Holy Communion and Christian Worship Through the Centuries

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Since Jesus’ “do this in remembrance of me” statement recorded in the synoptic Gospels, Christians across the centuries have celebrated Holy Communion1 as a “central practice of Christian worship.”2 The Eucharist and its liturgy, practice, and theology, have taken on different forms as clergy and congregants have attempted to tell God’s story through the Supper. While sometimes neglected or overemphasized, Table practices are a critical point of study in understanding the Christian history of gathered worship. 

Changes over time in this essential part of the worship service are closely connected to differences in corporate worship as a whole. In analyzing the Eucharist, a larger narrative is developed concerning the whole of Christian worship. With this broad survey of church history, our focus will be on key, general, and predominant elements rather than secondary or non-primary facts about Holy Communion that are not crucial in understanding the larger picture of corporate worship.

Early Patristic Era

The era after the Apostles and before Constantine has “been appropriately called the era of the domestic church.”3 Believers gathered in houses because of persecution and the separation of Christianity from Judaism and the synagogue.4 While a basic structure developed in the gathering, clergy, and Church governance—especially towards the end of the era—it was a time “more familial than institutional in structure and practice.”5

These familial leanings are seen in the practice of Holy Communion. Although it became more ritualized towards the end of the era, the Table act within corporate worship was simple. Liturgical ritual was under development; as time progressed, it coalesced around this important part of the worship gathering. The account of the weekly Eucharist given by Justin Martyr in the mid-second century details a humble, communal service with the basic acts of bringing bread and wine, prayer from the presider over the elements, and distribution.6 The eucharistic prayer was not yet fixed,7 though it would become increasingly so as is demonstrated by the later prescribed consecration prayer of Hippolytus from his work Apostolic Tradition.8 The elements themselves were homemade and the vessels used to house them were utilitarian. In all, the ritual was intimate and simple, reflecting the environment and culture of the persecuted house churches.

Implicit in the Eucharist was the idea that the worshipers themselves demonstrate sacrificial lives of praise and thanksgiving in light of Christ’s self-offering.9 Discussion about Christ’s presence at the Table would not come until later, although Justin Martyr and others write that Christ was indeed present at the Table.10 In the Early Patristic era, Christians saw Holy Communion as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice as well as an acceptance of his teaching and its moral implications to be realized in self-sacrificial living.

Later Patristic Era

After Constantine ascended to power in Rome and legalized Christianity in 313 AD,11 Christian worship came out of houses and into much larger, ornate, public spaces. Accompanying this move and the cultural acceptance of Christianity was a newer and much more official, stately form of gathered worship. In this era of classical Christianity, we see standardization of the weekly gathering along with the development of distinctly Christian music, architecture, and literature. Corporate worship became increasingly complex and needed larger numbers of clergy to execute properly.

The Lord’s Supper reflected these changes as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. Instead of household vessels, specialized cruets and chalices made with precious metals became standard at the Table. The vessels themselves began to be revered.12 The standard and much more formal, lengthier liturgy presided over by someone in elaborate, religious clothing tended to be less participatory for the laity. However, this increasingly distant performance was the highlight and focus of corporate worship, even as it became more mystical and sacred in the eyes of those who observed and participated.

The theology of the Late Patristic era concerning Holy Communion diversified as Christianity grew and spread. Still, some general observations can be made. The concept of sacrifice continued to be central, but with “the eucharistic celebration more than Christian living cast in sacrificial terms.”13 Furthermore, theologians began debating if, when, or how the elements themselves become the literal body and blood of Jesus. Because of the increasing sacredness and mystery surrounding the theology of the Table, and the growing distance between the people and the religious hierarchy, laity began to see themselves as unworthy to participate.14       

Byzantine Era

The Byzantine churches that originated in the East in Constantinople gradually reflected the local culture in their corporate worship. Because of their aestheticism, Byzantine worship became ceremonial, mystical, filled with images and symbolism that all invoked a sense of being both in heaven and earth simultaneously.15 Unlike its later Patristic and Medieval counterparts in the West, Eastern gathered worship employed the use of a screen covered with icons to separate the altar and sanctuary.16 This further added to the mystery and beauty of Eastern worship.

Holy Communion in the Byzantine churches demonstrated this rich, ceremonial splendor and mystery. Procession before the eucharistic event presided over by clergy in bright vestments and the prayers offered by the priest and the reception of the elements by the clergy behind the icon screen all added to the mystical grandeur of the event.17 The Lord’s Supper in the East truly engaged all five senses of the worshiper and promoted a sense of wonder and reverence.

Theology surrounding the Table in the East focused on the presence of Christ.18 It also was a service of thanksgiving, as demonstrated by the words of the Pre-anaphora and Anaphora.19 In all, the iconography, beautiful liturgical space, and ceremony of not only the eucharistic experience, but the whole of Eastern corporate worship was intended to be a “liturgy that linked heaven and earth.”20   

Medieval Era

As the Pope and the religious hierarchy in Rome asserted dominance over the Western Church, corporate worship became more distant and mysterious for the laity. The mass was still conducted in Latin (a language most churchgoers did not speak or understand) and the altar table was moved continuously away from the congregation.21 Pagan religious influence caused corporate worship to become an end in itself, where “the mass assumed the character of a sacred drama that was played out by the clergy while the people watched.”22

The Eucharist during this time became the absolute focus of Western worship. Additionally, the laity saw their participation within the Lord’s Supper itself continue to decrease.  The mass was almost salvific, and fixated on “the death of Christ, his suffering, and the salvation that was brought through the sacraments [emphasis mine].”23

Transubstantiation, the understanding that the elements literally became the body and blood of Jesus at the prayer of consecration during Holy Communion, was a key concept in Medieval eucharistic theology that furthered the mystery surrounding the Table. The effect of transubstantiation on the whole of worship was a heightened sense of unworthiness on the part of the laity. Many people neglected to take the Lord’s Supper out of fear because of their perceived unfitness. In sum, “the Eucharist became almost a commodity in some people’s view, a noun rather than a verb, and a power outside their lives rather than nourishment for Christian living.”24  

Early Reformation Era

The Reformation brought about sweeping changes in corporate worship. Icons were removed from the sanctuary, the Word of God was restored to prominence in worship, and the people enjoyed increased participation in a service written in their own language. Justification by grace through faith in Christ alone became a central sounding point for the reformers.

Table practice during the Reformation underwent an overhaul. While Lutherans and Anglicans still practiced weekly Holy Communion, followers of Zwingli and the Reformed community celebrated Holy Communion quarterly.25 No longer the single crucial act in gathered worship, the Lord’s Supper received less significance as the Reformers sought to correct the neglect of the service of the Word, preaching and teaching, by the Medieval Church.

All noteworthy theologians from this era “agreed with Luther in rejecting the notion of transubstantiation.”26 However, there was significant disagreement, especially between Zwingli and Luther on how or if Christ was present at the Table. But whether the Table was a means of experiencing Christ’s presence or simply renewing commitment and remembering, the increasingly diverse theological perspectives of the Protestants stood in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic position reaffirmed at the Council of Trent.

Later Reformation Era

In an age of reason, enlightenment, and revolution, the Church in the late Reformation moved further from the stricter liturgy of previous time periods. Salvation came through understanding and personal experience, and there was significant movement towards pedagogical and evangelistic worship.27 This free church worship model profoundly affected Holy Communion.

The Lord’s Supper was generally celebrated less-than-weekly among the free churches of the later Reformation period, as they “placed renewed emphasis on preaching.”28 When celebrated, the liturgy of the Table tended to be simple and Scripture-focused. Gone were the elaborate vessels in the sanctuary, replaced by a central pulpit for the service of the Word.

The Eucharist was a service of remembrance and memorial for most free-church Protestants. Rationalism moved real presence theology out of the way in favor of pedagogy and personal experience at the Table. The Lord’s Supper and all of worship became mainly about teaching, explaining, understanding, and experiencing God.29

Modern Era

The globalization of the Church30 through evangelism made the last two centuries of Christian worship diverse. A Pentecostal/Charismatic movement birthed out of nineteenth-century revival services profoundly affected twentieth-century worship.31 Vatican II brought reforms to the Catholic church, and the rise of the Evangelical church also shaped the landscape of worship in the second half of the twentieth century.

Table practice in the modern Church was also diverse. It is true that Holy Communion was neglected in Pentecostal worship, and often in the more consumer-minded Evangelical church, both of whom favored worship that was word or music centered. However, Communion was revived in practice among mainline denominations who updated their liturgies.

There was less vigorous debate among theologians surrounding Holy Communion in the second part of the twentieth century. The movement of liturgical reform brought different churches together in theology and practice at the Table while still maintaining some diversity.32 Issues surrounding Christ’s presence at Eucharist were less a point of focus, and instead many churches embraced a Table liturgy that was ecumenical and historically faithful.

Conclusion

The Eucharist was and is a crucial act of gathered worship. In tracing its practice over time, we see the larger picture of Christian worship history. Dyrness stated, “Communion is the physical way Christ stays with us and we with him.”33 As worship practices converge, Holy Communion remains an important and primary way believers remember and proclaim God’s story when they meet together.

 


 

  1. Holy Communion, Eucharist, Table, and Lord’s Supper will be used interchangeably throughout this writing.
  2. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, eds., The Oxford History of Christian Worship (New York, NY: OUP, 2009), 44.
  3. Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2008), 42.
  4. Ibid, 39.
  5. Ibid, 42.
  6. James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 55.
  7. Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 98.
  8. Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. 2, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group, 1994), 36.
  9. Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, 68.
  10. Robert E. Webber, ed., The Complete Library of Christian Worship, Vol. 4, The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship (Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group, 1994), 230.
  11. Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, 79.
  12. Ibid, 119.
  13. Ibid, 120.
  14. Ibid, 128.
  15. Webber, Worship Old and New, 99.
  16. Webber, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, 51.
  17. Webber, Worship Old and New, 99.
  18. Webber, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, 53.
  19. Ibid, 52-53.
  20. Martin D. Stringer, A Sociological History of Christian Worship (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 107.
  21. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 88.
  22. Webber, Worship Old and New, 103.
  23. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008) 74.
  24. Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, 236.
  25. Webber, Worship Old and New, 112.
  26. Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, 283.
  27. Webber, Worship Old and New, 112.
  28. Ibid, 258.
  29. Webber, Worship Old and New, 119.
  30. Stringer, A Sociological History of Christian Worship, 209.
  31. Webber, Worship Old and New, 122.
  32. Wainright and Westerfield Tucker, The Oxford History of Christian Worship, 744.
  33. William A. Dyrness, A Primer on Christian Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 132.

 

David Hartkopf
David Hartkopf serves as Associate Professor, Orchestra Director, and Undergraduate Dean for God's Bible School and College. He also pastors a Methodist Church in Northern Kentucky. His educational background includes an MM in Trumpet Performance at Miami University and DWS Doctorate of Worship Studies (in progress) from Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies. David lives in Cincinnati, OH with his wife Jessica and three children, Mallory, Emma, and Judson.