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Differences In Christianities, Part 3

In previous columns, I tried to delineate some of the differences among the three major forms of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. I conclude here with a look at the various interpretations of the most sacred Christian ritual: the Eucharist. I have received the Eucharist in several different churches, and I can vouch for the power of this sacrament.

Also known by other names — including Holy Communion and Lord’s Supper — the Eucharist commemorates the Last Supper, when Christ and his disciples shared bread and wine. During this meal, Christ equated the bread and wine with his own flesh and blood that would serve as an offering for the sins of humanity. In other words, the Eucharist is where the sins of humanity meet the forgiveness of God. Those who are denied the Eucharist, therefore, are denied the forgiveness of sins. In general, only those who have confessed faith in Christ are allowed to participate in the Eucharist.

The overwhelming majority of Christian churches observe the Eucharist in some fashion. They all may not agree on exactly what it means, or how to observe it, or how often to observe it, but in general they agree it is the foundation of their faith: the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world.

Part of the reason for the disagreement among Christian churches regarding the Eucharist is the gospels themselves don’t agree when Jesus died. In short, the gospels contradict each other when it comes to the most important Christian ritual.

According to the Gospel of Mark (Matthew and Luke too, since in the view of scholars, they copied Mark), Jesus was crucified the morning after Passover. The Last Supper Christ had with his disciples, therefore, was the Passover meal. Passover is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Exodus, when God — through Moses — led his people out of spiritual bondage in Egypt. During Passover, Jews eat unleavened bread, which means that when Jesus said the bread was his body, he meant unleavened bread. This explains why Catholics and most Protestants use unleavened bread for their Eucharist.

Orthodox Christians, however, follow the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John states Jesus died at about noon on the day before Passover. This is one day earlier than what the other gospels say. This means the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples was not the Passover meal. And if it was not Passover, the bread eaten was leavened bread, not unleavened. For this reason, Orthodox Christians celebrate the Eucharist with leavened bread, not the cracker-like wafer used in Catholic and many Protestant churches.

Because John has Jesus dying when the Passover meal was being prepared, only John’s Gospel calls Jesus the “lamb of God” and the “bread of life” and the “true vine.” Jews have bread, lamb and wine, among other foods, during Passover. For John, Jesus’ death symbolized the new Passover meal. Matthew, Mark and Luke do not refer to Jesus as “lamb of God,” “bread of life” or “true vine.” It wouldn’t make much sense to do so, since these gospels have Jesus dying when the Passover meal already was finished.

One may wonder, why the bother with what kind of bread to use for the Eucharist? It matters. (Indeed, religious wars have been waged over the issue.) For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, the wine is not just wine and the bread is not simply bread. The wine is the actual blood of Christ and the bread is his literal body. It matters, therefore, which type of bread Jesus meant when he said, “This is my body.” Was it leavened or unleavened bread? To get the bread wrong is to miss out on Christ. Put another way, only one group of Christians really is eating Jesus; the other is simply having a snack.

As I mentioned in a previous column on the different kinds of Christianities, Protestant Christianity refers to a large and diverse collection of Christian groups that share little in common except for the fact that they are not Orthodox or Catholic. Some interpret the Bible literally, others take a symbolic approach; some believe Christ actually is present in the bread and wine (Episcopalians, Lutherans), but most Protestant Christians believe the presence of Christ is symbolic. Because most Protestant Christians believe the bread and wine are not the actual flesh and blood of Christ, but symbolize them instead, actual wine need not be used for the ritual. Grape juice or even water can be substituted. (Interestingly, many Protestant Christians interpret the Bible literally except when it comes to the Eucharist.)

In conclusion, many are familiar with the Christian insistence that there is only one truth and only one way to it. Yet the sheer number of different forms of Christianities and different beliefs and different practices and even different Bibles tells us otherwise.

Who, then, are the true Christians?

Ultimately only God knows, but I’d place my bet on the ones who are kind, accepting and forgiving, regardless of which church they belong to or, indeed, regardless of whether or not they go to church at all. Those who write nasty emails to MidWeek columnists probably are Christians of a different sort.