The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

In other posts, I’ve looked at the Eucharist in history, at the mystery of the Eucharist, at its place in liturgy, and many other questions. A conversation with my youngest daughter this past week left me reflecting on the elements or gifts themselves or, to put it more prosaically, the bread and wine. There have been a number of practices regarding both over the course of the centuries. I would wager many modern Protestants are unfamiliar with all but the most recent.

One of the variations of practice that sometimes rose to the level of dispute was the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Over time, the West settled into a practice of using unleavened bread and the East leavened bread, but that did not happen all at once. For centuries, there was a mixed practice in both East and West. All too often today, the concept of leaven is conflated with yeast. While scientifically accurate, it fails to capture the ancient mindset well. It would be more accurate to think of leaven as what we might call starter, if you’ve ever made bread in some of the more traditional ways.

Unlike much of what you might hear people in some corners say today, neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the Fathers is leaven ever simply synonymous with sin or evil. Rather, leaven more describes a process of one substance permeating and changing the nature of another. Sin often acts that way. But, if you remember Jesus’ parable, so does the Kingdom.

The theology developed by proponents of either perspective is varied and rich. It’s worth spending time to explore if such things interest you. But, to summarize and over-simplify, there did tend to be some noteworthy trends.

Among those who favored unleavened bread, the primary point was the connection of the Eucharist to Passover because Christ is our Passover. And on Passover Jews ate unleavened bread. Why? Because on the night of the tenth plague, the Israelites prepared in haste to leave. You have to wait for leavened bread to rise, usually more than once whereas unleavened bread is prepared quickly. It is the bread of haste and the bitterness of departure.

Those who made this connection often also saw the meal at which Christ instituted the mystery of the Eucharist as a Passover meal at which they would have been eating unleavened bread. From very early on, you can see that this is a disputed point. And, indeed, if you read the gospels some things are clear. The connection to Passover is evident as is the fact that Passover is near. The room was one in which Jesus said he intended to eat Passover with his disciples. That is also certain. It is unclear whether or not the actual meal was a Passover meal and, if it was, whether or not Jesus was celebrating it on the “right” day. If you try to figure out exactly what day each event occurs you’ll give yourself a headache. Trust me, I know.

However, those who favored the use of leavened bread were not primarily concerned about whether or not the institution in the upper room happened in the context of a Passover meal or not. They drew from the parable of the leaven of the Kingdom and saw the leaven of Christ working itself into and through the people of God as the Kingdom spread into the nations. Although that last supper in the upper room was a night of departures, we do not eat in haste, ready to leave. Rather, we live in the Kingdom now and the Eucharist is as much about the Resurrection as it is the Cross.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, though I tend to lean in the direction of the arguments for leavened bread. They seem to hold more weight to me. Of course, as a diagnosed celiac, it’s largely a moot point for me in practical terms. Leavened or unleavened, I can’t consume the bread. But it is still a very interesting aspect of the practice of our faith to explore.

The other ancient dispute over practice which continues to this day revolves around the wine of the Eucharist. No, it’s not the dispute that would probably immediately spring to mind for most of my fellow modern American Protestants. We’ll get to that one later. No, this one is the practice of using pure wine in the Eucharist vs. wine mixed with hot water. Nobody that I’ve read on this dispute argues that Christ used anything but pure wine during the last supper. And on that basis, it became the standard practice in the West.

In the East, however, it has long been the practice to mix hot water with the wine. There are many different reasons given. One (from St. Cyril of Alexandria, I think) was that the water was the Church and in the Eucharist we take Christ into our body and become part of his body. Another makes reference to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, arguing that it is thus appropriate for our Eucharist to be wine and water. Another perspective, especially in the Armenian and Ethiopian Churches holds that the water represents the Holy Spirit, since water is normally connected to the Spirit.

This debate became so heated that at one point in time anathemas flew. Personally, I can see both perspectives and find them both not without merit. I am also certain that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we receive either as the blood of our Lord, which is really all that matters.

The last dispute about the nature of the gifts themselves is the modern Protestant practice, connected to the 19th century temperance movement, of using grape juice instead of wine. I’ve heard and read myriad scriptural interpretations and theological circumlocutions to justify this particular innovation. If you think you have one that I’ve not heard, feel free to share it. This is a modern issue because it could only have arisen in our technologically advanced modern era. This is also where a dose of practical reality is needed more than theology.

In the modern West, we have become disconnected from the realities of food. We can have anything we want almost any time of the year. I know that personally, on those rare occasions I cannot find produce I desire at that moment, I’m irritated. But that is not how things have worked for much of human history. In the northern hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the fall. Oh, in some climates, like Cyprus, they might be harvested as early as late July and in Germany and some other places, grapes like icewine grapes might be harvested as late as January, but in general grapes are harvested in the fall. Passover is in the spring, all the way on the other side of the annual calendar. Moreover, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization in the ancient world.

What does that mean? It’s very simple really. That night in the upper room with Jesus of Nazareth, nobody had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the city had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the northern hemisphere had grapes or grape juice.

They had raisins and wine.

And the same realities carry through most of human history. There was not even the possibility of a question about whether to use grape juice or wine. All that anyone had available to use was wine. That’s why this is an uniquely modern dispute.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, dentist, physician, and Methodist Communion steward, successfully applied the process of pasteurization to grape juice producing an “unfermented wine” with a long shelf life when properly sealed. He used the product for communion in his church. His son Charles, the enterprising sort, saw an opportunity and began marketing their “unfermented wine” for use by other Temperance Movement minded churches. It’s on that basis that the Welch company and fortune was built. Good, bad, or indifferent, the possibility of using grape juice in communion dates from 1869. Before then, it was not possible.

My perspective? I’m skeptical of the claim that only Christians in the last 150 years have been able to do Communion the right way. I tend to distrust modern innovations in a two thousand year old faith, especially when I can specifically locate the person and events responsible for the innovation. I just can’t drink that particular koolaid. This particular practice has no connection to anything in Scripture or the historic practice of the Church. It’s a very recent modern novelty. And it seems that it’s primarily churches who hold the Eucharist in relatively low regard, at least to judge by the frequency of their participation in it, that adhere to this modern innovation.

Those are the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this week about the physical nature of the elements themselves. If anyone knows of any significant variation in the bread and wine which I’ve missed, let me know.

This entry was posted in Eucharist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: