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July 31, 2014

What Is Holy Communion?

Holy Communion is a sacred ritual action, a holy meal through which the church remembers God’s saving work in creation and covenant, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church invites and invokes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, celebrating with thanksgiving Christ’s continuing presence in the world through the Holy Spirit. We receive a foretaste of and anticipate the heavenly banquet.

Holy Communion is also often referred to as Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Each of these names finds its roots in the witness of the New Testament and in the life of the early church. Holy Communion emphasizes the holy meal as a means by which we participate in a holy and loving relationship with God and our neighbors (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Eucharist, from the Greek word meaning “to give thanks,” reminds us that when Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal, he gave thanks to God for God’s creating and saving work in the world (Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). This understanding is reflected in the fact that many churches call the prayer at the holy meal the “Great Thanksgiving.”

In Eucharist we continue Jesus’ action of thanksgiving as we offer our own praise and thanks to God. The Great Thanksgiving typically includes remembrance of God’s saving work in the history of Israel, in Christ, and in the church; a specific recalling (anamnesis) of the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper; and an invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) over the bread and cup that they may be, for God’s people, the body and blood of Christ and that we may be Christ’s body in the world.

Churches variously speak of Holy Communion as sacrament or ordinance. When we speak of the holy meal as sacrament, we emphasize God’s action toward us. We see in the meal a sign and means of God’s grace toward the world. In the sharing of bread and wine, God reaches out to persons and communities in grace, bringing life, strength, and confidence in the life of faith. In speaking of the holy meal as ordinance, we emphasize the way in which the meal is a command or law for the church. As such, the emphasis falls on our actions of obedience to Christ’s command that we “do this in remembrance of [him]” as recounted in the stories of the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-23 and parallels). These two understandings together enable us to see the holy meal as a means of God’s gracious action toward us and a means by which we respond to God’s grace with faith in obedience.

The basic ecumenical shape of Holy Communion reflects a fourfold shape of gathering, Word, table, and sending. The community of faith gathers with prayer and song. The Word is proclaimed through the reading of scripture and interpreted through preaching, music, and other arts. The community responds to the Word in intercessory prayer for the world and acts of commitment and baptism. We prepare the table with the offerings of our gifts and with the gifts of bread and wine. Thanksgiving is offered, bread broken, wine poured; the bread and cup are shared with all who may receive. Depending on the rules of the community, these may be all who wish to receive, all who are baptized, all who are formal members of the community in good standing, or some other defined group. The action at the table reflects the biblical actions—take, bless, break, and give—that accompany all of the meals Jesus shares with his disciples. (See the feeding of the multitudes in Matthew 14:13-21 and parallels.) With concluding prayers, songs, and blessings, the community is sent into the world to continue its ministry of self-giving and worshipful service.

E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is Styberg Professor of Worship and director of the Nellie B. Ebersol Program in Music Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is an ordained elder in full connection with the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. His research and writing focuses on the connection between worship and Christian formation. Anderson is the author and editor of several books, including Worship and Christian Identity (Liturgical Press), Taught by God: Teaching and Spiritual Formation (coauthored with Karen Marie Yust, Chalice Press), and Worship Matters, 2 vols. (Discipleship Resources).

For further reading, see That We May Perfectly Love Thee by Robert Benson.

This article is an excerpt from pages 132-133 of The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, edited by Keith Beasley-Topliffe.  Copyright © 2003 by Upper Room Books. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Upper Room Books.

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