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Welker gives a clear explanation of holy communion based on the biblical tradition and evaluates the ecumenical discourse on communion of the past thirty years. In the process he answers such often posed questions as "What do we mean when we say that Christ is present in communion?" "How are Christ's body and blood connected with bread and wine?" "What is the difference between the Christian Supper and the Jewish Passover meal?" and "Are children allowed to share in communion?"
What happens in holy communion? The ninth answer is: "The Supper is an act of worship of the community gathered in Jesus' name" (Arnoldshain Theses). At the same time, it is the feast of the church of all times and regions of the world.
Deepest Certainty — Ecumenical Universality That Spans the Epochs
The Supper is the celebration of a symbolic meal of the concrete, gathered community. Without calling this fact into question, we must supplement it by noting that the Supper is the celebration of the church of all times and all regions of the world. This interconnection becomes clear if we focus on the expressions: "Given for you!" and "Poured out for many!" The expression "poured out for many" is found in Matthew and Mark: "Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many'" (Mk 14:24-25). Matthew 26:27 adds to the gift of the cup the invitation to drink from it: according to v. 28, the blood is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Mark and Matthew already employ the phrase "for many" in the statement: "For the Human One came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28). In contrast to the indeterminate expression "for many," in Luke we find for the bread as well as for the cup the determinate "given for you" and "poured out for you." First Corinthians 11:24 formulates the Supper tradition with the words: "This is my body that is for you."
The expressions "given for you" and "poured out for many" establish a double perspective on what is happening in holy communion. On the one hand, the addressee is the concrete, gathered community with its fundamental experiences in the celebration of the Supper: The symbolic actions of giving and taking, eating and drinking bread and wine mediate both an extremely concrete experience of community and a profound and intense certainty. Particularly the Reformed traditions have repeatedly highlighted this certainty:
This basic certainty is extremely important. It effects an unsurpassably concrete experience of sacramental presence and an extremely intense experience of community.
In contrast to this intense and very finely tuned experience of community and action (co-action), the verbal proclamation can be received in many different ways. Its effect is to a large degree dependent upon the skill and talent, the linguistic capability, the sensibility, the intelligence, and many other properties of the persons doing the proclaiming, and of their listeners. The verbal proclamation and its resonance (not merely in the acoustic sense) is also to a large degree dependent upon the time, the circumstances, the concentration, and the experiential and educational backgrounds of the persons among whom the proclamation is taking place. Here and there, with this listener or that one, in each specific situation, there are very different ways in which the verbal proclamation will "hit home"—or not—and will bring about knowledge, illumination, insight, and of course certainty. By contrast, the communal actions of eating and drinking, especially the symbolic actions of eating and drinking, produce an unsurpassable commonality in certainty. With this piece of bread and this drink of wine, I, you, he, she, we, and they take part in this process in the same way. We all see, feel, know that others are participants in the same way. No one can say: I only seemed to be there; I was lost in my thoughts; I didn't get anything out of it. Nor can anyone say: But now I see everything completely differently; We only seemed to understand each other; etc.
At no other place in our life, including that of our spiritual life and our ecclesial community, does it become clear in such a basic way that all human beings are equal before God and that all human beings are bound together before God in the most intense way. In the celebration of holy communion, this is mediated over and over again in unsurpassable, sensuous certainty of human community. This is a great gift that it is impossible to value too highly. It has provided a basis and a root from which has grown a culture of humanity, of law, and of morality—a culture of at least an abstract ethos of equality, which with good reason has been the subject of very intense human labor.However, this sensuous certainty—given for us, here and now given for me as well as for my fellow persons gathered with me, given for them as well as for me—this certainty is not only a powerful bearer of rich blessings; it can also fortify a subjective sense of right on the part of individuals and small groups who isolate themselves and shield themselves against the outside world. Admittedly, we should not universally denigrate this attitude, which is hard to avoid in times of persecution. But we must make clear that this attitude falls far short of the full scope of what is happening in holy communion. Concentrating solely on the concretely gathered community and its experiences of certainty can degenerate into group ideology, niche ideology, and deceptive self-certainty. This ideological self-deception is dangerous precisely because all the "neighbors" who are directly present are ready to support and strengthen it. The sensuous and communicative certainty of the Supper, mediated by the symbolic meal, while on the one hand so important and fruitful, is on the other hand always jeopardized when it does not allow itself to be opened, liberated, challenged, and called into question by the phrase "poured out for many."
"Poured out for many": this means that the event of the Supper is not to be related exclusively to those who are concretely celebrating in any particular instance, or to any particular concretely gathered community, although it is concretized in this celebration, in this communion, and in this certainty. In spite of its sensuous mediation, the presence of Christ in the Supper is not exhausted in any particular actual assurance of an intense communion with God and with each other. Instead, the presence of Christ in the Supper, the concrete communion of those who are celebrating, stands in the communion of the countless many, in the communion of the visible and invisible ecumenical church of all times and regions of the world. The celebration of the Supper places participants into this communion, while not dispensing with the certainty, the concrete, sensuous experience and communion. The expression "poured out for many" makes this clear. The "for you" and the "for many" mutually interpret each other, and must do so if we wish to understand what happens in holy communion.
Only if we take seriously the dimensions of the words "poured out for many" will it become clear that the exalted Christ is really present in the Supper—in sensuous, concrete experience—in the entire fullness of his life and in the entire richness of his remembrance. In the celebration of the Supper, in the attendant verbal proclamation, in the symbolic action, in the sensuous mediation, in the symbolic acts of eating and drinking, in the symbolic experience of community—in all these things, the same Christ is present who is also present in all other celebrations of the Supper, in other communities of faith, with precisely this evidence and availability to the senses. Not only does holy communion mediate to those who are participating in any given celebration of the Supper an experience of community and evidence in relation to God and to each other. The Supper also places any given, concretely gathered community into a spatio-temporal fullness of such experiences of evidence. In precisely this way, the Supper binds together the communities of the visible and the invisible church of all times and regions of the world. Not only does it place any given community celebrating the Supper into this context, it also draws the context of the worldwide church of all times and regions of the world into the celebrating community.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologies, the latter in a special way, have a great sensitivity to this state of affairs. Again and again, they insist that in the celebration of the Supper we are carrying out the "heavenly liturgy," that in the celebration of the Supper we take part in the "heavenly doxology" and in the "heavenly communion." No matter how little our concrete community may be, the angels are celebrating with us! Can we see in the image of the heavenly hosts gathered around God and God's throne the attempt to think of the representatives of all times and regions of the world, including the representatives of past and future times and regions of the world, gathered in the praise of God? Can we begin to understand the reality, the truth, the material validity contained in this imagistic language? If so, then the notion of the "heavenly liturgy" celebrated in the Supper will not remain foreign to us. Moreover, we will begin to understand why the sacrament can be called "the sacrament of God's reign," and why it in fact is tied to the joyful eschatological banquet.
Finally, if we begin to take the measure of the broad dimensions expressed by the phrase "for many"—without surrendering the intensity, authenticity, certainty, and all the other qualities of the intimate, solid, concretely gathered community of the meal—we will also understand why the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches react so sensitively to the questions about who presides at the celebration of the meal, and how that celebration is directed. We will understand why they are sensitive about the Supper being celebrated rightly, and why for them it is impossible to be too careful theologically and pastorally in planning the celebration of the Supper and in accompanying the community of the Supper. The Supper that binds together the ecumenical church of all times and regions of the world is not an arena for liturgical experimentation.
The celebration of the Supper creates a basic communion of the ecumenical church not only in this time period, not only in this world—whether the world be defined by media, science, "relevance," or in some other way—but in all times and regions of the world. Therefore we must recognize, understand, preserve, and carefully develop forms that really express this broad communion. If we take the Supper seriously in its spiritual weight and in its ecumenical influence, we will understand the pre-Reformation churches' concern that insufficient oversight in this event that is so central for the church could be devastating. How do we do justice to this concern?
Introduction: What Happens in Holy Communion?
A High Point of Christian Life—or "a Sad Colloquy" (Kant)?
Holy Communion: Human Beings Thank God and Symbolically Celebrate a Community Meal in a Jeopardized World
Holy Communion—Celebration of the Presence of Jesus Christ
Appendix: Documents of the "Growth in Agreement" of Churches on the Global Level in Questions of Holy Communion, in Chronological Order, 1931-1990
Epilogue and Acknowledgments
Subjects and Names