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Ask a Theologian: The Table of the Eucharist

Dear Theologian,

In the front of every one of our churches, there is an altar. As an old-timer, I remember when it used to be against the east wall of the church. The priest would stand facing the altar, with his back to us. But now, I hear people calling it a “table,” and the priest stands behind it, facing us. Why the change? And what is the difference between calling it an altar and calling it a table?

Person in the Pews

Dear Pew-Person,

The form of Eucharist with which many of us grew up was the inheritance of the medieval period of Western Christianity. It must be recognized frankly that this form of the Eucharist was far removed in outward appearance and in spirit from the “primitive Eucharist” of the first believers.

In the very earliest days of the faith, the symbolism of a shared meal was uppermost in the outward form of the Eucharist. This style of celebration was believed to derive from the Lord himself, who had instituted it at his Last Supper with his closest disciples.

At that meal (which may have been a Passover meal), Jesus had taken a familiar Jewish table ritual and given it a new depth of meaning with reference to himself and his imminent death for the sake of his friends. Sharing in this symbolic meal, then, was the ever-repeated occasion when the early believers entered into the meaning of his life and death, experienced his risen presence in their midst, and committed themselves to live by his way.

In the medieval period, when very few of the laity even received Communion, the meal symbolism was preserved only in an atrophied form insofar as the priest-celebrant consumed the consecrated bread and wine. But what was uppermost in the medieval form of the Eucharist was the theme of “sacrifice.”

The priest was believed to offer up to God, in an “unbloody” way, the very same infinitely precious sacrifice that once was offered up in a bloody way on Calvary. Or, putting the matter more carefully, the same Christ who offered himself once and for all to the Father (for the salvation of all mankind) was believed now to be making his eternal sacrifice present, in the symbolism of the Mass and through the ministry of the ordained priest, for the benefit of those assembled.

In this understanding of the ritual of the Mass, the table where the bread and wine were placed was thought of as an altar, on which the sacrifice was offered.

Until the liturgical renewal of the twentieth century, all Catholic churches (Anglican as well as Roman) had an altar against the back wall of the sanctuary, often very ornate and imposing. In a sense, the altar symbolized the Mystery of God, toward which the whole congregation was oriented, and which the priest approached reverently in the name of the people.

The fact that the priest had his back turned to the people showed that he was there not primarily to dialogue with them or even to address them, but rather to lead them into the holy presence of God and to offer on their behalf the Sacrifice of the Mass. The people’s part was to look on with faith and devotion and to join themselves in spirit with what was being done on their behalf by the ordained priest.

The renewed theology and practice of the Eucharist in both the Anglican and the Roman churches has returned to the biblical meal symbolism of early Christianity. In so doing, the significance of the altar/table has changed considerably.

Churches built since the renewal ordinarily reflect the new understanding and practice in their physical arrangement of space. Older church buildings are adapted as well as possible to the new form of Eucharist, either by moving the original altar out into the middle of the sanctuary or (if this is not possible) by setting up a table as close to the body of the congregation as possible (leaving the original altar in place as a kind of backdrop).

The essential symbolism of the Eucharist, in its renewed form, is that of a shared Meal in which all participate. The focal point of the assembled congregation is now a table, on which are placed ordinary, basic food and drink (bread and wine) in plain view of all, with the obvious purpose of being provided for everyone eventually to eat and drink together.

Before sharing this symbolic Meal, a great prayer of praise and thanks is intoned at the table by the person who is “presiding,” in order to express the deep religious meaning of the Meal, and in order to give voice to the faith and love of all those who are gathered around the table. At its conclusion, the entire assembly sings or says “Amen!” to express their agreement and conviction.

Notice the different function of the priest-celebrant in this form of the Eucharist. He/she is there to focus the faith of the assembled people, to give voice to it, and to draw all of them together around the one table, in readiness to “take and eat.” The priest-celebrant is not doing something on their behalf, namely, offering a sacrifice that they are not empowered to offer. Rather, he/she is leading a great communal action, which all those present are doing together.

One final point: Granted that the outward form of the Eucharist is now much more clearly that of a symbolic Meal, what has happened to the theme of “Sacrifice”?

The theme of Sacrifice is still expressed in some of the prayers, even though the outward action itself no longer thematizes this meaning so explicitly. In fact, the deepest meaning of Jesus himself and of his death is “redemptive sacrifice”a handing-over and abandonment of himself to the Father, in which all men and women are somehow included, so that they are reconciled in principle to the God from whom they have been willfully estranged.

This loving abandonment to the will of the Father, this gift of self to God, is really the “essence” of the crucified and risen Jesus upon whom the community feeds, with whom the community is joined in the sacred Meal.

“Sacrifice,” therefore, is a major theme in the meaning of participating in the Meal. By sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we all freely share in his Sacrifice and are caught up into his own eternal act of loving surrender to the Father on behalf of the world. But the outward, symbolic form of our identification with Jesus’ Sacrifice is the form that he himself chose to give us: the simple, ordinary behavior of breaking bread together at his Table.

The Theologian

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here

Ask a Theologian: Real Presence

Dear Theologian,

What does The Episcopal Church teach about the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion? When I was growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I was taught that the bread and wine were changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Now, as an Episcopalian, I am told that we reject this idea of “transubstantiation” (so-called). But how do we understand the Lord’s presence in the sacrament?

Doubtful Communicant

Dear Communicant,

In thinking about the Holy Eucharist, we are attempting to think about “Mystery” in the strict theological sense—that is, a reality that is forever beyond our full comprehension, even though we can get some partial understanding. Therefore our thinking and speaking must be done with great reverence and humility.

The Church’s faith in the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament of Holy Communion is grounded in Scripture and attested by many patristic writers of the early centuries. In a famous passage, St. Paul writes (sometime in the decade of the 50’s AD):

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:16-17) 

A little further on in the same letter he writes:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27) 

The vivid sense of the “objective” reality of Christ himself in the eating and drinking of the consecrated elements has persisted down through all the centuries. In the medieval period, however, an extreme literal understanding of this presence became fixed in the popular mind, so that the consecrated bread itself was sometimes imagined to be the actual body of Christ in a physical sense.

Beginning in the eleventh century, the doctrine of “transubstantiation” was formulated as a way of affirming the real presence. Using philosophical concepts that were current at the time, this doctrine affirmed that the “substance” of the bread and wine was, by the power of God, converted or changed into the “substance” of Christ Himself, even though the “accidents” (appearance, taste, etc.) of bread and wine remained.

This theology was accompanied by a popular piety which was focused on the consecrated bread as object of devotion. People longed to gaze upon the elevated Host when it was lifted up by the priest after the words of consecration in the Mass. The Host was also put on display for adoration at certain times, and was even carried in procession. On the other hand, the people rarely if ever received Holy Communion; only the priest consumed the consecrated elements.

It is generally recognized today that this medieval Eucharistic piety was a distortion of the sacrament. Part of the program of the Reformers in the sixteenth century was to restore the integrity of the Eucharist by encouraging the people to receive Communion and to understand the liturgy as a sacred meal (the Lord’s Supper).

Why did the Church of England reject the concept of “transubstantiation”? Article XXVIII of the Articles of Religion (as reaffirmed by the Episcopal Church in 1801) says: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” [1]

The words singled out above for emphasis get at the heart of the matter for Anglicans. It is in “the nature of a sacrament” that the natural or physical reality remains itself, while at the same time making present the spiritual reality. The bread is still bread, after the prayer of consecration, but now it is also a sacrament in the sense that it makes present a spiritual reality.

“The outward and visible sign in the Eucharist is bread and wine, given and received according to Christ’s command. The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, and received by faith.” [2]

This statement of the Eucharistic faith of The Episcopal Church clearly affirms the spiritual reality of Christ’s self-gift to his people when the sacrament is received in the attitude of faith. But it also makes clear that the bread and wine function sacramentally as “the outward and visible sign.”

The Anglican perspective on the Eucharist can be appreciated better by looking at the theology of Richard Hooker (1554-1600).

“Like Cranmer, Hooker’s doctrine can be described as a doctrine of the real partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, rather than a doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This doctrine of the Eucharist, which became characteristic of Anglican theology, is often referred to as ‘receptionism.’ Hooker does not deny the real presence, but he relates it primarily to the faithful communicant rather than to the elements of bread and wine... On the question of the relation of the presence to the elements of bread and wine he adopts a position of deliberate agnosticism: ‘...what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ.’” [3]

This understanding of the Eucharist shifts the emphasis away from the elements in themselves (as a possible object of devotion) and views them rather in their sacramental function as communicating the presence of Christ to the one who receives them in the attitude of faith. This is in accord with Cranmer’s effort “to reorient Eucharistic doctrine around the act of Communion, rather than around a change in the nature of the elements.” [4]

What Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians have in common, despite differences in terminology, is the centrality of the Holy Eucharist in their life of faith. Christ’s presence in this sacrament remains a great Mystery—to be entered into, but not to be explained.

The Theologian

[1] BCP, p. 873, emphasis added.
[2] In the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, BCP, p. 859.
[3] W. R. Crockett, in The Study of Anglicanism, revised ed., pp. 309-310.
[4] Ibid., p. 309.

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here

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