Summary and Keywords
The Eucharist is a liturgical meal of bread and wine, which is almost always preceded by a service of reading the Scriptures. Christians attribute the origin of the Eucharist to Jesus Christ himself at the Last Supper on the night before he died. Many Christians regard the Eucharist as a sacrament and as their central ritual, and many celebrate the Eucharist weekly or even more often. This sacred meal has had various names throughout history: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Offering, the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. The most common name in the early 21st century, however, is Eucharist, which derives from the Greek word Eucharistia, a thanksgiving.
What we know since the 3rd century as the basic form of the Christian Eucharist is most probably the result of a number of trajectories from the first 150 years of Christianity coming together, including: fellowship meals in remembrance of Jesus, celebrations of his passion and resurrection, and the tradition of his significant meals such as the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus (Luke 24).
In the late 4th and 5th centuries, many local traditions coalesced to produce (1) a basic common form of Eucharistic liturgy consisting of entrance rite, liturgy of the word, homily, prayers, the sharing of a kiss of peace, presentation of gifts of bread and wine, Eucharistic prayer, Lord’s Prayer, fraction of the bread, distribution of communion, and dismissal; and (2) the various traditional liturgical families tied to major Christian cities: Byzantine (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch), Coptic (Alexandria), East Syrian (Edessa), and Roman.
The church of the first millennium knew a common affirmation of the understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements as well as a variety of ways of expressing the notion of Eucharist as sacrifice. The first controversies over how to express Christ’s presence arose in the 9th century, and they rose to a crescendo with Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. The most sophisticated explanation of that presence (transubstantiation) was provided by Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century made various criticisms of traditional Roman Catholic theology and practice. They insisted on using the language of the people, giving communion in both bread and wine, and dismissing the language of Eucharistic sacrifice. The Reformed tradition (John Calvin) and the Lutheran differed considerably, however, on how to affirm Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic celebration, with Luther taking a much more realist position and Calvin a more “spiritual” understanding. The Church of England was reluctant to take sides in this discussion and its own theological position on the Eucharist remains a matter of debate.
The liturgical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, combined with renewed interest in biblical and patristic scholarship, has produced a remarkable convergence among various Christian churches, and it has led to Eucharistic liturgies among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists that bear a notable similarity to one another.
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