Lent is a time of preparation in which Christians prepare to celebrate the momentous events of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension.
Some use this season as an opportunity to draw closer to God through confession, fasting, and pondering the scriptures. The Lord’s Supper has long been considered one such occasion, yet this sacrament is interpreted in a myriad of different ways throughout Christian tradition.
The scene in the upper room the night before Jesus was crucified is undoubtedly familiar. There, Jesus Christ took bread, called the attention of his disciples to it and said: “Take, eat. This is my body.” He did something similar with a cup of wine saying, “This is my blood.”
I imagine Jesus’ followers had a similar thought to the Jews who heard his controversial sermon in John 6 (“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink”) and said, in essence, “C is a difficult statement, who can even understand it!
The difficulty of these statements about the bread and the body, the wine and the blood is undoubtedly proven by the diversity of interpretation that has arisen over the years since Christ first spoke these words. And while we probably won’t be able to unify around a single perspective, we can try to better understand the range of options.
In my opinion, approaches to the Lord’s Supper fall on a kind of spectrum. In my opinion, there are three main families of places on the spectrum, each with various family members that are conceptually cousins to each other.
We could name these families according to how they think Christ is present in the Eucharist: Bodily, Spiritually or Normally. I will try to plot these points on the spectrum as if they were cities on a map, according to where the main promoters of each family resided.
The Body Views family believes that when Christ says a piece of bread is his body, he literally means it. Understanding how this can be the case is what sets the cousins within this family apart.
For example, the official view of the Roman Catholic Church – let’s call it the “Rome” view – is: “transubstantiation”, where the “transThe -“ prefix indicates a “change” in the “substance” of an object. For Roman Catholics, the substance – or “what it is” – of bread changes to no longer be bread, but the body of Christ.
This, of course, as long as there is no change in the appearance of the object itself: it still looks, smells and tastes like bread. Roman Catholics believe that the substance of something can be separated from its appearance. For them, the object which appears to be bread is not bread but the body of Christ.
The next step on the conceptual spectrum of body family is what I call the German views. These fall within the purview of Lutherans, for example, but can also be found among Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox. These perspectives believe with their Roman cousins that Christ literally meant his words, but unlike the Romans, hold that the bread continues to exist as it appears.
There are (at least) two versions of German sights, and we can plot them on the map as German cities. A view of “Wittenberg” holds that the body of Christ is “in, with and under” the bread, as the Lutheran quip puts it.
In medieval theology, this view was called “consubstantiation” (con- “with”); the “substance” of the bread and the “substance” of the existing body of Christ with another. But I assure you that most Lutherans do not like this term!
Another German view – let’s call it the “Nuremberg” view (for the 16th century Lutheran pastor Andreas Osiander) – holds that the way the body of Christ and the bread of the Eucharist are linked is like the how the two natures of Christ are linked in the Incarnation.
If you search for a term = for this view, implantation is the one used in the tradition. As incarnation refers to being embodied (in- “in” + caro, carn- “flesh”), impanation refers to being integrated (I am– “in” + Panis “bread”) so to speak.
As we move along the spectrum of the Body Family, we come to the Spiritual Family. This family also maintains that the bread and wine remain as they were but attempt to characterize the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
“Geographically” we pass from the cities of Rome, Wittenberg and Nuremberg to “Antwerp”, where we meet Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian Dominican from the last century. The name of the point of view he proposed is “transsignification”.
Although he is a Roman Catholic, Schillebeeckx thought the distinction between “what it is” about an object and “how it appears” was exaggerated – and what he considered important was instead the meaning of an object. For this view, the “change” (trans-) in the bread and wine of Communion is in their meaning (meaning-).
According to Schillebeeckx, meaning is found in community. When our community—the Church headed by Christ—designates an object that appears to be bread as “the body of Christ,” the true participants in the community will take on that meaning. Although this view did not catch on in Roman Catholic circles, Protestants confused by the Bodily family might find a suitable residence in Antwerp.
Moving to more properly Protestant places within the spiritual family, we come to “Geneva,” which characterizes the views of many contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian Christians.
In this perspective, the Holy Spirit uses bread and wine as vehicles to catalyze a connection between Christians and the risen Christ. Where this connection takes place is in the heavenly realms (hence the “Lift up your hearts” of Sursum Corda), but the Lord’s Supper is an occasion for this union with Christ to occur.
“Canterbury” is the next step on the spectrum within the spiritual family; here we encounter the point of view of Thomas Cranmer. Although his views on the Eucharist changed during his lifetime, his mature view is characterized as sacramental parallelism. That is, we receive the body and blood of Jesus on a spiritual level which is usually, but not always, parallel to our receiving the bread and wine on a physical level.
For Cranmer, what was important was that we feed on Christ in our hearts. Eating the bread of the Eucharist can help with this, but this spiritual nourishment can happen even if we never taste the bread or the wine.
The Normally family of views believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist in the same way that he is normally in any place in the world at any given time.
By virtue of the divine attribute of omnipresence, these Christians hold that the Word is everywhere, and therefore there is nothing special about the bread and wine itself. According to them, what is special about communion is rather what it motivates you to think about.
Another Swiss site, “Zurich”, is the most popular place within the Normally Family, and here we could find many contemporary Christians in the Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. Here, bread and wine serve as “visible words”, emphasizing the cognitive aspect of our actions associated with bread and wine.
One of my former teachers joked that for the sights in Zurich, bread and wine serve as flashcards for Jesus. See bread? Remember Jesus! See the wine? Remember Jesus! Here, the Lord’s Supper is an occasion to remember and reflect deeply on Christ and his work, but not necessarily an occasion for a unique encounter with his presence.
Finally, we complete the Normally Family with another city, “Philadelphia”, a center of the Friends or Quaker tradition. From this perspective, not only is Christ not only present in Communion, but the practice of Communion does not take place normally. We could consider this to be the most extreme location on the spectrum to have gone almost completely off the spectrum.
From my point of view, the most biblically, historically, theologically and even philosophically appealing vision is “Nuremberg” – within the German lineage of the Corporal Family. I am particularly drawn to how this location on the spectrum points to Incarnation.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that a Virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and his name will be Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. Christians hold that when the Word became flesh to dwell among us, a divine member of the Trinity took on a second human nature. In this regard, there are two unique but united substances in the person of Jesus Christ: both divine and human.
This long-running interpretive thread of the Eucharist uses the Incarnation as a way to explain how a piece of bread could be the body of Christ. That is, just as Christ is both God and human, the object we eat at the Lord’s Supper is both bread and the body of Christ. In this way, the bread and the body are united in a sacramental union, by a union similar to that which occurs in the Incarnation, which is a hypostatic union.
In the Incarnation we see how far God has gone to be with us, until he has become one of us. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper we see a God who continues to be present in our midst. Looking at the Eucharist through the prism of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh and the flesh made bread both attest to the reality that God is indeed with us.
James M. Arcadi teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is the author of A model of the incarnation of the Eucharist.