Many readers will recognize that the word Eucharist (pronounced ‘YOU-kah-rist’) is another name by which we refer to the Christian rite which we commonly refer to as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, etc. Yet few would be able to explain what that unusual word actually means, and/or why it is an appropriate name for this sacrament.
When we hear Eucharist used interchangeably with those other names, we might assume a similar meaning. But that’s not the case! Or perhaps, knowing that Eucharist is the preferred term used for this central part of the Catholic Mass, it might be assumed that the term might somehow express the Catholic understanding of the ongoing sacrifice of Christ through this sacrament. That’s also not the case! Nor does it somehow express the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the bread/wine consumed in this sacramental meal. In fact, the word Eucharist doesn’t refer to the person of Jesus, His act of redemption, or even a physical aspect of the meal.
The somewhat surprising fact is that Eucharist is derived from a Greek word for ‘thanksgiving.’ Does that seem a bit odd? Of the emotions that come to mind when we think about the Sacrament of the Altar (yet another name) words like ‘reverent’ and ‘penitent’ may seem more appropriate than ‘thanksgiving.’ Yet, εὐχαριστία (‘thanksgiving’) is the word that seems to have been consistently used since the very beginning of the Church. But why? The answer is found in the way Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper:
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves.’ … And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body…’” (Luke 22:17-19 emphasis added)
Jesus’ words of institution at His Last Supper are also found in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Though the precise wording varies a bit, giving thanks appears prominently in each account and thus was an essential aspect of the meal for the earliest Christians. We see this reflected, for example, in the instructions given in the Didache, a manual of Christian practice that dates from the same general period as the New Testament writings:
“Celebrate the Eucharist as follows: Say over the cup: ‘we give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever’. Over the broken bread say: ‘we give you thanks, Father, for the life and the knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever.’” (emphasis added)
But the language of ‘thanksgiving’ didn’t end with those early Christians: it’s still everywhere in our own communion liturgy. Have you ever noticed, for example, the name of the prayer with which we open the Communion part of our liturgy? It’s called The Great Thanksgiving! Right before that, as the elements (bread and wine) are brought forward to the altar we say in the Offertory Prayer: “We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us.” Then, at the end of the meal we together sing: “Thank the Lord and sing his praise…” and finally we conclude with “we give You thanks” in the Post Communion Prayer. When you listen for it, the whole liturgy of Communion is suffused with thanksgiving!
But that’s not the end of it! ‘Eucharist’ is not just an obscure word we use, but also expresses a vital aspect of what Holy Communion is all about. You see, when we approach the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ, we do so not as beggars ‘hoping’ for spiritual gifts, nor as ones dutifully observing a religious obligation, but as beloved children, adopted in Baptism, coming to be fed with the heavenly food provided for our life and salvation. This is a meal of pure unconditional GRACE offered to repentant sinners – and that’s why our hearts can (and should) be filled with pure thanksgiving as we come forward to receive this gift — a Means of Grace that is the sure medicine for the guilt and doubt that sickens us. It is the promise of salvation sealed in the blood of Christ Himself!
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)