Our word "Eucharist" is derived directly from the Greek of the New Testament: etymologically, it derives from the word for grace (charis) with a prefix (eu) meaning "good" or "well," but the original Greek word "eucharistia" means, simply enough, "thanksgiving" -- like our word "thanksgiving" it is a noun that derives originally from an equivalent verb describing the action involved (i.e., the giving of thanks). The Eucharist is intended as a sort of commemoration of Christ's Last Supper. The story of the Last Supper is attested to in three of the four canonical Gospels: Matthew 26:26 -- 28; Mark 14:22 -- 24; Luke 22:17 -- 20. (John's Gospel lacks a similar account but does include relevant statements that become important to later Eucharistic practice, such as John 3:36, "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.") Yet it is the fourth mention of the Last Supper in the New Testament that is most important for our understanding of why Christians include this ritual commemoration as part of their religious observances. This is to be found in the epistles of Paul, who gives what is supposed to be the first account of the actual Eucharist in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Cor 11:23-4).
It is Paul's reference there to the blessing performed by Christ before breaking the bread -- the Greek word for "he had given thanks" is, of course, the very word from which the term "Eucharist" is derived. Other references in the Pauline epistles seem to trace a tradition of having a large communal feast as part of early Christian religious observances -- a sort of "Sunday dinner" avant-la-lettre -- but the actual ritual commemoration with bread and wine of the meal in Gethsemane, with some recollection of Christ's benison on that occasion, has been seen as central to Christian practice from the earliest apostolic testimony. The Roman Catholic Church of course claims a direct and unbroken chain of descent of clerical hierarchy from the apostle Peter himself, and with the Eucharist as with much else Catholicism therefore holds that its ritual practices derive ultimately from an oral tradition which has the weight of scriptural authority. The quarrel over whether or not this sort of received tradition could ever rest on the same secure theological foundation as something derived from solid Biblical exegesis is, of course, central to the arguments put forth in the seventeenth century by the major figures of the Reformation -- by Luther and early Lutherans like Philipp Melanchthon or Jakob Schegk, and by Zwingli and John Calvin, among others -- which insisted that so much of Catholic ritual and doctrine was a needless or corrupt overelaboration with no scriptural justification. (Of course the Roman Catholic Church offers its own scriptural justification for their notion of oral tradition, with Christ's words in Matthew 16:18 serving as the text upon which such authority is regarded as valid.) But I would like to examine some of the doctrinal differences between Catholic dogma on the Eucharist and Calvin's reponse to it, in order to establish some common ground toward what purpose the Eucharist serves today for Christians of any and all denominations.
I would like to begin, however, with a historical look at the early Christian view of the Eucharist independent of later doctrinal refinements. Long after the fiercest doctrinal battles of the Reformation in the sixteenth century had long since settled into denominational differences, though, the remarkable discovery in 1873 of an early Christian document known as the Didache (again, a Biblical Greek word meaning "teachings") or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles by a Greek Orthodox cleric and scholar, Philotheos Bryennios, would actually provide an independent historical confirmation of the notion that the celebration of the Eucharist was central and codified as early in Christian worship as the actual apostolic missions of both Peter and Paul. The exact dating of the Didache is a manner of fierce scholarly debate but internal textual references, the actual dialect of Greek used in the document, and identification of the Didache with a similar document discussed by early patristic writers such as Eusebius (who regarded it as "spurious") and Athanasius, but it is widely supposed to be late first century and no later than 120 A.D (Roberts-Donaldson, "Introduction"). The Didache is very short and broken down into individual chapters, but it is worth noting that at least two chapters of the document (i.e., a sizable and central portion) are devoted to a discussion of Eucharistic practice. Outside of the canonical books of the New Testament, the Didache provides the most solid proof that the early Christians considered the Eucharist to be the very heart of their religious observances. Chapter 9 of the Didache specifies the ritual prayers to be spoken over the wine and "broken bread" -- indicating that, as in Paul's citation of the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians, the actual breaking of the bread was central to the Eucharistic concept of thanksgiving as early as the first century, although the Didache offers an exegetical gloss which Paul does not: "Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom" (Roberts-Donaldson 9). The ninth chapter then concludes with a stern injunction about the eligibility of early congregants to take part in the Eucharistic celebration:
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." (Roberts-Donaldson 9)
The subsequent chapter gives a text for the prayer after communion, but also allows for a more general expression of praise or testimony, concluding with the instruction "permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire" (Roberts-Donaldson 10). I offer the evidence of the Didache towards early Christian Eucharistic practice because the very late discovery and publication of the document means that it stands outside the doctrinal and theological arguments of the Reformation period -- it was unknown to Luther and Calvin and played no part in the great debate over Roman Catholic Eucharistic practice conducted in the seventeenth century, but proves that the thing shared by all partisans in these doctrinal debates -- a conception of the Eucharist as absolutely central to Christian worship -- can be established documentarily outside of the evidence of Scripture.
Between the first century Didache and the seventeenth century Reformation debates, however, comes the long period of time in which the Roman Catholic church codified and solidified its own theological and ritual practices concerning the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Catechism derives ultimately from Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica represented an attempt to codify Christian doctrine according to the logic and natural order of the universe that were laid out by the Pagan philospher Aristotle. By the time of Aquinas in the middle ages, Aristotle had come to be seen as the major intellectual authority on all 'scientific' matters (although our modern concept of 'science' did not emerge until a much later time period). Aquinas handles the issue of the Eucharist in the Third Part of his Summa, in Question 75 which handles the doctrine of Transubstantiation and Question 76 handles the Real Presence. Aquinas approaches both from the Catholic theology of Sacraments. The Catholic Catechism acknowledges the existence of seven separate Sacraments, which are defined overall as efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. (Catechism 1131).
But of the seven Sacraments in Catholicism, only the Eucharist and Penance (the confession of sins) are repeatedly enacted: the others (Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, Matrimony, Holy Orders) can be undergone only once. Yet the Cathechism is strict in requiring the parishoner to be in a "state of grace" with no sins on his conscience which have not been confessed and forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance: to take communion while not in this state of grace is itself a sin. These heavy strictures on who is and is not permitted to take part in the Eucharist are a natural result, though, of the tremendous theological importance placed by Aquinas upon the Eucharistic act. The doctrine of Transubstantiation as outlined by Aquinas holds that the bread or wafer and the wine in the chalice utilized in the communion is literally transformed…