The origins of the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Mass, go back to Jesus himself. It is based on the events of the Last Supper, when Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples for the last time before his crucifixion. The account of this can be found in Matthew 26 vv 26-9, Mark 14 vv 22-5 and Luke 22 vv 14-20. His words ‘Do this in memory of me” were acted upon by the first Christians whom we hear of meeting to “break bread” together in the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 2 v 42. St Paul also talks about the Lord’s Supper, and gives the earliest account of it in I Corinthians chp 11. It seems at first that it was retained as part of a communal meal (sometimes referred to as an agape or love feast) but later emerged as a separate act of worship. It became a focal point of Christian worship and almost all Christian denominations use it.
Over the centuries in the two main branches of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox, the Eucharist evolved its own elaborate ritual. By the time of the Reformation in the West the laity took communion very occasionally, and then only the bread. It was called the Mass and had by that time become almost the only service used in church, and one in which the congregation were onlookers rather than participants. The service was said in Latin, which only the educated could understand, and the action took place at the far end of the church so that people could not see what was happening. It was surrounded by superstition and mystery.
The Protestant movement in the 16th and 17th Centuries put greater emphasis on preaching than on the communion, and developed other kinds of worship which did not include communion. When they did hold a communion service they did so with the minimum of ritual and restored the practice of everyone taking both the bread and the wine sometimes substituted with a non-alcoholic drink
The beliefs about the Eucharist are reflected in the practices. Much of the argument at the Reformation concerned the doctrines about the substance of the bread and wine in the service, and the meaning of Jesus’ death. This had often been thought of as Jesus making a sacrifice of himself in order to placate God for the sins of mankind, much in the same way that animal sacrifices had been used previously. In this way the re-enactment of the Last Supper with its words ‘This is My Body” and ‘This is My Blood” was seen as a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The table on which this took place was called an altar, part of the language of sacrificial worship. Much has been said and written about those words, and to what extent the bread and wine actually become in some way the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine which claims that the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ is called “transubstantiation”. One of the accusations levelled against the early Christians was that of cannibalism because of this. As it was always kept for those who were within the church those outside felt that there was an element of secrecy which encouraged such ideas. At one time anyone could attend the early part of the service which consists of readings from the scriptures and a sermon, but when the actual communion began they were asked to leave (The Latin for this was “Missa stint” meaning “they are sent away” – the origin of the term Mass). The need to ensure that all the bread which was consecrated was consumed, and the wine drunk comes from a belief in the sacredness of the elements of the communion. So do the practices of touching neither the chalice nor the consecrated bread but allowing the priest to put the latter straight onto the tongue.
Changes at the Reformation were to the beliefs about the communion and these brought about a change in practice. Rather than emphasising the idea of the re-enactment of a sacrifice, the Protestant movements saw the service as a memorial meal shared by Jesus’ followers. The bread and wine, while treated with the greatest respect, were seen as symbols rather than changing into the actual body and blood. The communion service was not held so often, as they felt it was more important to preach, and teach the people. The name of the altar changed back to the idea of a table, and some groups began to sit round a table to share this meal together. While going to the communion rail still occurs in some Protestant churches, including the Church of England, others take the bread and wine to the people in their places, often with the wine in individual cups rather than sharing the one goblet. This means that everyone can wait and then eat at the same time rather than take it in turns as they do at an altar rail. They will sit to receive their communion. In the Anglican church most people kneel at the altar rail, as they may do in Roman Catholic churches. However, there are places where it is more usual to stand to receive, as it apparently was in the early church.
The service of Communion is divided into two parts – the Ministry of the Word and The Ministry of the Sacrament
In the first part you will find prayers, readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament other than the Gospels, and a reading from the Gospels themselves. These readings are set out according to the time of year, and follow a particular theme. So it is that all churches on a particular Sunday will be hearing the same Biblical readings. There will be a sermon in most services, after which the Creed – the statement of the Christian faith will be said together by everyone. After the prayers of intercession, when the needs the world are thought of as well as our own needs, comes the Peace. Practice varies, but in many churches this is the point at which the congregation greet each other with the words “Peace be with you”, often shaking hands at the same time. This is an ancient practice which has been restored within the context of worship.
The offertory which comes next marks the beginning of the Eucharist itself. In this the people make their offering of money to God, as well as the bread and wine which are to be part of the Eucharist. In many churches this is taken up to the altar with the collection. There then follows the Eucharistic prayer, which is long, but does involve the people in various responses. There are several possible variations of this in the Common Worship service book, but all are based on ancient liturgies, and include giving thanks to God for all that he has done for mankind, and particularly for the life and work of Jesus. There is also the narrative of the Last Supper when the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” are spoken over the bread and wine to be shared by those present. Further prayers are said and then the people are invited to come to the altar rail to receive communion.
After the communion itself, another prayer of thanksgiving is often included, or of dedication. There is the blessing and the service is ended. There may be hymns at various points in the service, and if they are included there is usually one at the end while the priest and his assistants leave.