A Protestant blogger writes, “[I]f communion is reduced to ‘just a symbol’ then what’s the point?” The following is adapted from a comment to that post.
I agree that if the bread and wine of communion is only a symbol, it seems a pointless one. Are we to remember Christ’s death on the Cross by eating bread and drinking wine (or grape juice)? If remembering is so important, aren’t there better ways of doing it? A crucifix would seem the most obvious, or a painting of the crucifixion. Or, reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion and death.
But Jesus evidently meant communion to be some kind of a ceremony to be performed by his followers. Even Protestants seem to understand this, as evidenced by the fact that when they do communion, it’s always in a certain form: Someone saying prayers over bread and liquid grape extract of some kind, followed by distribution to the congregation, followed by a few moments of meditation. Thus, not merely a reminder but a ritual. But what is the purpose of the ritual?
Jesus said to perform the ritual “in remembrance of” him. This strikes me as something like Veterans Day, which we celebrate every year “in remembrance of” the men and women who have died for our country. Someone who has never known a veteran killed in a war will not observe the day as a way of remembering any particular veteran, nevertheless he will do it “in remembrance of” countless veterans whom he never knew and has no memory of. It’s a ritual by which we not only remember, but also honor and revere them.
But that still brings us back to the question, how does eating bread and drinking wine constitute honor and reverence for Jesus? Obviously he said to do it, so we could say that we honor him by obeying his command to do it. But that’s rather circular, isn’t it? Honor me by doing this thing which you honor me by doing since I said to do it in order to honor me?
Therefore it seems clear that it must have some purpose or function aside from merely doing it because Jesus said to do it. How to know what that function is?
This is my body
Seemingly, the obvious place to start is with the fact that Jesus mysteriously said, in regard to the bread and wine, that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. (Lk. 22:19.)
Is Jesus honored or remembered by our eating plain bread and drinking plain juice? But what if the bread really is his body and the wine really his blood? Does that make a difference? In that case we would not just be thinking of him, but actually being present with him and taking him into ourselves. Would that not be “remembering” him on a whole other level?
Celebrate the feast
We gain further insight from other scriptures. Note for example, 1 Cor. 5:7: ‘For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.’
‘Christ our Passover’ refers to the fact that Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. The Israelites were saved from the angel of death by having sacrificed a lamb and spread its blood on their lintels. And don’t forget eating the lamb: ‘And you shall not leave any of it over until morning.’ Ex. 12:10.
If Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb, what does that mean? Obviously it means that he saves not only the Jews but the whole world, and not merely from temporal death but from eternal death. That’s clear enough. But what about the eating part?
The Jews were commanded to celebrate the Passover feast yearly as a remembrance, by eating an actual lamb. Christ commanding his followers to consume bread which he referred to as his body, and wine which he referred to as his blood, in remembrance of his own saving sacrifice, obviously is drawing a parallel with the Passover lamb. In light of this, when Paul says that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, therefore let us celebrate the feast, can it be any clearer that communion is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice in the same way that the yearly Passover feast was a remembrance of the first Passover?
Yet let’s not fail to call to mind, that Christ’s sacrifice is the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice, and the feast of his body and blood is the fulfillment of the Passover feast. This being the case, which should be the more real and which the more symbolic? Wouldn’t it be strange if the Passover feast, being a mere foreshadowing, consisted of the slaughtering and eating of an actual lamb — while the feast in remembrance of Christ’s fulfilling sacrifice is the eating of foods that are mere symbols? How can the fulfillment be less literal than the foreshadowing? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, the original Passover being merely symbolic, and Christ’s feast being more real?
Participation in the sacrifice
Later we have St. Paul saying, ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.’ 1 Cor. 10:21. This is right after he had said, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’
What does it mean to say that the bread and wine are a “participation” in the body and blood? Previously, in verse 18, Paul had said, ‘Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?’
Evidently under the Old Covenant, when you sacrificed a lamb or a bull or whatever, eating of the sacrifice signified your participation in the sacrifice. This again brings us back to the Passover Lamb: You had not only to kill the lamb and roast it, but also to eat it. Eating it signified your participation in its sacrifice. Those who were saved from the Angel of Death were not those who merely believed in the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, but those who participated in the sacrifice of the Lamb by eating of it.
Yet here we have Paul talking about the bread and the wine being a “participation” in Christ’s body and blood. But not merely Christ’s body and blood, but the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood. Because remember, Jesus didn’t say merely “This is my body”, “This is my blood.” Rather he said, “This is my body which will be given up for you”, and “This is my blood which is poured out for you.” So when we “participate” in Christ’s body and blood, that obviously refers to participating in the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on the Cross. Eating his body and blood, therefore, is how we participate in that very sacrifice.
Now, how can this be so, if the bread and wine are merely symbols? If they’re just symbols, doesn’t that mean that our participation in Christ’s sacrifice is also merely symbolic? But if we’re really to participate in Christ’s sacrifice, his body given up for us, and his blood poured out for us, don’t we have to really partake of his body and blood, as the Israelites really partook of the Passover Lamb?
Unless you eat the flesh …
If eating of the Passover Lamb saved the Israelites from death, and Christ is the fulfillment of the Passover, does this shed any light on John 6? ‘[U]nless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ John 6:53. Couldn’t the same have been said of eating the flesh of the Lamb on the night of Passover — that if you didn’t eat it, you would die?
The table of demons
And again, the statement of Paul’s quoted above, ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.’ (1 Cor. 10:21.) This is in the context of discussing whether to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Paul says that you can’t participate in Christ’s sacrifice, while at the same time participating in sacrifices to demons; “Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” (1 Cor. 10:22.) What sense does this make, unless we are to partake of Christ’s sacrifice in a literal, and not merely symbolic way?
Guilty of the body and blood
Finally, if our eating and drinking is a literal partaking of Christ’s sacrifice, we can make better sense of Paul’s warning that he who eats the bread and drinks of the cup unworthily “shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1. Cor. 11:27). For if, in eating, we’re participating in Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, shall we eat it in a state of sin? If in doing so we are divided, and some are getting drunk, and the poor are being humiliated – that is, if we’re treating the sacred meal as if it were a regular meal of bread and wine, “without recognizing the body” — do we not commit the gravest sacrilege? “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Cor. 11:30.) But if it really is just plain bread and wine, which we are treating as plain bread and wine, where is the sacrilege in that? How can bread and grape juice be profaned?
Taking Christ’s words at face value — that the bread really is his body and the wine really his blood — doesn’t this make sense of the whole thing? Aren’t the confusion and mystification over the meaning of communion caused by not taking Christ’s words at face value?