Lent is a season of preparation in which Christians get ready to celebrate the momentous events of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
Some use this season as an opportunity to draw near to God by engaging in confession, fasting, and meditation on Scripture. The Lord’s Supper has long been seen as one such occasion, and yet this sacrament is interpreted in a myriad of different ways across the Christian tradition.
The scene in the upper room on the night before Jesus was crucified is no doubt familiar. There Jesus Christ took some bread, drew his followers’ attention to it, and said, “Take, eat. This is my body.” He did something similar with a cup of wine saying, “This is my blood.”
I imagine Jesus’ disciples had a similar thought to the Jews who heard his controversial sermon in John 6 (“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”) and said, in essence, “This is a difficult statement, who can even understand it!”
The difficulty of these statements about bread and body, wine and blood is no doubt proved by the diversity of interpretation that has arisen in the years since Christ first uttered those words. And although we probably won’t get close to unifying around a single perspective, we can attempt to gain a better understanding of the range of options.
In my view, approaches to the Lord’s Supper fall along something of a spectrum. As I see it, there are three main families of locations on the spectrum, each with various family members who are conceptual cousins to one another.
We might name these families according to the manner in which they think Christ is present in the Eucharist: Bodily, Spiritually, or Normally. I will attempt to plot these points on the spectrum as though they were cities on a map, according to where the main proponents of each Family resided.
The Bodily Family of views believe that when Christ says a piece of bread is his body, he means it literally. Figuring out how that can be the case is what distinguishes the cousins within this family.
For instance, the official view of the Roman Catholic Church—call this the “Rome” view—is : “transubstantiation,” where the “trans-“ prefix indicates a “change” to the “substance” of an object. For Roman Catholics, the substance—or the “what it is”—of the bread changes to no longer be bread, but the body of Christ.
This is, of course, all while there is no change in the appearance of the object itself: it still looks, smells, and tastes like bread. Roman Catholics believe that the substance of something can be separated from how it appears. For them, the object that appears to be bread is not bread but the body of Christ.
The next stop on the conceptual spectrum in the Bodily Family are what I call German views. These are the purview of Lutherans, for instance, but can also be found among Anglicans and the Eastern Orthodox. These perspectives believe with their Roman cousins that Christ meant his words literally, but contrary to the Romans, hold that the bread continues to exist as it appears.
There are (at least) two versions of German views, and we can plot these on the map as German cities. A “Wittenberg” view holds the body of Christ to be “in, with, and under” the bread, as the Lutheran quip goes.
In medieval theology, this view was called “consubstantiation” (con- “with”); the “substance” of the bread and the “substance” of the body of Christ existing with one another. But I assure you, most Lutherans dislike that term!
Another German view—let’s call this the “Nuremberg” view (for the 16th century Lutheran pastor Andreas Osiander)—holds that the way in which the body of Christ and the bread of the Eucharist are related is like the way the two natures of Christ are related in the Incarnation.
If you are looking for a = term for this view, impanation is the one used in the tradition. Like the incarnation refers to being enfleshed (in- “into” + caro, carn- “flesh”), impanation refers to being embreaded (im– “into” + panis “bread”) as it were.
Moving along the spectrum from the Bodily Family, we come to the Spiritually Family. This family likewise holds that the bread and wine remain as they were but attempts to characterize the spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
“Geographically” we move from the cities of Rome, Wittenberg, and Nuremberg to “Antwerp,” where we meet Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian Dominican of the last century. The name for the view he proffered is “transignification.”
Although a Roman Catholic, Schillebeeckx thought the distinction between the “what it is” of an object and “how it appears” was overplayed—and what he felt was important instead was the meaning of an object. For this view, the “change” (trans-) in the bread and wine of Communion is in their meaning (signification-).
According to Schillebeeckx, meaning is found in community. When our community—the Church whose head is Christ—designates an object that appears to be bread as “the body of Christ,” true participants in the community will embrace that meaning. Although this view did not catch on in Roman Catholic circles, those Protestants befuddled by the Bodily Family might find Antwerp a suitable residence.
Moving into more properly Protestant locations within the Spiritually Family, we come to “Geneva,” which characterizes the views of many contemporary Reformed and Presbyterian Christians.
In this view, the Holy Spirit uses the bread and the wine as vehicles to catalyze a connection between Christians and the risen Christ. Where this connection takes place is in the heavenly places (hence the “Lift up your hearts” of the Sursum Corda), but the Lord’s Supper is an occasion for this union with Christ to occur.
“Canterbury” is the next stop on the spectrum within the Spiritually Family; there we meet the view of Thomas Cranmer. Although his views on the Eucharist changed over his life, his mature view is referred to as a sacramental parallelism. That is, we receive the body and blood of Jesus on a spiritual level that usually, but not always, runs parallel to our receiving the bread and wine on a physical level.
For Cranmer what was important was that we feed on Christ in our hearts. Eating the bread of the Eucharist can contribute to that, but this spiritual feeding can occur even if we never taste the bread or wine.
The Normally Family of views believes that Christ is present in the Eucharist in just the same way he is normally in any location in the world at any given time.
In virtue of the divine attribute of omnipresence, these Christians hold that the Word is in all places, and therefore there isn’t anything special about the bread and the wine itself. Rather what is special about Communion, they believe, is what it motivates you to think about.
Another Swiss location, “Zurich,” serves as the most popular location within the Normally Family, and here we might find many contemporary Christians in Baptistic and Pentecostal traditions. Here the bread and wine serve as “visible words,” emphasizing the cognitive aspect of our actions associated with bread and wine.
One of my former professors quipped that for views in Zurich, the bread and the wine serve as flashcards for Jesus. See bread? Remember Jesus! See wine? Remember Jesus! Here the Lord’s Supper serves as an opportunity for remembrance and thinking deeply about Christ and his work—but not necessarily an occasion for a unique encounter with his presence.
Finally, we round out the Normally Family with another city, “Philadelphia,” a center of the Friends or Quaker tradition. According to this perspective, not only is Christ not uniquely present in Communion, but the practice of Communion is not normally done. We might take this to be the most extreme location on the spectrum for nearly removing itself from the spectrum altogether.
From my perspective, the most attractive view biblically, historically, theologically, and even philosophically, is “Nuremberg”—within the German lineage of the Bodily Family. I am especially attracted to the way this location on the spectrum points to the Incarnation.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that a Virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Christians hold that when the Word became flesh to dwell among us, one divine member of the Trinity took on a second, human nature. In this regard, there are two unique but united substances in the person of Jesus Christ: both divine and human.
This longstanding thread of interpretation of the Eucharistic uses the Incarnation as a means for explaining how a piece of bread could be the body of Christ. That is, in a similar manner as Christ is both God and human, the object we eat at the Lord’s Supper is both bread and the body of Christ. In this way, bread and body are unified in a sacramental union, by a similar union as occurs in the Incarnation, which is a hypostatic union .
In the Incarnation, we see the lengths God went to be with us—so far that he became one of us. Likewise, in the Lord’s Supper, we see a God who continues to be present in our midst. By viewing the Eucharist through the lens of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh and the flesh made bread both attest to the reality that God is indeed with us.
James M. Arcadi teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is the author of An Incarnational Model of the Eucharist.