“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16)
Eucharist is from the Greek word meaning “Good Gift”. It is often also called Holy Communion. Jesus instituted it as a celebration of his work on the cross: the bread represents his body, the wine his blood (Luke 22:17-23). As the church explored the Scriptural significance of this celebration we discovered many layers of meaning and symbolism. For example:
- BLESSING — Abraham is met by the priest/king Melchizedek. He is blessed and offered a meal of bread and wine (Gen 14:18). Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:17) who invites us into a blessed, eternal meal with God.
- LIFE — Jesus is our “Passover Lamb” (1 Cor 5:7), i.e. not ‘just’ a sacrifice for sins. His blood marks us as God’s people destined for life (Ex. 12, John 6:33). Jesus instituted this meal at Passover: but the lamb was no longer a sheep, it was the only Son of God.
- FORGIVENESS — Jesus was offered as a sacrifice of atonement for our sins (Ex 30:10, Matt 26:28, Rom 3:25, Heb 9:22, 10:18).
- FELLOWSHIP — Sacrificial meals in the Old Testament consisted of the meat of the sacrifice along with bread and wine (Num 15:6-10). They were a time of fellowship with God. Jesus fulfilled for all time the need for a sacrificial animal. The remaining two elements remind us that we are invited into the eternal intimacy of the Trinity.
- SPIRITUAL FOOD — Jesus likened his flesh and his blood to the manna and provision of God in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt (Ex. 16, John 6:43-58). This meal represents God’s provision and sustenance for us as we live out our new life.
- OTHERS... Participation in Christ (1 Cor 10:16); Many Nations–One People (Rev 5:9-10); Redemption (1 Pe 1:18); One Body (1 Cor 10:17); Remembrance (Lk 22:19), etc.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE SERVICE
The Bible tells us to celebrate this meal “whenever” we can. Jesus instituted it at the Passover meal, but that was only once a year, so the church was left to figure out how to celebrate it as a regular event (1 Cor 11:17-34).
The early Christians were Jewish and so they looked to the Old Testament, the synagogue and the temple to guide them in worship and in the celebration of communion. In the early days the Jewish Christians used to go to the synagogue or temple to worship (e.g. Acts 2:46, 3:1, 13:14-15, etc.) and then gathered afterwards at a private home to share a Eucharistic meal. The synagogue service consisted of prayer, reading and exposition of Scripture, worship, and responsorial affirmations of praise & thanksgiving led by a cantor. It ended with the greeting: “Peace” (Heb. “Shalom”).
The first part of our service still follows this ancient pattern. If Paul, Peter or any other disciples were with us today they would feel quite at home (really cool to think how this links us to them and Christians through the centuries!). Offering the peace with the words “Peace be with you” signals the end of the ‘synagogue’ part of our service. Like them we then go into the celebration of communion with all its symbolism and depth of meaning.
As the early church grew and spread people wanted to honour God and approach Him with reverence and awe (Lev 10:3, Heb 12:28, 1 Pe 3:15). They looked to the Bible for help and guidance. They wanted to give God the best that they could. This is how the aesthetic elements of the celebration developed (colours, candles, stoles, robes, etc., e.g. Ex 28, 39). Most started for practical reasons (e.g. candles for light), but came to have a “greater” meaning (light = Jesus = life , John 1:4), which is why we continue them today.
To participate fully, allow yourself to be carried by every word and action. The Liturgy is simply Scripture phrases, concepts and symbols arranged in meaningful thematic ways. Let every word and act resonate with your soul; each is rich and significant. They all affirm important truths about God’s character and goodness, and our life in Christ.
HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF THE SERVICE
- When we gather we are joining a worship service eternally happening in Heaven (Rev 4:8). We therefore begin, participate, and end in an orderly and respectful way, but also with great joy and enthusiasm! God is worthy; it is not an obligation.
- To begin and end worship reverently, the church began to do orderly Processions just as happened in the days of the temple (e.g. Psalm 42:4, 68:24-27, 118:27). When we process in (and even when we don’t), take time to gather your own heart and focus your scattered thoughts on God to be ready as the service starts.
- Ordinary bread and wine are consecrated by prayer; only then do we treat them as holy (representing Jesus’ body and blood). The forms of “Eucharistic Prayer” for consecration go back to well before 200AD. Each recounts the story of our salvation. It is a prayer of worship and thanksgiving to God.
- When you partake of communion remember the layers of symbolic meaning. For example: if you feel unworthy and sinful, focus on Jesus as our sacrifice of atonement (your sins are forgiven); if you feel lonely, celebrate your welcome into fellowship with God; if you feel discouraged, focus on Jesus’ as our guarantee of life; If you feel far from home, focus on the Church as one body in Christ, etc.
Everyone who wants to draw closer to Christ is invited to participate in Communion with us. It involves partaking in a small piece of bread and a sip of wine in an attitude of reverent thanksgiving.