The Eucharist is held by most Christians to be the central act of their worship. Protestants usually know it as The Lord's Supper, Roman Catholics as Mass and the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Divine Liturgy. Communion, or holy communion, is a more neutral term. There is much disagreement among different Christian sects about many aspects of this central service: what follows is a brief sketch. For more detailed information, consult experts in Theology, or the professionals in any relevant Church.
The service has several aspects, which different sects emphasize differently. It is
- a commemoration of the Last Supper, and thus
- an act of fellowship in the community of the Church, and
- a joining in the new covenant of Christianity;
- a sacrifice in some sense, and at the least
- a commemoration of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross;
- an act of thanksgiving for Christ, and his sacrifice.
The essential act of the eucharist is the taking of bread and wine. At the Last Supper, "Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake [the old form of 'broke'] it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many" (Mark, 14, 22-4 AV). So now, in the Eucharist Christians share bread which has been blessed, or consecrated; and wine similarly - although in the Roman Catholic Church it is only those in Holy Orders who drink the wine. This was a principal disagreement in the Reformation, where one strong thrust was to declare "every man his own priest", and reject the authority of a sacerdotal class.
Another strong disagreement was over the nature of the bread and wine. Roman Catholics believed - and still do - that blessing the bread and wine transubstantiates (~ changes) them into the actual body and blood of Christ, although their appearance is not changed. Lutherans believe in consubstantiation: that the reality of the body and blood of Christ exist at the same time as the reality of the bread and wine. The fine distinction between consubstantiation and transubstantiation was at the heart of many bitter and fatal disputes during the Reformation.