Learning about the Lord’s Supper from Roman Catholics
Published by ronaldfeenstra
Professor of Systematic Theology
During the fifty years since Vatican II, Roman Catholic and Reformed Christians have engaged in significant ecumenical dialogue. I have been privileged to be part of some of that dialogue during the last twenty years. This article focuses on three ways in which dialogue with Roman Catholics has deepened my understanding of the sacramental meal we call Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist.
Remembering as Making Present
First, dialogue has helped me see sacramental remembering of the past as a way of making Jesus’ death real to us in the present.
At a Passover meal on the night before he was crucified, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, saying, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24; Lk. 22:19). Jesus also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me,” to which Paul adds, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:25–26; Lk. 22:20). Reformed Christians have rightly emphasized this meal as both a remembrance and a proclamation of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for us.
Dialogue with Roman Catholics has taught me deeper dimensions to this remembering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the events of Christ’s sacrifice are not only remembered and thereby proclaimed in the Eucharist, but also “become in a certain way present and real” (CCC 1363). The act of remembering not only proclaims Jesus’ sacrificial death but also draws us into the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and calls us to live Christ-like and Spirit-empowered lives of discipleship. The meal calls believers to undertake the journey of faith and discipleship shaped by the reconciling work of Jesus Christ.
Spiritual Food for the Spiritual Journey
Second, dialogue has taught me to appreciate the sacramental meal as spiritual food for the journey of faith.
The Christian life of discipleship is like a journey. We are traveling from one place to another: from the city of this world to the city of God, from a life ruled by the powers of sin to a life empowered by the grace of God, and from death to new life in Christ.
The Bible describes many journeys, including the journey of God’s people from slavery in Egypt to the land promised to Abraham. During their journey, they suffered shortages of food and water. In response to their complaints, God provided food and water during their forty-year journey (Ex. 15:22–17:7).
Similarly, Jesus during his ministry fed large crowds of hungry people (Matt. 15:29–39; Mk 8:1–10). The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the bread of life: like manna, but more life-giving and more essential to true life (Jn. 6:25–59).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the eucharistic meal provides the pilgrim people of God nourishment for growth in the Christian life—nourishment “for our pilgrimage until the moment of death” (CCC 1392, 1344). In addition, this meal reminds us that we “live by the bread of the Word of God” and that our daily bread is “the pledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises” (CCC 1334).
Seeing the communal meal as spiritual food for our spiritual journey and as a reminder of God’s faithfulness meets an important need in the Christian life. Like the journey undertaken by the ancient people of Israel, the Christian journey includes times of difficulty and trial as well as times of redemption and joy. When troubles arise, we sometimes doubt God’s goodness or faithfulness. But then, like manna in the wilderness, God provides spiritual sustenance in the form of a sacramental meal—a meal that serves as a means of grace to sustain us along the spiritual journey from slavery to sin to new life in Christ.
Foretaste of the Future
Third, dialogue has taught me to appreciate the sacramental meal as a foretaste of the future.
The Christian journey of life has a goal: new life in Christ lived in community with all of God’s people in the presence of the triune God. When he instituted the sacramental meal, Jesus suggested that it anticipates the coming fulfillment of the kingdom of God (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; and Luke 22:16,18)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlights this dimension in a quotation from Vatican II: “In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God” (CCC 1090). Moreover, the Eucharist unites us with “the heavenly banquet, when all the elect will be seated at the table of the kingdom” (CCC 1344, 1326).
In a key passage, the Catechism says, “The whole community thus joins in the unending praise that the Church in heaven, the angels and all the saints, sing to the thrice-holy God” (CCC 1352). According to the Catechism, “The Eucharist is celebrated in communion with the whole Church in heaven and on earth, the living and the dead” (CCC 1354). In this way, the Catechism notes that the Eucharist is not only “the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus” but also “an anticipation of the heavenly glory” (CCC 1402).
Viewing the sacramental meal as a foretaste in which the church on earth joins in praise with the church in heaven provides helpful insights into difficult questions about how Christ is present at the meal. The traditional opening of the liturgy for the Christian meal gives a hint. The worship leader says, “Lift up your hearts,” to which the people respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Dialogue with Roman Catholics helped me see the invitation to lift our hearts as an indication that in this meal we are spiritually lifted up to be with Christ. The church that meets on the corner of First and Elm Streets is spiritually transported to be with the ascended Lord. When we enter his presence, we join believers who have already died and are already present with him. There, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1), we commune with one another and with the Lord. In this event, then, the meal is a foretaste of the final banquet of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9).
The sacramental meal is often called “Communion,” emphasizing both the communion we share with one another in the meal and the communion we have with the ascended Lord. Both dimensions of communion anticipate the final goal of life, when we are united fully with the triune God and with one another in the new heaven and new earth. So in a world in which people are often alienated from one another and alone, the sacramental meal provides fellowship for today and a taste of the life to come.
In summary, dialogue with Roman Catholics has taught me important ways in which the sacramental meal makes Christ’s work present, provides spiritual food for the journey of faith, and provides a foretaste of life with God. Through dialogue, I have come to appreciate more deeply the spiritual nourishment in the meal Jesus provides. For that, I am grateful to my Roman Catholic dialogue partners.
(This article is based on a talk given at an ecumenical event sponsored by Calvin Seminary on October 5, 2017.)
by Ronald J. Feenstra, Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology
Visit Calvin Theological Seminary’s Campus
We can’t wait to host you on campus! Schedule your visit today, or, if you need more time to find a date that works for you, please request information so we can continue the conversation about supporting your calling!