I realize that to a lot of people, this isn’t a question. The celebration of Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Table, the Lord’s Supper, or whatever you want to call it, is dictated by the rules of one’s church tradition or denomination. The physical and spiritual properties of the elements (bread and wine) are similarly thus defined. But for those of us who try to practice a faith defined by the Bible and specifically the New Testament and who have no higher ecclesiastical authority, such questions are not only appropriate, but necessary to ask.
Jewish Origin of the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper (I’m going to call it that, since that’s the name with which I’m most familiar), originated during Jesus’ last Passover meal with his disciples. The bread used at the Passover meal was unleavened bread, known as matzah in Hebrew. Leaven symbolized corruption or sin, so the absence of leaven in the bread could be seen as a symbol of purity. During the Passover Seder, there are typically three matzot, and the middle one is broken and later consumed as the afikoman. Some see a connection between this practice and what Jesus did at the Last Supper when he broke the bread and said, “This is my body.” The unleavened bread symbolizes Jesus’ sinless nature and the broken bread, his broken body.
Wine is a standard part of the Passover Seder, with four cups being consumed at specific points, each representing different aspects of the Exodus story. The cup that might be most closely associated with the Lord’s Supper is often thought to be the third cup, known as the “Cup of Redemption.” Jesus used the wine to symbolize his blood, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). This can be seen as aligning with the themes of redemption and the establishment of a new covenant.
The Lord’s Supper takes these elements from the Jewish Passover meal and imbues them with new meaning, connecting the story of the Exodus and God’s covenant with Israel to the new covenant in Christ’s blood. The bread and wine thus become symbols of Jesus’ sacrifice, his role as the sinless Messiah, and the redemption offered through his death and resurrection. It’s a powerful linkage of the Old Testament with the teachings of Christ, reflecting a continuity in God’s salvific plan.
The Christian Agape Feast
The book of Acts describes how the church quickly spread beyond the borders of Judea and into the Roman world, especially through the ministry of the Apostle Paul. By the time he writes to the church in Corinth, Christians are celebrating the Lord’s Supper as part of a communal meal as described in 1 Corinthians 11 (and perhaps mentioned in Jude 12). For these Gentiles, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup that memorialized the Lord’s death was still part of a bigger meal, but was separate from the annual Jewish Passover. These meals appear to have have been frequent — perhaps as often as daily (Acts 2:43-47), or at least weekly (Acts 20:7).
Timing of the Agape Feast or Lord’s Supper Through History
We tend to think of Sunday as a “holiday”, like the Jewish Sabbath day, and unless we think about it, assume that first-century Christians met on Sunday morning like we do. But Sunday was a work day for Jews and Gentiles alike. If the church met “on the first day of the week”, it would have been early in the morning or late in the evening (when parishioners were likely to fall asleep and fall out the window — Acts 20:9).
In AD 112, Pliny the Younger describes Christians meeting for a communal meal before dawn, but does not specifically mention any celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Chapter 14 of the Didache (late 1st or early 2nd century AD) discusses gathering on the Lord’s Day to break bread and give thanks, but the text itself does not explicitly define whether this refers to the Lord’s Supper or a more general meal.
By the 4th century, the communal meal and Lord’s Supper celebrations have been separated, and for the most part, this practice continued to the present.
The Nature of the Elements
From about the 9th to 13th centuries, there is debate about the nature of Christ’s presence in the elements, and the doctrine of transubstantiation is formally defined by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther emphasized the real presence of Christ “in, with, and under” the elements, rejecting the philosophical explanations of transubstantiation but still affirming Christ’s real presence.
Those of us outside the Catholic and Protestant traditions, meanwhile, continue to see only a symbolic presentation of Christ in the elements, rejecting any suggestion that it is necessary to re-sacrifice Jesus by breaking his body and spilling his blood.
To me this very interestingly breaks down into a question of where in church history you draw the line on the “evolution” of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Those of us who reject any form of transubstantiation still practice the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper separate from any larger meal and with a great deal of solemnity and introspection. This places us somewhere between about the 5th and 8th centuries of Christian tradition.
To be completely honest, I’d like to see a return to the local church sharing a weekly, communal meal (a good old fashioned church potluck) during which their comes a point where unleavened bread is broken and shared, followed by a glass of wine (though I personally would prefer either unfermented grape juice or wine that has been diluted with water to reduce its intoxicating effect). This part of the meal could be preceded by and concluded with a prayer before the meal continues. I believe something like that might be more consistent with early church practice, and moves the line further back toward the original practice of the church.
Feel free to comment below. I’m more interested in why you practice the Lord’s Supper the way you do than what your particular flavor of Christianity dictates that you do.