The Eucharist in the Life of the Church

If baptism is the beginning of life in Christ, the Eucharist, and the communion with God and each other that it symbolizes and creates, is its goal. This article looks at the Eucharist and how it is lived in the life of the Church.

The Eucharist is the seal of baptism

Baptism does not stand alone; it is completed by Chrismation and the Eucharist. These days, we often distinguish two "parts" or aspects of the Eucharist:

But of course, while they may be separated in time, they can't really be divided, any more than a human being ceases to exist when body and soul are parted by death. In fact, every celebration of the Eucharist brings us into contact with the one perfect offering of Jesus Christ on the Cross, foretold and enacted at the Last Supper.

We refer to the prayer as the Divine Liturgy, and the reception as Holy Communion. When baptism is celebrated on one of the great feasts of the Church, or even in connection with the ordinary Divine Liturgy, the symbolism is complete: the new believer is baptized and chrismated, takes part in the prayer of the Divine Liturgy, and receives the Body and Blood of Christ. When baptism is celebrated apart from the Divine Liturgy, the newly baptized person receives Holy Communion from the Body and Blood of Christ preserved from a previous Liturgy.

But believers do not enter the Church alone. In receiving Holy Communion, they come into communion also with all the members of the Church, most especially the local church; and this is true every time Holy Communion is received. This is also why Saint Paul emphasized that charity toward other Christians is a requirement for reception of Holy Communion.

The Sunday Eucharist

From the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist was celebrated on "the Lord's Day" (Sunday), either during the preceding night or in the morning, and the faithful received Holy Communion; it was often the responsibility of the deacon to take Communion to those who were absent due to illness or imprisonment. When the martyrs of Abitene in northern Africa (AD 303) were asked by their persecutors why they violated the law and met together, they replied, "We cannot live without the Sunday Eucharist."

Over time, the Eucharist came to be celebrated at the tombs of martyrs on their memorial days, and eventually on all great feast days. It was expected that anyone not undergoing penance for grave sins could and would receive Holy Communion at these celebrations, though later this became less common. Still, the presence of Christians at the Sunday Eucharist was a hallmark of the Church.

On days other than Sunday, the various churches differed in their attitude toward the Eucharist. In the Christian West, a more frequent, even daily Eucharist became common. In the Christian East, where the Divine Liturgy had more of a festive character, it was never celebrated on days devoted to fasting and penance.

The Eucharist, the bishop, and the local church

The celebration of the Eucharist is also closely connected with the person of the bishop, who is the head of the local church. He was not only the high priest and main celebrant, but also the primary teacher of the faithful. At first, the bishop would give thanks in his own words; later, the prayers were standardized and written down. But throughout this period, the celebration of the Eucharist by the bishop, surrounded by his clergy and people, was the outward sign of local Christian unity.

As local churches grew, the bishop would delegate the authority to celebrate the Eucharist to his priests (but not deacons); different local churches used various ways to show that the priest was acting with the bishop's authority. For example, the priest might use written prayers given him by his bishop, or add a small particle of the consecrated bread to his own parish's Eucharist. In the Byzantine tradition, the bishop blesses and signs a piece of embroidered cloth (called an antimension) containing the relics of martyrs for each parish, and the priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy on this antimension.

Although the ceremonies of consecration of a new church building are long and involved, they amount to one thing: the preparation of an altar on which to celebrate the Eucharist, followed by the celebration itself. Just as the celebration of the Eucharist makes a group of baptized believers in the Church, it makes a building a sacred space for the worship of God.

The Eucharist and the other Holy Mysteries

We have already said that baptism, chrismation, and Eucharist form one Christian rite of initiation. But the other Holy Mysteries are connected with the Eucharist as well:

The rite by which Holy Communion is given to the sick is also used to give Holy Communion to others outside of the Divine Liturgy, although reception during the Divine Liturgy is preferred.

The Great Fast: the Body and Blood of Christ as our spiritual food

The prayer in the Divine Liturgy that comes immediately before the Our Father clearly states the desired benefits of Holy Communion:

May they [the holy Gifts] bring about the remission of sins, the pardon of transgressions, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, confidence in you, not judgment or condemnation.

And the prayer immediately before Communion adds:

May the partaking of your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.

In the Byzantine Rite, where penitential times and seasons such as the Great Fast disallowed the weekday celebration of the Divine Liturgy, there was still a sense that reception of Holy Communion was important - perhaps even more important than usual, due to the spiritual struggles and temptations of fasting. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts came into being as a way to provide the faithful with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of Christ on fasting days. In monasteries, the service of Typika was sometimes used for the same purpose.

The Paschal season reminds us of the Eucharist

In the middle of the fifty day feast that runs from Pascha to Pentecost, the Church celebrates the feast of Mid-Pentecost. The hymns and readings of this day emphasize baptism, but also refer to the "fountain of immortality" which the Church associates with the Eucharist as well as baptism. And on the feast of mid-Pentecost itself, the Communion Hymn gives the clearest evidence of our beliefs:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him, said the Lord. Alleluia!

According to the canon law of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the faithful are expected to receive Holy Communion some point during the Paschal season (canon 709), since "this is when Christ gave us the Eucharistic mysteries."

Differing customs regarding the Eucharist

Many of the traditions regarding the Eucharist are found across the entire Christian Church, but there are also differences. For example, much of the Christian East uses leavened bread for the Eucharist, while Latin Catholics use unleavened. Controversies in the West led the Church to emphasize that the holy Gifts are actually the Body and Blood of Christ by honoring them with processions and other forms of veneration - forms often impossible in the East, where the consecrated Gifts of bread and wine are mingled in the chalice.

These differences also mean that, in the East, the Eucharist is not always permanently reserved in church. Instead, the Eucharist is celebrated shortly before Communion must be taken to the sick; in some cases, consecrated bread may be dried and preserved in a small box called an artophorion for distribution to the sick, or at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

Another custom of the Latin West which is found differently in the East is that of Benediction (blessing) with the holy Gifts. In the Divine Liturgy, the priest blesses the faithful with the chalice immediately after Holy Communion. Where Benediction is celebrated in Byzantine churches, it is an import from the West.

Recommended Reading