Within the Christian Church we often use special names for our practices. It can be especially confusing, however, when we use multiple special names for the same thing!
A prime example is the multiplicity of names that you may hear for the rite that is commonly known as the Lord’s Supper. Now, that particular ancient designation (1 Corinthians 11:20) is pretty obvious since it was at an evening Passover meal with His disciples that our Lord instituted it. Similarly obvious is the less-common designation as The Lord’s Table which reflects that Jesus and his disciples were seated around a table (think of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper). However, other names that we use are less obvious!
Lutherans recognize two sacraments, by which we mean holy rites commanded by Jesus that convey spiritual blessings. Baptism we practice at the baptismal font, and this one at the altar. Thus we have the designation as Sacrament of the Altar (though somewhat oddly, you don’t seem to ever hear references to the “Sacrament of the Font.”) This name does not appear in the Bible and would obviously not be favored by those Protestant Christians who consider this a reverent meal of remembrance rather than a sacrament as such.
The designation as Holy Communion (or simply “Communion”) is perhaps the most common name used for this rite, although its derivation is less obvious than the prior ones. Unlike the others we’re discussing, this name reflects an understanding of what the rite means, rather than the circumstances of its origin or practice. One might plausibly think the name reflects the fact that this is a rite practiced within the community of believers but, that is not the reason for the name. Rather, it comes from 1 Corinthians 10:16 where the Apostle Paul writes:
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
The Greek word koinonia which is here translated as “participation” can also be rendered as “fellowship,” “sharing,” or “communion.” It was the use of the latter word in the familiar King James Version of the Bible which provided the common English name for this meal. This idea of “communion with Christ” is entirely consistent with the Lutheran belief that Christ is really present in this meal and that is, of course, also why it is “Holy.”
The Breaking of Bread, a name which appears in the Bible (Acts 20:7), seems to not be as common in Lutheran circles as in some others. It refers to the way Jesus “broke the bread” in the gospel accounts of the Lord’s Supper (e.g., Matthew 26:26) and reminds us that this is a meal of fellowship where we are all fed from a common “loaf” – Jesus Himself.
Eucharist (pronounced “YOU-kah-rist”) is a more formal term that is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” Early Christians called it this because Jesus gave thanks before He broke the bread (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). The word also conveys the ideas of grace and gratitude, and thus is an apt way to express the experience of a Christian receiving the sacrament. The idea of joyful thanksgiving is also reflected in the way we talk about celebrating the Eucharist.
The term Mass is most commonly associated with Roman Catholic practice and is infrequently used in Protestant circles today, though this was the term used by Martin Luther and the other early Protestant reformers. Its derivation is somewhat obscure, but probably came from a corruption of the Latin word for “dismissal” which was spoken at the close of the liturgy. Catholics generally use “Mass” to refer to the entire liturgy during which the sacrament is offered, so although there’s certainly nothing wrong with a Lutheran using the term, it does confuse people if we use it as a synonym for the Communion/Eucharist which is one part of our service.
There are still other names that may be encountered. Of course, what is important is not the name we use, but rather that in this holy meal we are nourished for our journey of faith by the body and blood of Jesus Christ made present for us “in with and under” the bread and wine.