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Why do churches continue to use the Holy Eucharist?


Question & Answer

Q: By A Reader
I work in an Episcopal church with Holy Eucharist at the majority of services. The liturgy includes phrases such as “this is holy food” and “come to the feast” when there actually might be five or ten calories in a congregant’s tiny wafer and nip of wine. Following the service, there is usually a coffee hour with sweet snacks and cheese, hundreds of calories per person!

Ignoring any theological implications that the bread and wine might literally transubstantiate into flesh and blood — which I fervently disbelieve — why do churches continue to use such language when people obviously know this is no “feast” and at best a liturgical ritual? I cannot imagine this is an ideal way to attract youth and outsiders to worship.

A: By Rev. Brandan Robertson
Dear Reader,

This is a very fun and reasonable question. In short, the earliest Christian celebrations of the Eucharist were in the form of full meals. “Agape Feasts”, as noted by Ignatius of Antioch, were literal meals where Christians would gather together both to remember the example of Jesus and to create community with one another.

However, within a few hundred years after the establishment of this ritual by Jesus, we begin to see Church Fathers writing about how Christians were utilizing these meals as a time for gluttony and drunkenness, as well as excluding others from full participation. Whereas this feast was meant to be a solemn time of remembrance, community building, and opportunity to share with the poor, they became indistinguishable from pagan feasts that were exclusive and usually for the purpose of drunkenness.

By the time Augustine arrives on the scene, we see him writing very harshly against such practices and advocating for a more ritualized form of the Eucharist – one in which much less food and drink was offered, and it was done in an environment that would more or less resemble a liturgy of worship. From this point onward, the evolution of the Eucharist ritual continued until it became what we have today, in most traditions, as a symbol of the Passover feast that Jesus instituted. A piece of bread and sip of wine is done to remember Christ, to the exclusion of the other reasons that the early church practiced the Agape Feast- namely, to build community.

In the modern era, many churches have attempted to return to the Agape Feast model of the Eucharist – dinner churches such as St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, New York embodies the spirit and theology of those early meals in such a profoundly beautiful way. The entirety of their “liturgy” is to gather around a table with diverse people, share a meal, reflect on the way of Jesus, and go out into the world to serve and love. This is what the celebration of the Eucharist and Christian life was meant to look like at its best. Still, many other traditions have continued to see great value in the symbolic ritual of taking a wafer of bread and a sip of wine to transport us back to the moment when Jesus shared that sacred moment with his closest friends.

The expectation is, at least in my church, that when we participate in this simple ritual that we will do so as a rededication and recommitment to everything it embodies – namely, being a community, sharing meals with others, serving the poor, and living in the sacrificial way of Jesus. When this is the posture we take, even with a silly little wafer and a squirt of wine, then I believe that this ritual truly does serve us well.

~ Rev. Brandan Robertson

***This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Rev. Brandan Robertson is a noted spiritual thought-leader, contemplative activist, and commentator, working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal and the author of Nomad: A Spirituality For Travelling Light and writes regularly for Patheos, Beliefnet, and The Huffington Post. He has published countless articles in respected outlets such as TIME, NBC, The Washington Post, Religion News Service, and Dallas Morning News. As sought out commentator of faith, culture, and public life, he is a regular contributor to national media outlets and has been interviewed by outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, SiriusXM, TIME Magazine, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Associated Press.

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