I should probably hand over my Protestant membership card (assuming I ever had one) for how much thought I’ve given to the Eucharist lately: just how essential is it to Christian worship? Is it the literal body and blood of Christ, or purely symbolic?
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre offers one of the most comprehensive explanations for those questions that I’ve ever read. A few years ago, I would have been solidly in the “purely symbolic” camp. I can’t say my mind has been officially changed, but now I can say this: I think there is a good deal of sacred mystery involved. Maybe I don’t need to know if it’s “real” or “not real.” Lose the mystery, lose the wonder. It also helps to know that the Episcopal Church does not come down heavily in favor of either side.
Regardless of what you believe about the Eucharist (or communion or whatever your tradition calls it), you begin with the same substance every time: bread. If there’s one thing that links Judaism and Christianity together in history, it is the importance that is given to bread. Manna, or bread from heaven, sustained the Jews as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Matzoh, or unleavened bread, is both a symbol and an ingredient included in the Passover meal, as it reminds us of the haste in which the Jews fled to escape slavery under Pharaoh.
And who can forget the importance of challah bread, baked with care in Jewish kitchens all over the world to commemorate the beginning of the Sabbath. Not only is it delicious, but as a recipe that was traditionally passed down from mother to daughter, it has also become a kind of feminist symbol.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the Eucharist for me is the part of remembrance: “Do this is in remembrance of me.” That part is the most Jewish part of the whole thing, if I can say that loosely. My friend Helena, another Jew-scopalian (hehe), calls it a type of yahrzeit — the Yiddish word that refers to a death anniversary. Jews light a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and recite the mourner’s prayer. In the Episcopal Church, and other liturgical churches, we essentially carry out the same ritual with the bread and the wine.
Put in that perspective, the Eucharist becomes so much more personal to me.