What is communion? Why do Christians do it? What does it mean? All of these questions will be addressed in this article. Also, we will discuss the difference in beliefs and practices between Christian and Catholic Communion, which can sometimes cause confusion when someone has heard about one but not the other. Christianity basically has only two symbolic acts - one is Baptism, and the other is Communion. I have already discussed Baptism here, so now let's look at Communion.
What is Communion?
Communion (also known as "The Lord's Supper") is a special act done by Christians either in churches or sometimes in small groups. It was first introduced by Jesus himself to his disciples just a few days before he was crucified. The full description can be found in Luke 22:19-20, Mark 14:22-24, or Matthew 26:26-28.
At this time Jesus and his disciples were having dinner in a private room, when:
"Jesus took some bread in his hands and gave thanks for it. He broke the bread and handed it to his apostles. Then he said 'This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this as a way of remembering me!'. After the meal he took another cup of wine in his hands. Then he said, 'This is my blood. It is poured out for you, and with it God makes his new agreement." (Luke 22:19-20).
This is also repeated by Paul when he writes to the Corinthians:
"He took some bread in his hands. Then after he had given thanks, he broke it and said 'This is my body, which is given for you. Eat this and remember me.' After the meal Jesus took a cup of wine in his hands and said, 'This is my blood, and with it God makes his new agreement with you. Drink this and remember me.' The Lord meant that when you eat this bread and drink from this cup, you tell about his death until he comes." (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
So as we have seen, Jesus started the practice of Communion in order for his followers to have a practical, real way of remembering Jesus' death and sacrifice. This was passed on to the other early churches through the disciples, and has continued up even to modern times. In churches nowadays, Communion is usually served once a month, although sometimes less often. It is also usually served at Christmas and Easter. The pastor will pray and thank God for Jesus' sacrifice, and will then pass out the bread and cups. Instead of wine, most churches today use either grape juice or cranberry juice instead of wine (since minors and children may participate in Communion), which is poured into a small single-serving disposable cup for hygienic reasons. Each person takes a cup and a small piece of bread (which is sometimes a cracker, pre-cut bread, or sometimes rips a small piece off a loaf of bread). Then the pastor prays again, and everyone eats the bread and drinks the juice.
When and how should Communion be done?
I have seen Communion done in many different ways, but there is no set way that it must be done. As long as people are remembering Jesus sacrifice, that's all that matters. Some churches have everyone line up and the pastor will personally pass each one the cup and bread. Sometimes they pass it up and down the rows, similar to the tithing plate, and everyone takes a cup and piece of bread. Other times it can be done when people gather in small groups of about 5-10, and a leader will take the bread and juice, pray, pass it out to the others, and everyone eats it together. In Catholic services typically the priest will serve Communion directly to the person, even going to far as to place the bread (called a "wafer" or "host" in Catholicism) into the person's mouth for them. I've always found this a little creepy, and think it's unnecessary - Jesus did not put the food directly into his disciples mouths, they passed it around. Similarly, we don't have to rely on a priest to serve it - any mature Christian can serve Communion to others. I believe that Communion can be done in groups as small as 2-3 people, and it doesn't have to be in a church. Jesus said "Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you." (Matthew 18:20). I believe this indicates you can do Communion at home, in hospitals, in small Bible Study groups, or wherever, as long as you believe in Jesus.
There are some instructions on how we should approach Communion. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 Paul says, "But if you eat the bread and drink the wine in a way that isn't worthy of the Lord, you sin against his body and blood. That's why you must examine the way you eat and drink. If you fail to understand that you are the body of the Lord, you will condemn yourselves by the way you eat and drink. That's why many of you are sick and weak and why a lot of others have died. If we carefully judge ourselves, we won't be punished.". This means that before you take Communion, you must examine your own motives for doing it. Are you doing it to personally remember Jesus' sacrifice? Or are you doing it either because everyone else is, or because someone else expects you to, or just because it's a tradition?
If you don't actually believe in Jesus' sacrifice for your sins, you should not have Communion - this is what Paul means by sinning against the body of Jesus. If you take it without first reflecting on why you need Communion, and without being sorry for your sins, then you also sin against the body of Jesus. For example, if a drug dealer comes in, has communion, doesn't repent of his sins and goes straight back to drug dealing, when the drug dealer appears before Jesus in heaven, Jesus will not be happy. We will all sin again unintentionally after having Communion, but at least we should admit that we have sinned, are sorry for it, try not to do it again, and realize that without Jesus' sacrifice we would have no way of being saved.
Because of the requirement that to take Communion a person must recognize that they are a sinner and that Jesus' death paid for the sins in their place, not everyone can have Communion. Children who are too young to understand this should not have communion. I believe that people who are mentally handicapped to the point where they cannot understand the Bible are in the same category as children, and should not have Communion. There is no set time when a child can have their first Communion - it is up to the parent to judge if their kid understands enough to participate. Non-Christians should not have Communion - if they are visiting a church, it is perfectly fine to just sit there quietly or pass the juice/bread on without taking anything. Any Christian is free to have Communion - it shouldn't matter if they are at their home church or not. If a church is really silly enough to only allow members to have Communion, I think they are missing the point of it.
Does the bread and wine become Jesus' body and blood once we eat it?
This idea that the bread and juice/wine physically turn into Jesus' flesh and blood once they are eaten is more popular in Catholicism - this is sometimes called "transubstantiation" . However, most Christians do not support this idea, and do not believe it. Communion does not literally mean "eating Jesus". It is just a symbol meant to help us remember Jesus' death on the cross to pay for our sins. By personally eating the bread and drinking the juice, it helps each person realize that Jesus died for (and because of) them. Jesus never suggested that Communion was anything more than a symbolic way of remembering his sacrifice. There are plenty of other times in the Bible when Jesus said things in a metaphorical way that are not interpreted literally (e.g. "the yeast of the Pharisees" (Mark 8:15), a man having to be "born again" (John 3:3), etc.) In the Old Testament God clearly forbids people from eating meat with blood in or drinking blood (Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 17:10-14). I don't believe God would cancel this rule and magically turn the bread and wine into flesh and blood once his Children have eaten it. It's a rather disgusting idea, and is not necessary.
Is Communion necessary?
It never says in the Bible that someone must take Communion in order to be saved. The thief on the cross had not been baptized or ever had Communion, and still Jesus told him "I promise that today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43). Communion is a useful tool to remind us that Jesus' death affects each of us personally. There are no rules about when or how often Communion must be done - it is up to the individual. If you feel that having Communion every month is too often and it ruins the specialness of it, then you shouldn't have it every month. Save it for when you really feel you want to do it. I believe it is useful to have Communion at least once every 3-6 months, and especially at Easter, but that is just me.
I hope that this discussion has enlightened you about why and how the Christian tradition of Communion is practiced. It is not necessary for salvation, and there is a lot of flexibility in exactly how and when it is practiced. The important thing is that it helps us remember and personally understand how Jesus' death on the cross has paid for each of our sins.