What's the deal with communion?

I’m rather confused about this whole communion thing. Some questions:
(1) What denominations practice this? Is it Catholics and Eastern Orthodox but not Protestants?
(2) Do people actually believe that the bread and wine becomes the flesh and blood of Christ? Or is it just supposed to be a metaphor? Or does that vary from denomination to denomination?
(3) If they really believe it becomes the flesh and blood of Christ, when is this transformation supposed to take place? After you eat it? Before you eat it? If it’s before, why doesn’t it look/smell/taste like flesh and blood? (Sorry if that seems like a silly question – I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s beliefs.)
(4) Why is it desirable to eat Christ’s flesh and blood anyway? I understand that he’s believed to be the savior and the son of God and all that, but this still doesn’t make it clear to me why someone would want to eat his body. What is this supposed to accomplish? e.g. Does it cleanse you of sins or something like that?
(5) Is this practice based on specific lines from the Bible? If not, how did it originate?

The theology gets complicated, and has led to any number of scisms, but try this site for a start.

Ritual Symbolic Cannabilism in Christianity


Short answers:

  1. This sacrament is pretty much universal in Christianty.

  2. It varies. Protestant demoninations generally treat it symbolically; the miracle of transubstantiation (viz. the wafer and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ) is part of Catholic dogma, but I don’t really know how seriously Catholics in general take that.

  3. Again, it varies. I believe the Catholic dogma is that it is transformed upon being blessed by the priest. As for why it doesn’t look/smell/taste like flesh and blood, this is explained under the Aristotelean concepts of ‘essence’ and ‘accident’. The external appearance of an object is not intrinsically related to its metaphysical nature; while it is not within human power, it is within God’s abilities to create flesh and blood which is indistinguishable in every way from bread and wine.

  4. See below.

  5. Matthew 26: 26-29; Mark 14: 21-25; Luke 22: 19-20
    It’s obviously a pretty important ritual, and one that (as far as I can tell) has been part of the Christian religion for about as long as it has existed. The explanation of the purpose-well, the above verses is it, unsatisfyingly brief as it is. They’ve been expounded on extensively, naturally, in many different ways, by many different people. :slight_smile:

I’ll answer what I can (from a Catholic view; I can’t speak for other denominations), which unfortunately isn’t too much:

  1. Catholics believe that the bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood. That’s one of the basic dogmas of the Church.
  2. The change takes place when the priest holds his hands over the gifts and calls down the Holy Spirit to change them into the body and blood, just before communion is given out during mass. This “calling down” is called, IIRC, epiclesis. The actual changing is referred to as transubstantiation - in other words, the gifts don’t change in form (so it isn’t transformation) or in appearance, but in actual substance.
  3. Very basically, eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood brings us into communion with God (hence the name). I can’t explain it well at all, but I’m sure someone will be along to do so. Also, I think the Church teaches that communion cleanses one of venial (minor) sins.
  4. It’s based on the Last Supper, which took place on the Jewish tradition of Passover. Unfortunately I don’t have a Catholic bible handy, so I can’t give you specific lines.

Like I said, this is very basic and doesn’t go in-depth at all.

silenus, your link doesn’t work for me.

Dropped a dot. Sorry 'bout that!

Most, if not all, Christian denominations practice communion.

Beliefs vary. In very broad terms, Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and possibly others believe in the “Real Presence” of Christ in the consecrated eucharist, but their understanding of that belief may vary. Other denominations profess a range of beliefs from, at one extreme, belief in the Real Presence or something indistinguishable from it to, at the other, a belief that the celebration of the eucharist has a purely symbolic signficance.

The Catholic and Anglican view is that the transformation takes place at the moment of consecration, when the priest repeats the words of consecration used, according to the Gospels, by Christ at the last supper. The Orthodox view may be similar, although I have an idea that an invocation to the Holy Spirit which appears slightly later in the liturgy may be the moment of consecration so far as they are concerned. No doubt an Orthodox doper will be along to correct me if I am wrong.

It doesn’t ressemble flesh and blood because it’s not that kind of transformation. In the past, Catholic theology developed an Aristotelian substance/accidents distinction – the substance, or essence, of the consecrated elements had become the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents, or external appearance, was unchanged. This was referred to as transsubstantiation. Lutherans developed a different theology of consubstantiation, in which the substance of Christ was held subsist in the consecrated elements along with the substance of bread and wine. In the light of modern understanding the substance/accidents distinction needs to be rethought, and I think many Catholic theologians would now be closer to the Anglican/Orthodox position that, although the the nature of the change is real, it is not readily comprehensible.

It is desirable because, according to the Gospels, Christ has commanded it. (“Do this in memory of me.”) It doesn’t cleanse you of sins in the theology of any Christian church, so far as I am aware. It is an encounter with the divine, and a medium of grace.

It’s from the Gospels. All four gospels describe a “Last Supper” that Christ shared with his apostles the night before his crucifixion, and three of the four describe him blessing the bread and the wine, pronouncing them to be his body and blood, sharing them with his disciples and instructing them to repeat the practice. It’s obviously, and consciously, a practice which draws very heavily on the Jewish tradition of a passover meal or a sabbath meal (although the idea of a divine Real Presence in the bread and wine is, of course, not found in the Jewish tradition). It appears to have been practiced by the followers of Christ from the very earliest days of the Christian movement.

And I’ll try to answer them, although some folks have already done a pretty good job on some of them. Questions in bold below, to avoid the messy multiple-quotes stuff:

(1) What denominations practice this? Is it Catholics and Eastern Orthodox but not Protestants?

Virtually every Christian denomination practices communion. There are a couple of fringe groups who do not, but it’s as nearly universal a custom as exists.

(2) Do people actually believe that the bread and wine becomes the flesh and blood of Christ? Or is it just supposed to be a metaphor? Or does that vary from denomination to denomination?

Quick answer – the last question is right. Nobody believes that on an ordinary Sunday morning, gobbets of Jesus’s flesh and type A negative blood sit on the altar after being consecrated. Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans believe in the Real Presence – the idea that Christ is really, truly present in the elements through the work of the Holy Spirit in a Holy Mystery. Catholics believe the same thing, but with their penchant for detailed and coherent theological explanation of everything, use Thomas Aquinas’s Scholastic metaphysics to explain it in terms of an inner, ineffable substance which has outer, perceptible accidents. The miracle of transubstantiation is that the accidents remain the same but the substance changes. Several groups, including the Methodists and IIRC the Presbyterians, believe in the Real Presence but that He is present “in a spiritual manner.” And some Protestants believe that it is nothing but a memorial meal to be conducted because He said to.

(3) If they really believe it becomes the flesh and blood of Christ, when is this transformation supposed to take place? After you eat it? Before you eat it? If it’s before, why doesn’t it look/smell/taste like flesh and blood? (Sorry if that seems like a silly question – I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s beliefs.)

First, the priest or minister doesn’t make the change; he simply prays that the change be made. There’s a rather detailed formula for a Eucharistic prayer that includes a recital of God’s work in saving the world, a restatement of Jesus’s words at the original Last Supper (“This is My Body, given for you…” – the anamnesis), the offering of the Eucharistic elements and of the congregation to God for His purposes (the oblation), and, most importantly, the invocation of the Holy Spirit to come upon the elements and make them into the Body and Blood of Christ (the epiclesis, as Nightwatch Trailer mentioned). The whole prayer is supposed to be said to make it a valid Eucharist, but the precise moment of transformation (or transubstantiation, if you will) is supposed to be at the epiclesis.

(4) Why is it desirable to eat Christ’s flesh and blood anyway? I understand that he’s believed to be the savior and the son of God and all that, but this still doesn’t make it clear to me why someone would want to eat his body. What is this supposed to accomplish? e.g. Does it cleanse you of sins or something like that?

As noted – it’s a means of communing with God. There’s a very real sense of partaking of the Holy in a good communion, something irrational, transcendent, and mystical. But most importantly, we do it because we took Jesus as Lord and He commanded it – “Do this in remembrance of me.” (“Remembrance” is actually anamnesis, and a much stronger word in Greek than the English translation – it’s literally “the act of reverse-forgetting” – for the handful of Tolkien geeks who are reading this, karmé, the Elves’ capacity for bringing something long ago and far away to be truly present for them, is the closest non-religious parallel I can draw to it.)

It’s been around since the beginning of the church. The Didache, probably the oldest non-Bible item of Christian literature, deals extensively with how to do it right. Specific Bible quotes relating to it are Matthew 26:20-30, Mark 14:17-26 (a close parallel of the Matthew passage), Luke 22:14-38, John 13-17 (which deal with what he said at that meal; John doesn’t give the acts of the Last Supper in the detail the others do) – and note also John 6 with its references to “eating the flesh of the Son of Man” (Jesus’s term for Himself), and I Corinthians 11:20-32. Many people see in the Emmaus Resurrection appearance a reference to communion as well: Luke 24:13-32.

To clarify #4:

(Bolding mine; cite)

So the Catholic Church, at least, teaches that those who partake of communion are cleared of venial sins.

Thank you to all who posted. While I’m trying to improve my understanding of Christianity, here’s (perhaps) a simpler question:

Polycarp mentioned the term Son of Man. I’ve never understood this name – Jesus is the son of God, right? (Unless I am much more confused about Christian doctrine than I thought.) If “Man” means mankind, then it seems like this title would apply to everyone else except Jesus. Can someone explain this?

The terms “son of man” and “son of God” are both used in the gospels with reference to Jesus.

He frequently refers to himself as “son of man”. The term also appears in the Old Testament, where (depending on the context) it usually refers to the prophet Ezekiel but can also refer to humanity in general, to the Messiah, or to the prophet Daniel.

I don’t think Christ ever explicitly calls himself the “son of God”, but (according to the Gospels) when others call him that he either doesn’t demur or (in Luke 22) he affirms that he is the son of God. The term is not used at all in the Old Testament.

The great majority of Christians regard Christ as both fully human and fully divine, and hence consider both terms to be applicable to him.

Sorry about the “son of” hijack. “Son of man” means two simple yet divergent things: In Hebrew, it was a trope for “human being,” emphasizing Jesus identifying with all people. But in the Book of Daniel (and I think a couple of other spots on the Prophets) “the Son of Man” is used Messianically, as a savior-figure. So Jesus would have been invoking both meanings simultaneously by referencing himself with it. “Son of God” was for the Jews blasphemous and unthinkable, like saying “the identical twin of a unique object” around a logician. As noted, Jesus neither affirmed nor denied the use of it referencing Him by others.

Again, for the umpteenth time, could we please refrain from posting such comments. Over and over we keep getting this “What I believe is Mainstream, anyone that believes different is a Heretic.” baloney over and over. Christianity encompasses an immense range of churches who differ on every single issue of note. In particular, many of my family members belong to a very devout Christian church, I have several relatives that are preachers in this church. Communion is not a rite of this church and I am not happy, to say the least, to have someone describe my family members as being in a “fringe group.”

As I child, our parents usually just sent us to whatever church was “most convenient”. So I got exposed to more Protestant groups than I can even remember. Very few of them had communion. (In fact, the only ones that had it on a regular basis among those I attended were Lutherans. And I only went to those when visiting other relatives.)

Communion is quite far from universal. In particular, among Protestant churches that emphasize “the priesthood of the believer,” i.e., that all members of the church are on equal terms with The Big Guy, there is oftentimes a deprecation of such priest-centered rites.

Again, the whole point of this post is to encourage people to stop creating artificial divides within Christian groups by putting down those that have different views on things from you. Telling others who has the “right” or “wrong” beliefs leads to a downward spiral.

Sorry, ftg, and you misinterpret my point – which I should perhaps have been more explicit about – but it was clear that the OP’s interests in the doctrine of communion lay more in the metaphysics and theology of it, so I focused on them.

For Catholics, Orthodox, most Anglicans and many Lutherans, the Disciples of Christ, and a very few other churches, the proper Sunday service every week is … well, there are as many names they use as there are churches, but the bread-and-wine service: the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper…

For some churches, it’s common but not weekly, being held one week in two or four. For others, it’s four, five, or six times a year. And in churches with “close communion” and adult membership, children are not brought to the service.

The churches who hold to the latter usually feel that it is “demeaned” by being conducted too often, and that it is especially holy if available only rarely, after a time of preparation.

But the fact of the matter is that nearly every Christian church will offer a communion service of some sort at least once a year, usually once a quarter at minimum. In many Protestant denominations, you can grow up in that church without having the fact of a communion service particularly noticeable to you – but their by-laws, articles of faith, or whatever do call for it.

I was always disappointed that the Episcopalians didn’t use a big iron pot…

That’s interesting, I wonder if posters of various denominations can vouch for it. In particular, I wonder if it is part of the Baptist service, I had never heard of that group having communion. Others that I would be amazed to have communion would be the Latter Day Saints and the various fundamentalist sects.

The deal with Catholics is that we take Jesus literally at his word when He said: “This IS my body which will be given up for you.” No dancing around the definition of the word “is”. But I can see where others interpret it as a symbolic event. Personally I don’t see either interpretation as a barrier to salvation.

Partial answer to item 4:

Communion is partly connected to the Passover seder, with the four cups of wine and unleavened bread. IIRC, Catholic communion wafers are unleavened, although the bread in the church I was brought up in was not.

At the same time, communion is connected to Jewish temple sacrifices, especially that of the Passover lamb. With some exceptions, most of the animals and grains sacrificed at the temple were eaten by the priests and by the people. The book of Leviticus goes, being an instruction manual for priests, goes into this in detail. Jesus’s crucifiction is seen by Christians as a sacrifice, and so consuming the flesh of the sacrifice is part of the ritual. But, of course, one-to-one correspondence with Jewish practice is not to be looked for.

One clear departure from Jewish practice is the idea of consuming blood, which is strictly forbidden under the laws of kashrut.

In any case, here is a long article about the whole thing from the Catholic perspective.

Make that crucifixion. Sorry.

BobLibDem, I grew up Methodist in small-town WV, and knew lots of people from Baptist, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal and non-denominational fundamentalist churches. Polycarp has it right that virtually every Christian church has at least occasional communion services.

As for Latter Day Saints, they have a Sacrament service each week; one difference between LDS services and most other Christian communion services is that water is used instead of some derivative (juice or wine) of grapes.

In my experiences with varioius Baptist churches (having been a member of three different churches for a span of about 10 years), they all had communion on some regular basis. I think that the churches I attended generally had quarterly communion services (although I may be off on that time, that’s what I remember from the church I was a part of for about 5 years). One other reason you may not see Baptists with communion services is that the word ‘communion’ was rarely used for such services; it was more frequently called ‘the Lord’s Supper’.

Those of you who remember Lynn73 (AKA His4Ever), who chose not to join when SDMB became a pay board, might be interested in what she had to say. She attends a non-denominational church which is, I gather, Pentecostal in focus, and which has communion every week. (We both belong to a Christian board; I asked her to comment here, as she is from a radically different branch of Christianity than I am. The above is abstracted from the response she sent me.)