’ physical body and blood is present at the mass and he is sacrificed again and again, each time the elements are served. Also, there was a push made for more participation with the laity in receiving the Eucharist, which was so important since it was the physical body and blood of Jesus. Finally, during this time, the Eucharist was only served as the bread, not the wine. This is called “in one kind”. Because of this, people felt like they were missing out on some of Jesus by only receiving one kind of the Eucharist. This produced the Doctrine of Concomitance which states that all of Christ is contained in any part of the Eucharist. Thus, the Eucharist was one of the seven sacraments of the holy Catholic Church
During the 16th century, humanism entered the scene through the Renaissance and brought about the emphasis of reason, bearing the Protestant Reformation. This was led by Martin Luther, who made some incredible changes to Christianity. One interesting thing about Luther is his interaction with the liturgy. Luther’s stance on the liturgy was to remove from worship only that what is clearly wrong, not to abandon 1500 years of history of worship. For instance, Luther served communion “in both kinds” yet he rejected transubstantiation but argued for the “real presence” of Christ during the Eucharist. Yet, Ulrich Zwingli took the reformation of worship a step further by abandoning all that is not clearly in the Bible.
Zwingli saw the Eucharist simply as a remembrance of what Christ did for us. This was consistent with the extremes of humanism which state that the internal attitude and faith of the believer is the key thing in worship. He pointed out that sacrament simply means a “vow”, which refers to the Christian committing himself to God and to one another. Because of this, the Eucharist lost some of its importance in the service, so much so that in Geneva it was only being offered once a month. Calvin had some different views than Zwingli, believing that communion should be administered weekly and that it was, like Luther, the “real presence” of Christ, but not the physical presence of Christ. But because of the polarization between Catholicism and Protestantism, the extreme view of Zwingli won out, thus the Sacramental theology rejected, the Eucharist not served on a weekly basis, it only served as a symbol to remember Jesus’ death, and it was no longer the climax of the service. At the Council of Trent, there were some Catholics who wanted to follow suit with Luther and reform some of the medieval Catholic doctrines. Yet because of the environment, the Council produced a polarization between Catholics and Protestants, in which the Catholics reinforced the seven sacraments, specifically that of transubstantiation.
This polarization of the Eucharist between Catholics and Protestants continues on, even to today. That is why in the Church of England, the Catholic and Protestant struggle produced some groups with some very extreme beliefs, like the Puritans, who left England and traveled to the new world, America. They, and others like them, practiced the Eucharist closer to once a year rather than every week, only administered it to the elect and saw it only as a symbol to remember our commitment to Jesus and what he has done for us. The once a year administration of the Eucharist turned into an emotional experience that was the beach head for the first and second Great Awakening. It is interesting that the practice of the Eucharist in Protestantism, which had lost importance in the actual climax of the service and the frequency in administration, is the same practice that sparked religious revival in America.
Part of the Restoration movement was restoring the New Testament church, specifically that of administering the Eucharist every week. Yet, this Zwinglian view of seeing the Eucharist as just a symbol has remained intact in most of Restoration movement churches today. Also, because of the awareness of germs and men chewing tobacco which left residue in the cup that was being passed around, most churches administer the Eucharist with small chicklits of crackers and numerous small thimbles of grape juice, which was a result of the temperance movement.
I think what the church can do to help build unity with one another is twofold. First, pay attention to the history of the church and see what caused the polarization between Protestants and Catholics. Catholics do a good job of this, in Vatican II, it seems that Catholics took a more middle approach in seeing the Eucharist as the “real presence” of Jesus, not necessarily transubstantiation. Yet Protestants, because of their ignorance of church history, do not seem to have taken any real steps to understanding why they believe what they believe about the Eucharist. Second, I think it is important that we as Protestants ask the question why we gather together every Sunday morning for worship. When we realize that it is not to attract seekers into our doors but to spur one another on towards love and good deeds by remembering what Jesus did by partaking of his Eucharist, then the importance of the Eucharist will hopefully be reinstated into Protestant churches today.