An Ethical Musings' reader sent the following comment/question to me:
In the [1942 Book of Common Prayer], it seemed the taking of bread and wine was symbolic of the death of Jesus. In the [1979 Book of Common Prayer], I think I read where it stated the bread and wine were actual flesh and blood of Christ. Does this make us cannibals? Here is what was in Wikipedia - January 6, 1994: The bishops assembled affirmed 'that Christ in the Eucharist makes himself present sacramentally and truly when under the species of bread and wine these earthy realities are changed into the reality of his body and blood.'
My understanding of the Eucharist has changed over the years, and probably will continue to evolve. Ultimately, expressing in human terms what happens in the Eucharist is perhaps impossible. Hence, I've titled this post, Eucharistic mysteries. Incidentally, the word Eucharist has its etymological origins in the Greek words for to give thanks, which can also be translated to offer gratefully.
The non-sacramental interpretation of the Eucharist is that the meal is a memorial event, a remembrance of Jesus' last supper with his disciples; the bread and wine symbolize his body and blood. All Christians subscribe to this interpretation. However, some groups such as the Baptists hold only this view and reject any sacramental interpretation.
A sacrament, for those unfamiliar with the term, consists of an outward symbol that is a sure and certain means (or sign) of grace. The Episcopal Church, in common with most Protestant groups, recognizes two sacraments, i.e., Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. In the gospels, Jesus explicitly commanded his disciples to observe both. The Roman Catholic Church, many Episcopalians, and some others recognize seven sacraments, all of which are rooted in scripture though not explicitly instituted by Jesus: reconciliation of a penitent, holy orders (ordination of clergy), marriage (however conceived), unction (the anointing of the sick, sometimes incorrectly called the last rites), and confirmation. The Episcopal Church, mindful that many physical items can convey grace, calls these five sacramentals, a category that can include very many moments of grace.
Eucharistic language (this is the body of Christ, the blood of Christ) and practices (e.g., meditating upon the consecrating elements and reserving the consecrated bread and wine) easily appear explicitly cannibalistic. Unsurprisingly, Christians from the beginning have faced allegations of cannibalism. They have consistently denied that charge, insisting that whatever happens in the Eucharist, it is not cannibalism because Jesus is spiritually rather than physically present.
Meanwhile, theologians endlessly debate how Jesus is present in the bread and wine. Transubstantiation postulates that the essence—invisible to the naked eye and other senses—of the consecrated bread and wine has become Jesus' spiritual presence while leaving the outward manifestations of bread and wine unchanged. Consubstantiation postulates that the essence of the bread and wine, when consecrated, becomes Jesus' spiritual presence while also remaining bread and wine. Theologians who advocate for real presence have abandoned attempts to interpret the Eucharist in terms of ancient Greek philosophy, instead insisting that Jesus' spiritual presence in the consecrated elements is an unfathomable mystery. Yet other theologians maintain that Jesus' presence in the Eucharist is not localized in the bread and wine but inherent in the celebratory meal itself, i.e., the event and not the elements is the outward sign of the sacrament's spiritual grace.
When people share a meal together, they often experience a closeness they otherwise do not have with those same people. Is that closeness the grace, Jesus' spiritual presence, in the sacrament his body and blood? Does the memory of Jesus and of his breaking bread with his disciples enhance that experience? Does the expectation of grace further enhance what happens in the Eucharistic event? Is it the memory of shared meals, of the disciples with Jesus and of Christians with one another, what infuses the practice of reserving the consecrated bread and wine with meaning?
My current inclination is to answer all of the preceding questions affirmatively and to shy away from Eucharistic understandings defined by transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and real presence. Even more strongly, however, I believe that in the acts of retelling the story of Jesus, giving thanks for the gifts of bread and wine, breaking bread and pouring wine, and sharing those symbolic elements together that grace happens mysteriously and inexplicitly.