The centenary of the communion wafer – when the substance changes

Whether it is sprinkled with wine or not, the communion wafer is not an end in itself, but it plays an essential role in Holy Communion. It has to do with the presence of Jesus Christ. How does that work?

The groom takes the small object out of its case and places it on the ring finger of his betrothed. Someone authorised to do so pronounces a few words. So what is this thing on the hand of the woman: a metal object, a piece of jewellery, a wedding ring, or a symbol?

And what does this have to do with the communion wafer? Very simple. The idea is to illustrate a theological-philosophical discussion that has been going on for hundreds of years regarding Holy Communion. Or more precisely, the question is how Jesus Christ comes to be present in it.

This dispute has been going on since the fourth century. Ambrose and Augustine, two Church Fathers, were already at odds over this. During the Middle Ages, the theologian Berengar of Tours and Guitmund of Aversa, a Benedictine monk, were at each other’s throats over this. Subsequently, the two Reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli also argued over it.

Symbol or reality?

Yes, Jesus is indeed present in Holy Communion—although only figuratively, Zwingli thought. For him—as with Berengar and Augustine hundreds of years earlier—bread and wine are symbols. This is the view shared by some Reformed Churches, such as the Mennonites, Baptists, and the Pentecostal Church, and many evangelical churches.

Yes, Jesus is present in Holy Communion—in a holistic way: His body and blood are really contained in the bread and wine. This is how the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, the Orthodox, and the New Apostolic Church view it. They call it “real presence”.

And it is precisely here that children begin to wonder, and not only they: Am I really eating the Lord Jesus? This is exactly the problem that Berengar of Tours already had. The answer is a clear no. Because from the point of view of the chemical and physical texture, there are no changes whatsoever. The changes take place on a different level.

Substance or form?

To be able to understand these things, we will have to go back to the philosophy of ancient Greece and the notions of “substance” and “accident” of a thing, its substance and form, its essence and its properties. Or, to go back to the image we used at the beginning: “wedding ring” or “metal object”.

For those who defend the real presence it is clear: the accident (that is, form, properties, and matter—the non-essential material qualities) of the host do not change at all during Holy Communion. It is at the level of the divine essence or nature that there is a change.

Transubstantiation or consubstantiation?

The various denominations disagree over what happens here exactly. Catholics assume that the elements of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The technical term for this is transubstantiation. Lutherans, however, maintain that the substance of the body and blood of Christ is joined to the substance of the bread and wine. They are bound together like fire and iron in an incandescent piece of metal, but both elements are still present. This doctrine is called “consubstantiation”, which the New Apostolic Church also adheres to.

On the other hand, everyone agrees on the moment when this transformation takes place: it occurs at the time of consecration, that is, when the duly mandated clergyman speaks the words of consecration. Not only the New Apostolic Church pronounces the words that Jesus Christ Himself used when He instituted the sacrament. The oldest testimony of this we find in the letter to the Corinthians: “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”

Photo: Jurek Schwekendiek

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