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What is the point of the eucharist?

06 October 2023

Jessica Martin asks the question


Breaking of the bread during the eucharist

Breaking of the bread during the eucharist

ALL rituals of worship, Christian or not, are events on a borderline between physicality and the unseen world. All rituals of worship treat this borderline as porous, and the rituals are modes for crossing it, for bringing the one into the other.

The eucharist does this work, too, but its border crossing is a charged, unstable experience. Its meanings are impossible for the human-made ritual to control, especially as Christians themselves are deeply split about what those meanings are, and how they happen.

One provocative way of putting this is to say that it’s not totally clear — from the inside as well as the outside — whether the eucharistic community, when it meets together to encounter the presence of God, is doing a world-changing something, or a private, reflective, rather undramatic nothing.

Now, I’ll say it another way. When we put together Jesus’s physical absence with our inherited modern ambivalence about the power of symbolic action, we exert a huge pressure on the rite of the eucharist. How can we come close to Jesus, human and divine, now taken from the world and awaited eschatologically? Is the sacramental bread our means to see, touch, and taste God, or just a way of invoking a completely inward — and perhaps slippery and deniable — reality of thought and feeling?

A good many Christians also believe that bread is only bread, even though they may, at the same time, believe that they might be transformed by a powerful inner event. Yet they know that the choked avenues of emotion don’t offer reliable messages, and that they will probably be left asking, “Did anything happen just now? How will I know?”

It’s not clear, in a rite that celebrates a physical body in its absence, what irreducible basics the rite requires. Do we need to gather physically, when our absent Lord is present everywhere? Do we need to specify a place, a time, a physical community, when he brings with him the unlocated benefits of eternity?

How quickly will we, like King Lear’s older daughters, strip our ceremony of symbolic power until we move from providing the minimal signs of honour to providing no signs of honour at all, because they are “not needed”? Why have a ritual at all? “What need one?”

As with online sex, how far does the communion ritual need an irreducible Other to be efficacious, or would it work perfectly well without? Does joy lie with that utterly real Person, or is it all confined in the way it makes me feel? Is it all about us, really, with nothing beyond but the knowledge of a vast illusion?

At the point of communion, is the soul met — or hopelessly alone? Blue pill, anyone? At what point will we find that calling all absence presence turns God’s presence into absence? Or is it that we are living in a world in which the Christians who went before us have already done that, and now the churches are empty?

The anthropologist Webb Keane, in his influential book Christian Moderns, describes the anxiety of his Dutch Calvinist missionaries as they slowly convert the inhabitants of the Indonesian island of Sumba. They’ve successfully persuaded their converts that their sacred places are not sacred, that their sacred rituals are meaningless, that all that is needed to be close to God is an inward faith.

But the missionaries are left with a nagging worry. Did they empty out the physical world so much, leaving only the slender thread of inner conviction, in order to pave the way for the Sumba to discover unbelief, to redraw their structures of cultural meaning in terms of the economic, capitalist estimates of material value that arrived along with Protestant Christianity? Have they shut the way between the sacred and the material world?

Conversion, one of Sumba’s later missionaries writes, unhappily, “creates here an emptiness that asks to be filled”. “O, reason not the need.”

It isn’t God’s needs that are met in ritual. Jesus didn’t ask us to “Do this in remembrance of me” because he needed it. He asks this of us because the need is ours: body and soul, we long to be not lost. I am not setting up to solve these dilemmas. I’m as compromised and conflicted as anyone else born into our time and place. I can’t see clearly around or outside the shifty, opaque, and inconsistent ways of knowing that shaped us all.

Yet the thing — “that holy thing”, as the herald of the incarnation, Gabriel, put it — that I have put my trust into declaring that I know, the thing that brings tangible and intangible truth together into one, is held up to humanity and then broken, shared, and consumed in the sacrament of the altar: in the eucharist.

How can the eucharist hold the heart of meaning? Can rituals invoke God? Why would God come? In my lifetime, I have read accounts of the eucharist which confidently claim transformative divine meaning for it, and, in my lifetime, the eucharist has been the default setting for regular Christian worship. I have been to drab eucharists, clunky eucharists, frankly embarrassing eucharists; I have been to hieratic eucharists, intimate eucharists, village eucharists, mourning eucharists; I have been to eucharists that were feasts of the senses, and to eucharists of indigestible dryness. I have been bored, infuriated, restless, indifferent, anguished, opened up, closed down, unsettled, even occasionally joyful. I’ve wept on receiving the host, and I’ve felt nothing at all.

In this, my experience mirrors that of most Christians for whom the sacraments are significant. And, in this, I am in a minority in this nation that is not only astonishingly small, but is getting smaller all the time.

The eucharistic community is shrinking in my culture, and looks as if it might die. Sacramental Christian worship is on the wane. So, I can’t speak in the language and idiom of Gregory Dix, or Kenneth Stevenson, or Austin Farrer, or Michael Ramsey, or John Macquarrie, or Michael Welker, or even Karen O’Donnell. Their confidence that the culture that shapes us will recognise the eucharist’s significance is one that I cannot share.

I’ve got to listen to Patricia Lockwood [the American poet and author of the memoir Priestdaddy (Books, 13 April 2018)], who knows, with part of herself, that it’s a pointless and alien ritual that sounds like cannibalism, and feels like watching paint dry. Yet, at the same time, another part of her continues to ask: is this eternity breaking in? What has the invisible world to impart to time, space, bodies?


FOR some, the point of the eucharist will be unity. Full participation in the ritual knits together the body of Christ, a body corporate of people joined in community.

As the body of worshippers comes to the threshold of the central eucharistic event, it affirms its unitary identity in the section called “the Peace” (sometimes attended by kisses, hand-clasping, even hugs).

Many of the scripturally derived exhortations in Anglican liturgy which herald the exchange of the Peace underline a unity hovering somewhere between an identity divinely given and something more difficult to realise: collective harmony as a worked-for, costly (and probably fleeting) achievement.

“As members of one Body you are called to peace,” one exhortation says (Colossians 3.15). Yet “We are all one in Christ Jesus” affirms another (Galatians 3.28).

Perhaps the most commonly used of all contains both perceptions: the invisible truth that the people of God are “one body”, but also the collective work towards “peace” which begins to knit together the visibly and continually scattered collection of people that makes up that Body: “We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life” (1 Corinthians 12.13; Ephesians 4.3).

For others — regardless of their formal views on religious unity — eucharist divides. It divides the holy from the unregenerate or the unready. These are not necessarily judgements between believers and unbelievers: many who confess and call themselves Christians will not be invited to eat at some iterations of the holy table, either because of differing theologies of communion, or because of institutional judgements about an individual’s mode of life, or because the person is deemed not yet to understand enough to receive the benefits of eucharistic participation.

Here is a historical example from the instructions in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer: “So if any of those [coming to communion] be an open and notorious evil liver, so that the congregacion by him is offended, or have done any wrong to his neighbours by worde or dede, the Curate shall call him, and advertise him, not in any wise to presume to the lordes table, until he have amended his former naughtie life.”

But a “naughtie life” is not a necessary precondition for exclusion from the holy table. The Roman Catholic Church accepts no other Christian denomination into communion with it. Were I to go to worship God at Patricia Lockwood’s father’s church, I would watch the bells ring and the universe kneel from behind a locked fence marked “No entry”.

Liturgically, in the rite of eucharist itself, both division and unity are central elements. For distribution, there must be fraction: to be shared, the blessed bread must be broken; for the community to be unified, it must also be demarcated. At the fraction, the breaking of the bread immediately before communion, the priest in the Anglican rite may declare: “We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.” The worshippers reply: “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.” Their unity is realised in the shattering of the host into pieces. . .

For some, the point of the eucharist will be the transformation brought about, by the power of the Holy Spirit, on the material elements of bread and wine: the “real presence” of Christ in the elements. Such worshippers will treat those elements with special reverence, and the physicality of the acts of eating and drinking will therefore matter a great deal. Every consecrated crumb or drop contains God; every consecrated crumb or drop must therefore be ritually consumed, or its continuing presence in the violent and indifferent world will exert dishonour upon it.

For others, the point of eucharist will be an internal recollection, a memorial of an act once done long ago and now over, which Jesus enjoined his followers to remember. For those people, the elements of bread and wine are nothing much in themselves, and the eating and drinking, important as it is, is less the point than the internal transformation it engenders through the vehicle of Jesus’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”


THE most significant representative of this memorialist position, the 16th-century reformer Huldrych Zwingli, separates the physicality of the bread from the power of Jesus’s command like this: “In [Jesus’s] . . . words, ‘This is my body,’ the word ‘this’ means the bread, and the word ‘body’ means the body which was put to death for us. Therefore the word ‘is’ cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body.”

As Zwingli frames it, the obedience of the people in consuming the bread and drinking the wine makes no difference to the bread and wine itself, whatever transformative effect it may have on the souls of those remembering Jesus.

His reforming contemporary Martin Luther, whose view is not memorialist and who, like his forebears, perceives the bread and wine as subject to a true change, has this in common with Zwingli: he still locates the transformative power of that eucharistic moment not in the elements, but in Jesus’s words as recorded in scripture, assigning to them a trans-temporal power:

“You won’t chew or slurp him [God] like the cabbage or soup on your table unless he will it. He has now become incomprehensible; you can’t touch him, even if he is in your bread — unless, that is, he binds himself to you and summons you to a special table with his word, and with his word points out to you the bread you should eat. This he does in the Last Supper.”

In modern Anglicanism (and indeed in its liturgies from the 1540s onwards), a good deal of effort has been put into blurring the difference across the range of views between real presence and memorial iteration, and today’s faithful are implicitly, yet forcefully, invited to look away from them, because the history of that particular difference is a bloody one.

And yet another fracture of perception. For some, the act of eucharist contains within it the suffering of Calvary. The holy meal prefigures the breaking of God’s body upon the cross. Seventeenth-century manuals of eucharistic devotion would ponder the violence involved in the material production of bread and wine: the pulverised grain, the trodden grape, the action of tongue and teeth upon the elements.

One such manual was The Whole Duty of a Communicant, and it was explicit about the link between the everyday violence of bodily need and the unique violence of God’s death: “The Bread after it passeth much violence of the Mill, hand, and fire, is made wholesome for Food, and the Wine after it hath endured the torture of the Press is prepared for drink; the body and blood of Christ, not whole, entire and unsufferable, but Crucified and Broken in his Passion, when he did undergo the burthen of the sins of the world, and was under the pressure of the Justice of God, and Sacrificed for the redemption of mankind, under this consideration is received by the believing.”

The many readers of that 17th-century manual found it ordinary to walk a straight line, imaginatively, from the everyday, necessary force intrinsic to processing and consuming food to the saving gift of Christ’s crucifixion, the lethal pressure on his physical frame, the effusion of blood and water from his wounded side.

For others, the eating metaphor works quite differently. The feast is a heavenly one, a foretaste of a banquet in which nothing and no one will ever suffer any more, and every tear is dried.

Instead of contemplating time and gravity breaking eternity in the dying body of Jesus, the eschatological worshipper instead contemplates eternity as it mends the ravages of time and gravity. The earliest worshippers of the first Christian centuries tended to this eschatological view, living as they did in a world where Christian meanings attracted persecution, and where, therefore, public humiliation and judicial killings were redefined as doors to eternal joy.

From the fourth century onwards, when Constantine had embedded Christian meaning into the wider culture, rather than having to re-enact the drama of the Passion in their own experience, later liturgies looked to and adored a historicised, temporal, and spatial Jesus from an imagined distance through the figure of the cross. For them, the repetition of Jesus’s death was inscribed in the circular symbolic actions of the church year, from which the private events of their lives could be safely distinct.

In Gregory Dix’s words, as the Church became at home in the world, she became reconciled to time. The eschatological emphasis in the eucharist inevitably faded. It ceased to be regarded primarily as a rite which manifested and secured the eternal consequences of redemption, momentarily transporting those who took part in it beyond the alien and hostile world of time into the Kingdom of God.

Instead, the eucharist came to be thought of primarily as the representation, the re-enactment before God, of the historical process of redemption, of the historical events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, by which redemption had been achieved. And the pliable idea of anamnesis (“not-forgetting”) was there to ease the transition.

The “point” of the eucharist, then, is embattled, a dance of contrasting points. This rite of communion contains the irreconcilable.


The fractured soul

“I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” Jesus said in one of his wryer, grimmer moments, and in this prophecy he was entirely correct.

The history of eucharistic theory, taking it just since the Reformation, is a history of fraction: not just of violent ideological divisions, though it is certainly that, but of the fracturing of the modern sensibility itself. The point has been made by a good many people in a good many different intellectual disciplines, but here it is articulated in 1978, in the words of J. P. Singh Uberoi, sociologist and philosophical anthropologist, in his influential book Science and Culture: a critique of hegemonic Western systems of thought.

This is how he analyses Zwingli’s assertion that the verb “to be” must be understood figuratively in Jesus’s words “This is my body”: Zwingli insisted that in the utterance “This is my body” (Hoc est corpus meum) the existential word “is” (est) was to be understood not in a real, literal, and corporeal sense, but only in a symbolical, historical, or social sense. By stating the issue and forcing it in terms of dualism, or more properly double monism, Zwingli had discovered or invented the modern concept of time in which every event was either spiritual and mental or corporeal and material but no event was or could be both at once. Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company for man at Marburg in 1529.

Uberoi went on to argue that the Zwinglian categories became the basis for modern Western scientific thought, a system in which there was no necessary connection between symbol and reality; one, therefore, in which all ritual became potentially empty of meaning.

Sound familiar? Is that a world you recognise? It may not be true, but it is frequently assumed to be true that ritual does nothing, and that words are not acts. These are shaping cultural assumptions for us. And in this world of ours, therefore, there is a question that will occur to most people sooner rather than later. That question is: why worship at all? In a knowledge system where the symbolic is divorced from efficacy; where God doesn’t need worship either to do or to be; and where nothing and no one is changed by doing it — what’s the point?

What is the point of the eucharist? Why spend time and energy on this ritual, its meanings as broken by violence as the body it remembers, its hopes of unity as impossible as the resurrection to which it lifts its eyes? Why bother?

I said earlier that the eucharist “contains the irreconcilable”. You can hear that two ways. It might just mean that the eucharist is made up of contradictions. Or you could subtly shift that meaning’s centre of gravity and say instead that eucharist holds those contradictions in bounded relationship through its ritual shaping.

The historian of religion Jonathan Zittell Smith argues that ritual “gains force when incongruency is perceived and thought about”.

What happens, then, when the brokenness of eucharist — the broken body embedded within it, but also the fissures of its violent history — is enclosed by the actions of its ritual?


‘What is’ and ‘What might be’

Ritual is not only a bridge between physicality and the unseen world: it also sits on the border between the dead weight of what is, and the quick energy of what might be. Both what is and what might be have to find full expression in the ritual enactments of the eucharist.

Heartbreak and hope are both its honoured guests; for without the one the other cannot be complete. The participant in the eucharist is both a realist and an idealist, able to look steadily at the worst humanity can do, and yet still to affirm the primacy of love. Sacred force lies in incongruence.

The ritual mode has been called — by the Jewish scholar Adam Seligman — a “subjunctive” mode: that is, a mode of possibility that lifts our eyes to a transformation whose way is only but powerfully, hope. This is not fantasy, but invocation, a bridge between seen and unseen, giving us the life that inscribes meaning upon our bodies, both singly and collectively.

Living in the subjunctive mode makes us more than the bald components of our selves. It can happen in small ways — when we thank someone for passing the salt, we posit a world where gratitude is the basis for all transaction, even though we know that this is not the world in which we currently live.

Seligman is careful to emphasise that ritual, in this mode, is not, or not merely, the enaction of “harmony” in order to bring harmony about in reality. Rather, his view is that ritual is tragic, its iterations necessary because its vision of harmony will not survive the violence of the present. “If ritual participants thought the world was inherently harmonious, why bother with the rituals? . . . From the point of view of ritual, the world is fragmented and fractured. This is why the endless work of ritual is necessary even if that work is always, ultimately, doomed.”

Part of the instability of the Christian vision is that its eschatological underpinning repudiates the repetitions of ritual in favour of a completed act that makes ritual redundant: when Christ’s has already been a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world”, what need is there for any iterative act of sacrifice among Christ’s people? As the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7.27).

And yet here we are, offering sacrifices day after day after day “in remembrance”, and yet also, in some sense we wince at defining, in reality. And the world in which we offer those sacrifices remains still violent, still fragmented, still fractured, still full of “darkness and cruel habitations” (Psalm 74.2, Coverdale). Why continue?

This is the promise of the eucharist: that all the physical stuff of life might be changed utterly were bread to become God so that God might nourish us into life by his death.

In eucharist, that vision is realised, declared — within the bounds of the ritual — to be present and active, as it cannot be in the mess and violence of the world. Yet the mess and violence of the world, what that mess and violence did to God, is what makes up the ritual of eucharist; so that real and ideal meet within it and kiss each other.

Sacred vision is full of these subjunctives. “The Lord be with you” operates in a kind of subjunctive mode, wishing an action of blessing that only God can make in the trustful hope that God will act on it. Blessings themselves invoke God, but cannot command him. The subjunctive mode is also the mode of prayer and of supplication. Without it — stuck in the prison of “is” and “was” without the promise of liberation in what “might be” — we are poor indeed.

So this is the point of the eucharist. In its ritual enactment, we bring into view a world beyond the finite outcomes of the one we know, an eternal world that emerges on the other side of the certainty of death. In it, a story of loss is re-membered as restoration, a story of dying becomes a kind of rebirth. In it, violence becomes nourishment, and a tragic sorrow inexhaustible joy. A world where we celebrate the eucharist is one in which bread indeed changes the universe, because the maker of the universe declares that it may.

Would you not long to be part of such a world?


This is an edited and abbreviated extract from The Eucharist in Four Dimensions: The meanings of communion in contemporary culture by Jessica Martin, published in August by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-78622-472-9.

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