The Holy Eucharist
I. Muslim Questions
- How do you pray? How do you perform your Christian prayers (sal?t, nam?z)? Why do you pray with bread and wine (or, what is that white disk and what is that cup)? You pray with wine! Har?m! In his Law God forbids the drinking of wine.
- Do you really believe that God is present in this bread and wine? That bread and wine become God himself? You eat God?
- What is in that box on or behind the altar? Why do you leave a lamp burning by the altar? What is the difference between the celebration of the Eucharist in a large church on Sunday and on weekdays in a smaller church or chapel?
II. Muslim Perspectives
1. Ritual prayer (sal?t) involves adopting a sequence of physical positions and reciting prayers for which the exact wording is prescribed. This is distinct from spontaneous prayers of petition (du?), for which there are no prescribed wordings or rituals.
2. The emphasis on the transcendence of God leads to a firm rejection of any idea of the indwelling of God (hulul)46 in what he has created, especially in inanimate objects such as bread and wine. The use of wine presents a particular scandal as it has been utterly forbidden in Islam from the time of the Quran onwards.
3. There is a thoroughly mistaken way of conceptualizing and expressing the Eucharist, developed and spread by a particular Christian tradition, which Muslims understandably reject: i.e. the mistaken doctrine of impanation (God becoming bread), which holds that This bread is Jesus (or God). This error is strengthened by a false understanding of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Substance is today generally understood to refer to an object as it is experienced in its concrete and material aspect. Within this way of thinking, a change of the substance of the bread into the body of Christ is simply nonsense, for the physical material of the bread remains unchanged in the Eucharist. On these assumptions, the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation is understandably rejected. To understand this doctrine correctly, however, one must grasp that substance means the metaphysical reality of the bread. All reality that can be physically experienced is understood within the category of accident or species; and within this category of accident no alteration or transformation occurs to the bread during the Eucharist. This is exactly what the doctrine of Transubstantiation sought to maintain. Magical understandings of the sacrament, along with the idea that the words of the priest have the power automatically to change something into something else, are to be firmly rejected.
1. The Quran and the whole Islamic tradition describe Christians as people who pray, whatever their doctrinal errors might be. This applies especially to monasticism (rahb?niyya), a word indicating all men and women who dedicate themselves chiefly to prayer (cf. Quran 5:82; 24:36-37; 57:27).
Strongest among men in enmity to the believers you will find the Jews and pagans; and nearest among them in love you will find those who say, We are Christians, because among these are priests and monks, and they are not arrogant. (5:82)
2. At the time of the Quran and in the early centuries of Islamic history, Christian hermitages and monasteries represented an integral part of the traditional landscape in many areas within the Muslim world. Indeed in Islamic societies churches, the clergy and Christian worship were protected by a special law.
3. In sura al-m?ida, the Quran contains an unmistakeable allusion to the Eucharist:
Behold! The disciples said: O Jesus, son of Mary, can your Lord send down to us a table from heaven? Jesus said: Fear Allah, if you are believers. They said: We only wish to eat of it and satisfy our hearts, and to know that you have indeed told us the truth and that we ourselves may be witnesses of it. Jesus, the son of Mary, said: O Allah our Lord! Send down to us a table from heaven, that there may be for us – the first and the last of us – a festival and a sign from you; and provide for our sustenance, for you are the best sustainer. Allah said: I will send it down to you; but if any of you after that resists faith I will punish him with a penalty such as I have not inflicted on anyone among all the peoples. (5:112-115)
Although some commentators on the Quran see in this passage allusions to the multiplication of loaves (Mark 6:30-44 and parallels) and/or to the vision of Peter at Joppa, when he sees a linen sheet filled with ritually unclean animals let down onto the earth and he is commanded to eat (Acts 10:9ff.), all recognize that the main allusion here is to the Eucharist. The apostles ask Jesus to bring down from heaven a m?ida, a table spread for a meal, to convince them that he has truly been sent by God. Then Jesus himself makes this request to God, and God promises to fulfil the request. The passage states that the m?ida is a gift from heaven (v.112) and that it will be a festival (the Arabic term ?d indicates a regularly recurring festival, possibly alluding to Easter and to every Sunday), a festival to the end of time (for the first and the last); it will also bring deep peace (tuman?na v.113) to the hearts of those who share in it; they must bear witness about it (v.113), while those who are unbelieving after they have received this m?ida will be punished severely (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32).
III. Christian Perspectives
From earliest times, the Eucharist has been at the heart of the Churchs worship. In it is celebrated the memory of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is alive as the one raised from the dead by God and so he remains always present with the Church: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). At its celebrations of the Eucharist the Christian congregation gathers together and knows Jesus Christ to be present in its midst – according to the saying of Jesus that has been passed down: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20). The congregation prays and hears Gods word, as it is communicated in Scripture; here also Christ, the Word of God, is present.
Then the congregation performs what the New Testament accounts tell us Jesus did at his last meal, on the evening before he suffered: over bread and the cup of wine he uttered the prayers of thanksgiving and blessing and then in the broken bread and in the outpoured wine he gave himself to the disciples. In the blessed gifts of bread and wine Jesus shares his very self as the one who offers himself up so that human beings might be redeemed and set free from sin and guilt. Whenever the Christian congregation is gathered for the Eucharist (thanksgiving), it celebrates the memory of this self-offering or sacrifice, confident in the faith that Jesus is present and that when the prayers of thanksgiving and blessing are said over the bread and wine he gives himself to the believers as they receive this holy sacrament. Those who celebrate this memory and receive Jesus in the gifts are introduced by him into his own trusting relationship with God, his Father, and into his self-offering for humanity. Thus those who celebrate the Eucharist together are transformed and taken into the Body of Christ.
In all of this, the bread and wine remain unaltered in their concrete, physical, material reality; the form (or species, to use the technical Latin term) of bread and wine is entirely preserved. But the bread and wine are taken into a new context, where they acquire a new significance and reality: in them the Jesus Christ who is alive in God gives his very self. Bread and wine thus gain an entirely new meaning, given by Jesus Christ himself and based in God himself. But because a reality ultimately is what it is before God, it is necessary to say that in the Eucharist bread and wine are transformed in their deepest reality: their deepest reality is now that they communicate the presence of Jesus Christ. This also clarifies what is meant by the Catholic doctrine of the Transubstantiation of the bread and wine, the transformation of their essence: bread and wine are transformed in their deepest reality (in their metaphysical substance or their essence). Their deepest reality is no longer to provide nourishment and pleasure for the earthly lives of human beings, but rather to communicate the presence of Jesus as nourishment for eternal life (cf. John 6). Considered in their physical aspects, bread and wine remain unchanged; Jesus does not become bread and wine in their physical reality. So Jesus is not chewed when the bread is eaten; he does not restrict himself into the small space of the bread; he does not suffer when the bread is broken. Rather than expressing the Churchs teaching on the Eucharist, such ideas contradict it.
IV. Christian Responses
1. In dialogue with Muslims who are familiar with the Quran, it is always good to make the story of al-m?ida ones starting-point.47 As bidden by Jesus, we gather at this m?ida or table, which Jesus has left behind him as a memorial of the end of his earthly life. The Christian can thus also mention the suffering and the death of Jesus on the cross, while being well aware that the Quran – as interpreted by virtually all Muslims – explicitly denies this death.
2. Bread and wine are used when the Eucharist is celebrated because Jesus himself used them at the Last Supper to express his self-offering. Among the people of Israel, bread and wine were basic forms of food and drink and the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup of wine were prominent and significant rituals at festival meals. What Jesus did at the Last Supper was thus linked to existing traditions. In faithfulness to its historical origins, the Church has also used bread and wine when celebrating the Eucharist. There have been some changes in the details of the eucharistic rituals and practices. Thus, instead of the bread that was broken and distributed at the festival, in due course use was made of wafers (hosts) that could be broken up into smaller pieces; these, however, scarcely resembled bread. Today hosts are used which can more readily be seen as bread.
In Israel it was in general permitted to drink wine, which is seen as a gift from God, bringing joy to human hearts (Psalm 104:15). At the feast anticipated at the end of time, prepared for all people, there will be served the finest, choice wines (Isaiah 25:6). In the Eucharist there is a living hope for this fulfilment at the end of time in the kingdom of God; here also, therefore, the fruit of the vine is drunk (cf. Matthew 14:25). For wine to be obtained, however, the grapes must first be trampled in the wine-press (cf. Isaiah 16:10). Thus it is that the cup of wine from which we drink at the Eucharist speaks of the life of Jesus offered for human beings. This self-offering, and in it the reconciling love of God, the outpouring of divine life, are given to the believer in the Eucharist (communion). This spiritual nourishment is the meaning of the Eucharist.
3. Belief in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is closely connected with belief in Gods becoming human in Jesus Christ (the Incarnation). In the humanity of Jesus, and in his sacrifice on behalf of many, God is present in the world and reveals himself unreservedly and definitively as reconciling love. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The life of Jesus is a life entirely in God and through his dying he was taken up into the life of God (Resurrection, glorification). Living in God, he is present to the world. We can therefore meet him, pray to him and listen to him everywhere. However, there are distinct ways in which he communicates his presence (just as a person can show his presence to another in distinct ways: through speech, gestures and actions or even through a pregnant silence). The Eucharist is an especially significant and privileged way through which Christ is present: he communicates himself in the concrete, visible gifts of bread and wine in order to establish a deep and inward spiritual communion with and between believers. This communion is the source of the Churchs life.
4. The bread and wine over which the prayers of thanksgiving and blessing are spoken at a celebration of the Eucharist, and in which Christ is believed to be present, are normally distributed to be eaten and drunk there and then. However, from the early days of the Church a portion of the blessed, consecrated bread has been preserved so that those who are unable to attend the service – the old, the sick, the disabled – might also be able to share in the celebration of the Eucharist. Since it is part of Catholic belief that Christ is present and remains present in the eucharistic bread, this is treated with reverence, even after the service. It is kept in a dignified place in a so called tabernacle and this place is indicated by a burning light, such as an oil-lamp or a candle. Respect for the presence of Christ in the bread is shown through particular signs and gestures, such as bowing and genuflecting. This does not, however, mean that the consecrated bread itself is worshipped; the worship is directed to Christ himself. Such forms of eucharistic veneration must remain closely tied to the actual celebration of the Eucharist, with its prayers of thanksgiving and blessing and the receiving of communion in the gathered congregation.
5. The Eucharist and all other liturgical services can be celebrated in places of various types and sizes, such as churches, chapels, large halls and so on. On Sundays, however, Christians are called, as far as possible, to gather for the celebration of the Eucharist in the local parish church.