Wine? Juice? Water? Wheat bread? What should be served at Holy Eucharist?


Why do some Christians use (unfermented) grape juice or leavened bread in Communion since what was on the table at the Last Supper was almost certainly unleavened bread and fermented wine?


The Bible records that on the night of Jesus’ arrest he blessed and distributed bread saying “take; this is my body,”  and shared a cup saying “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” He concluded with “do this in remembrance of me,” and billions of Christians have done just that across the centuries in rites known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Mass, Holy Eucharist or Divine Liturgy.

Historians assume that, yes, Jesus’ “Last Supper” would have consisted of commonplace fermented wine, not fresh and non-alcoholic grape juice, and bread without leavening since this occurred during Jewish Passover. Modern Christians differ on the elements they serve, as we’ll see, but there’s a limit. Believers were offended by a TV ad produced for the 2011 Super Bowl (but never aired) with a pastor boosting church attendance by providing sacramental Doritos and Pepsi.

Roman Catholic canon law is precise about using the literal elements from the Last Supper at daily Masses. The bread, typically wafers (“hosts”), “must be only wheat” so gluten is mandatory, and also unleavened to preserve “ancient tradition.” The wine must be alcoholic and not grape juice, mixed with some water as ancient Jews would have done.

Those rules are problems for priests and parishioners who shun wheat gluten due to celiac disease, or alcoholic beverages due to alcoholism. A 2003 Vatican edict sought to help while upholding  tradition. With the bishop’s approval, priests my now offer wafers with gluten content as low as one-hundredth of a percent. Similarly allowed is “mustum” wine with fermentation halted soon after it begins so alcohol content is under 1 percent. But some alcohol is required so non-alcoholic mustum or pasteurized grape juice are “invalid matter for Mass.”

This edict also said worshippers may consume only a “small amount” of such low-gluten wafers or low-alcohol wine. The canons provide that a Catholic may receive Communion in the form of bread alone (which commonly occurs anyway) and also “wine alone in a case of necessity.” Thus the only remaining difficulty is for an alcoholic who also has celiac disease.

Eastern Orthodox churches, which celebrate only on Sundays and feast days (as well as the ancient "Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts" rites of Great Lent), likewise insist that the wine be alcoholic, but customarily use leavened bread. While Catholicism accepts wine of any color the Orthodox drink only red as a symbol of Jesus’ blood. 

Continue reading "What should be served at Holy Communion?" by Richard Ostling.

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