Holy Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Great Thanksgiving. Different terms for an act of worship that the Book of Common Prayer presents as central to our identity as Episcopalians and our worship of God. Probably because of my childhood experiences in the Roman Catholic church, to do church has always been to celebrate Eucharist. However, it was not until much later that I even thought to ask questions about Eucharist, its meaning and its liturgy. What I have found so far in my study is something more profound and mysterious than I could have imagined.
The word Eucharist comes from the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, that Passover meal where we are told that he took break and gave thanks, broke the break and gave it to his friends. The Greek word for giving thanks is Eucharist. When we gather for Eucharist we offer our own thanksgiving. In Eucharist to God, we present our offerings - called “oblations” in churchspeak - of bread and wine and the fruit of our labors. In our Eucharistic prayers, we give thanks for what God has done for us in salvation history, for forgiving our sins and for granting us eternal life. And in thankful obedience we do what Jesus commanded us to do in remembrance of him. That is, recalling his words, we take bread and wine, give thanks for those, and break and share them as one body gathered around one table.
Unfortunately, this remembrance has been a source of heated debate and division in the church. Some think of remembrance in the common sense of “to recall or bring to mind” and so think that Jesus is saying something like “do this so that you do not forget me.” To those who think this way, the Eucharistic meal is a memorial service. Yet, for Jews to recall an event like the Passover was not merely to remember but to make something from the past present to them in the current moment. Thought of in this way, when we remember Jesus’ words we are remembered with Jesus and the disciples at that Last Supper evening and with Christians everywhere with whom Christ is present in the celebration of Eucharist. For this reason, some say they believe in the “real presence” of Christ at the Eucharist.
The Episcopal tradition has been to teach the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist but not to have an official or authoritative explanation of how that happens which must be believed in order to be a member of this church. As a broad and inclusive church that stands between the Roman Catholic and Reformed Churches, what you will hear in our Eucharistic liturgy is something that embraces both traditions. “These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you.” “This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”
Now, if any of this has piqued your curiosity, days off purgatory are offered for locating in the Eucharistic prayer the “sursum corda,” “sanctus,” and “epiclesis.”