Gabbin’ About God: Transubstantiation and The Lord’s Supper -The Toast

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godWelcome back to Gabbin’ About God, in which Mallory uses her religious background to explain Christian-y things to Nicole. Most recently: Predestination.

Mallory, can we talk about the false doctrine of transubstantiation, and the evolution of the concept? I’ve always thought it was weird that Jesus used metaphors CON-STANT-LY and this is the thing people decided was NOT a metaphor but a Real Exact Thing. And is consubstantiation just “yeah, you know, we’re doing this in memory, like he SAID” or is it something else? And why do some denominations not drink wine even though Jesus literally made wine that one time? What denominations have Communion or Communion-esque things in their services? Thank you for your time. 

PAPISM. (N.B. I love Catholics and feel comfortable that we are far enough removed from the religious wars of the 17th century that I can rib them gently about their WRONGHEADED ADHERENCE TO FALSE DOCTRINES.)

Oh man, the various doctrines around the Eucharist are…something and a half, aren’t they? It’s an incredibly basic concept, in theory: The church should periodically eat a meal of bread and wine together to commemorate the fellowship of the disciples and Jesus’ sacrifice. And it’s pretty universal, across party lines, to celebrate the Eucharist, whether you’re Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant. All the Synoptic Gospels mention the Last Supper, and Corinthians records members of the early church taking communion:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

And yet the theology that’s developed around the nature of the sacrament has become INCREDIBLY complex. And to modern eyes, it can seem…incredibly silly, sometimes? But people used to take this debate incredibly seriously, whether the bread and wine of the Eucharist were actually bread and wine or whether they were transformed into body and blood during the service.

Right, yes, it’s very “follow the shoe/follow the gourd,” given that Jesus was generally given to using simple, earthy metaphors and yet fifteen hundred years later half of Europe was stabbing out the rest of Europe’s eyeballs because no one could agree on the Aristotelian distinctions of the elements of the table. And it can be a little confusing, because the Eucharist is also referred to as the Lord’s Supper and communion interchangeably, the bread is often referred to as the host (and it might be a wafer instead of bread) and different churches might celebrate it weekly or monthly or just a handful of times a year. Your Eucharist may vary!

There’s also a difference between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ communions – you can’t take communion at a Catholic service unless you’re a baptized Catholic; most Protestants don’t care if you’re a member of their church as long as you’ve been baptized and profess the faith, although there are some churches that only offer communion to their registered members. (If you’re ever at a High Church communion service, by the way, and you’re going up to receive the elements but you don’t want to take any, you can just cross your arms over your chest like a mummy and that’s a sign for the priest of whomever to just offer you a blessing instead of the cup and the bread. If you’re at, say, a Baptist service, they’re just going to pass the trays around and you can send it on down the line without taking anything.)

Broadly, here’s the major distinctions:

Catholics: That transubstantiation of which you have heard so much! Broadly, the idea is that the real presence of Jesus comes to inhabit the materials of the Eucharist without changing their outward appearance. The substance changes, but the appearance doesn’t, which is why a Catholic wouldn’t expect to literally taste blood during the service. Very Aristotelian! (SOMEDAY WE WILL TALK ABOUT THE CREEPING ARISTOTELIANISM OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY.)

First Communion is a big deal, although most churches won’t offer communion to little kids (sometimes no one younger than seven, sometimes the cutoff age is twelve, it’s dependent upon what that particular church considers the age of accountability to be.)

They’ve heard, by the way, your very-clever follow-up question a thousand times before, and they are ready for you: “When, after Holy Communion, our digestive processes have destroyed the appearance of bread within us, Jesus no longer is bodily present; only His grace remains.”

Orthodox Christians: Basically the same thing!

Coptic/Ethiopian Christians: “I believe, I believe, I believe and profess to the last breath that this is the body and the blood of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, which he took from our Lady, the holy and immaculate Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”

Lutherans: That CONSUBSTANTIATION doctrine you’ve heard so much about (Actually, it’s more accurately called the “sacramental union,” by which the presence of Christ was to be found “with, in, and under” the sacramental elements). These sort of nice distinctions can all, by the way, feel a bit WACKY to modern readers, so instead of dismissing everyone in the past as a bunch of loons, it can sometimes be helpful to think of it in these terms: People were trying to explain in concrete terms to each other how they could interact with the divine presence on a regular basis. And, again, that damn Aristotelian worldview meant that the nature or substance of an object dictated its value, its meaning, its effect on other things. So it wasn’t just a matter of “you see the Body of Christ, I see a spiritually meaningful loaf of ordinary bread” but a matter of “how has God organized the world, and how do we interact with the divine, and where do we fit into the order of things.”

Episcopalians: Of course – of COURSE – there is a plethora of opinions held within the Anglican church. They’re just happy they have an excuse to drink wine at church every week, honestly. There’s a general divide between trans- and consubstantiation in the High and Low/Broad churches, respectively, but Episcopalians love covering all their bases whenever possible. See if you can find a definitive, exclusionary claim somewhere in this CofE catechism (I can’t!)

Question – What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer – I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Question – How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Answer – Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question – Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?
Answer – For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.

Question – What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer – Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.

Question – What is the inward part, or thing signified?
Answer – The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.

Most other mainline Protestants: Metaphor! Spiritual significance! Holy Spirit! A lot of Methodists and Baptists, by the way, will offer communion to any willing believer, but recommend that communicants reflect on their “spiritual fitness” before approaching the Lord’s Table. Generally, it’s understood that if you’ve got a major ongoing conflict you haven’t resolved – say, you’re estranged from someone that you owe an apology or some form of amends to – you should make it right before accepting the elements. But it’s very individually based; you don’t have to go to confession or check with any spiritual authority figure to determine your readiness.

Quakers and the Salvation Army: Generally don’t celebrate communion at all! Quakers don’t do ANYTHING that other Christians do, bless them, and the Salvation Army considers it a showy ritual that makes no difference in regards to one’s spiritual condition.

Right ho! That’s a layman’s view of things, anyhow. It’s certainly not the dividing issue it was four or five hundred years ago, anyhow.

*extremely Party Down voice* ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? (I am.)

Okay, so then, why do so many Protestant denominations serve communion in the form of grape juice in those little plastic cups? It’s certainly a far cry from lining up down the aisle to intinct your wafer in a majestic communal chalice of wine. And, as you pointed out, Jesus himself drank wine on several occasions. The Bible has several injunctions against drunkenness, but there are certainly no universal bans on drinking (Nazirites like Samson were pretty clearly exceptions). In fact, for most of the Church’s history, drinking alcohol was a huge part of common life. Teetotalism was for Muslims, not Christians.

So what changed? Two things: the column still and a series of legislative acts in England restricting the importation of brandy. (I’M SERIOUS.) Distillation had been possible for centuries, but it was a fairly difficult and labor-intensive process. Most people in Europe drank beer and wine, and plenty of it, but the alcohol content was low enough that they could still, you know, function. Fortified wines and brandies were for the rich. But by the 1820s, a number of inventors had perfected the column still, which allowed operators to distill alcohol continuously. Which led to a real explosion in the mass-production of spirits! A century earlier, England had passed a number of laws restricting the importation of brandy, because to hell with the French, and encouraged the distillation of gin to buck up grain prices, which led to the DEADLY GIN CRAZE.

This is basically what sparked off the temperance and prohibition movements of the 19th century. Methodists were at the forefront of the movement, as were other socially-minded groups and also William Hogarth. The mass-production of high-alcohol-content spirits led to a huge shift in how people drank, you know; there had always been debauchery and drunkenness, sure, but never had it been so easy for so many people to get incredibly drunk incredibly quickly, for relatively cheap. So the temperance movement wasn’t just a bunch of killjoys who sprung up for no reason! They were responding to a very real social ill. The first temperance societies sprung up in America and England within the first few years of the development of the column still. After a few decades, the idea of temperate daily drinking sort of got lost in the shuffle; wine and beer were lumped in with all fortified spirits as part of the great Demon Alcohol, and that’s why so many Protestant denominations refuse to serve wine as a part of communion.

It probably has a lot to do with how you were raised; for me, the smell of grape juice or the taste of a certain type of white bread takes me back to childhood instantly. I used to feel a little guilty for how delicious I thought the communion grape juice tasted, like it was bad to enjoy something so serious.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our
Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks
to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take,
eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the
remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given
thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you:
This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you
and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink
it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Now that I’m grown up I can buy all the grape juice that I want, but I never do.

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