The sacraments (26): An essential change

The groom slips a metal band onto his bride’s waiting finger. A person with the requisite authority speaks a few words. So what exactly is the bride now wearing on her finger? Is it a piece of jewellery? A wedding ring? A symbol? And what does any of that have to do with Holy Communion?

The image of the wedding ring is intended to serve as an illustration for a theological and philosophical debate that has revolved around the sacrament of Holy Communion for centuries. More precisely, the question is: “In what way is Jesus Christ directly present in the sacrament?”

The Church Fathers Ambrosius and Augustine already quarrelled over the issue back in the fourth century. And in the Middle Ages, the debate was continued by a scholar known as Berengar of Tours and Bishop Guitmund of Aversa. And just when the theologians thought they had finally come to a consensus on the matter, the Reformation came along to reignite the dispute. Ultimately this question even proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in the relationship between the Reformers Luther and Zwingli.

Symbol or reality?

Yes, Jesus is present in Holy Communion, but only in a spiritual way, opined Zwingli. For him—like Berengar and Augustine centuries before him—bread and wine were merely a symbol. Many of the Reformed Churches, along with the Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals, and numerous independent evangelical churches still embrace this position today.

Yes, Jesus is present in Holy Communion, but in a more comprehensive way: His body and blood is truly contained in the bread and wine. This is the view espoused by the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Churches of the Lutheran tradition, the Orthodox Churches, and even the New Apostolic Church. This interpretation is known as the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament.

And now we come to a point where even a child would not be alone in asking: “Well, does that mean that I am chewing on Jesus when I put the wafer in my mouth?” Good old Berengar of Tours likewise had his problems with this notion. The clear and resounding answer is: no. Because absolutely nothing changes with respect to the wafer’s chemical or physical composition. The change occurs on a completely different level.

Substance or form?

In order to understand this, we need to make a little digression into the realm of philosophy, specifically to an approach dating back to the ancient Greeks. It all boils down to the question of a thing’s “substance” and ”accidence”, that is, its material composition, on the one hand, and its shape, on the other. In other words, it is a question of a thing’s essence and its properties. Or, to come back to our illustration from the start of this article, a question of whether our bride is wearing a piece of metal or a wedding ring.

This much is clear for advocates of “real presence”: in terms of accidence, shape, and properties, that is, in terms of its material composition, the wafer remains unchanged in Holy Communion. In a wedding, the wedding ring retains both its shape and its chemical properties. But it is on the level of its substance, content, and essence that the change takes place. After the wedding ceremony, the metal band is no longer merely a piece of jewellery, but has become something more meaningful, namely a wedding ring.

Transubstantiation or consubstantiation?

The various confessions also disagree over the question of what exactly transpires in the consecration of Holy Communion. The Catholics take the position that the substance of bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The technical term for this is “transubstantiation” (a change in substance).

The Lutherans, on the other hand, maintain that the body and blood of Christ are joined to the substance of bread and wine. The technical term for this concept is “consubstantiation”, and the New Apostolic Church also embraces this position. In other words, the metal band of our earlier illustration is both a piece of jewellery and a wedding ring. According to New Apostolic doctrine, this dual nature of the communion elements corresponds to the dual nature of Jesus Christ as true Man and true God.

Words with an effect

At least there is unity with respect to the question of when this transformation—or joining of body and blood to bread and wine—takes place in Holy Communion: it occurs during the “consecration”, that is, when the authorised minister speaks the words of institution or consecration. And the New Apostolic Church is not alone in basing these words on those spoken by Jesus Christ Himself when He instituted the sacrament, as recorded in the New Testament.

For those who find such contemplations too lofty, it might help to consider the realities of life surrounding the wedding ring: how many widows and widowers still continue to wear this metal band for decades after they have lost their spouse—just to feel, envision, and recall the love and essence of their lost loved one?

Beyond all of the theological postulations, the different denominations have also developed a broad diversity of congregational practices. What sort of bread is allowed? And what kind of wine? Who is allowed to dispense the sacrament? And who is allowed to receive it? These questions will be the focus of future parts of this series.

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Andreas Rother
sacraments, Holy Communion