Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Theology Tuesday: A Minor Apologia for the Eucharist as Altar (With Caveats)

Despite a dearth of historical details within the New Testament canon concerning what has been variously called the “breaking of bread (1),” “Eucharist (2),” “Lord’s Supper (3),” “table of the Lord (4),” and “communion (5),” there are a litany of associations—historically and theologically—which have ensured that the precise nature of the meal “is one of the most warmly debated topics of New Testament history and interpretation” (Martin 2007, 696). In part, the ‘warm debate’ is fueled by the fact that the Lord’s Supper is theologically “a deep well, the depths of which have yet to be plumbed” (Niccum 2008). As will be argued, the significance of the meal is best grasped when understood within the context of the Passover observance and within the interpretive framework of the early church’s later understanding and reflection upon it as sacrificial memorial (anamnesis) and incarnational sacrament (epiclesis), a position best reflected as ‘altar’.

It is difficult, in light of later liturgical development, to argue that “God never intended an altar” as John Mark Hicks does (Hicks 2002, 13), but it is not as difficult to sense that the Eucharist was instituted within the context of a communal meal or ‘table’—the Passover feast (Stein 1992, 446). The most important accounts of the Last Supper are in Matthew 26: 26-29; Mark 14: 22-25; Luke 22: 15-20; and 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 (see note 6)--which fall into two distinct groupings (table adapted from Stein 1992, 445):

Matthew/ Mark     
Luke/ 1 Corinthians
“blessed” bread
“gave thanks” bread
[lack “Take”]
“this is my body”
“this is my body + which is…you”
[lack “This do in remembrance”
“This do in my remembrance”
“this cup”
“thanks” before cup
[lack “thanks before cup”]
reference to all drinking of the cup
[lack reference to all drinking of the cup]
“my blood of the covenant”
“new covenant in my blood”
“which is poured out for many”
Luke has “which is poured out for you” [not in 1 Cor.]

Though not exhaustive, some of the traditional evidences given to support the Passover context are:

  • the reclining postures of the dinner guests (Mk. 14:18), 
  • the use of a bitter ‘sop’ commemorating the Egyptian bondage, 
  • the interpretation of elements customary for a Passover observance (Ex. 12: 26-27), 
  • the singing of the Hallel psalms (7) as a customary ending to the feast (Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26), 
  • the customary distribution of money to the poor (Jn. 13:29)(Stein 1992, 446; Martin 2007, 696). 
Further evidence for a ‘table’ quality of the Lord’s Supper is found in the Pauline account of the Eucharist, which is situated within the context of a fellowship or agape (‘love’) meal (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Despite this fact, the meals are pregnant with the later seeds of liturgical development as the ‘memorial’ quality of remembering Christ’s sacrifice on the cross are beginning to be reckoned within the anamnesis of the Christian communities (“Do this in memory of me” Lk. 22:10; 1 Cor. 11: 24-25).

The story of the shift from the Eucharist framed in an agape meal, to the Eucharist divorced from this context, is the shift from worship in the domus ecclesiae (house church) to the public church meetings in the ecclesial basilicas and buildings in the fourth century (Hicks 2002, 133; Rouillard 1979, 46). At this historical point (8), a combination of forces were restructuring the liturgical quality of the Eucharist and changing the trajectory of its development within the early church. 

The architectural changes experienced at this time were an important part of the shift from table to altar—in this case, a literal change to the stone altars of the public basilicas (Rouillard 1979, 46). In partnership with this was an overarching understanding of the Eucharist theologically in terms of ‘memorial,’ ‘thanksgiving,’ and ‘sacrifice’ (Halliburton 1992, 246-247) as well as the growing tendency to associate the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrifice of the martyrs (9)(Krouse 2007, 40) This shift was significant, for reasons sometimes given that are negative (see list Hicks 2002, 154), but reflected on more positively within the liturgy (see for example Ambrose’s Eucharistic prayer in Yarnold 1992, 233). 

Though beyond the scope of this blog post, a brief reflection on the appropriateness of the switch from ‘table’ to ‘altar’ within the consensus of the church’s liturgical practice is in order. As has been noted, when considering matters of church authority and the theme of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi,’ the encounter of practices with near universal consensus (10) within the church speaks powerfully to the fact “that the history of the Church has, under divine guidance, taken the ‘right’ course (Wainwright 1980, 241). Though not a reason for rejecting critical reflection upon church liturgical practices, this consensus must weigh heavily in favor of ‘altar’ within discussions of ‘altar vs. table.’ 

Though difficult to encompass completely with either metaphor—altar or table—the reflection upon the Lord’s Supper by the western theologian is perhaps aided by understanding the Eastern tendency to celebrate the Eucharist on an altar that is a table—the hagia trapeza, or holy table (11). Admittedly, this is a liturgical development peculiar to a particular Christian tradition (in this case, the Eastern church) and it may not be realistic or appropriate to expect implementation in other traditions. Nonetheless, in the search for ways to understand the “deep well” of the Eucharist, any and every help for grasping the eschatological, sacrificial, and communal quality of the meal is welcome. 

It is perhaps important to be critical of both views, such as the Protestant tendency to view the Eucharist in terms of “an external sign of an inward grace” or as purely symbolic liturgy. The advantage of the ‘table’ view of the Eucharist is the capture of the communal intention of the meal. It is communion not just with God but also with one another—in other words, in the Lord’s Supper we are drawn into the highest expression of love for people—Christ’s death on the cross—a sacrifice we are then called to emulate ourselves. The advantage of the ‘altar’ view is that it honors the sacrifice and commemoration of the cross. In either case, the Lord’s Supper is “traveling food,” (Niccum 2008), with a view to our past while in the eschatological hope for all time in the Christian heart, “we proclaim [the present] his death [the past] until he comes [the future]” (1 Cor. 11:26)—ἔρχου, κύριε Ἰησοῦ.  (Rev. 22:20)! 


1. Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11
2. Mt. 26:27; Mk. 14:23; Lk. 22:17, 19; 1 Co. 11:24
3. 1 Cor. 11:20
4. 1 Cor. 10:21
5. 1 Cor. 10:16
6. In addition to these references, it has been suggested that even the Johannine Gospel material in general is an extended metaphorical reflection upon the two most important sacraments: baptism and Eucharist—in the context of an ancient biography (Niccum 2008).
7. Psalms 113-118
8. Generally during the Patristic Period (c. 100-451 CE).
9. This practice was rooted in the notion that a communion of saints was present at the Eucharist, and small stone tables were erected in the catacombs at the tombs on notable martyrs, a practice which evolved over time (Krouse 2007, 40).
10. Thought not nearly as ‘universal’ a practice since the Protestant Reformation, a reflection upon past practices will appreciate that the ‘altar’ view of the Eucharist has reflected a majority consensus throughout most of church history (Jones 1992, 184-338)
11. Though not discussed in this essay in detail and admittedly a creative solution to the problem of ‘altar vs. table’, perhaps this is a vein for fruitful liturgical reflection in the future (Rouillard 1979, 48).

For Further Reading

Halliburton, R.J. 1992. “The Patristic Theology of the Eucharist.” The Study of Liturgy. Ed. Cheslyn Jones et al. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hicks, John Mark. 2002. Come to the Table: Revisioning the Lord’s Supper. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers.

Jones, Cheslyn, et al. 1992. The Study of Liturgy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Krouse, Dennis. 2007. “Altar.” An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies. Ed. Orlando Espin and James Nickoloff. Downers Grove, Illinois: Liturgical Press.

Martin, R.P. 2007. “Lord’s Supper.” New Bible Dictionary. Ed. Joel Green and Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.

Niccum, Curt. 2008. “The Lord’s Supper in the Past.” Lecture presented at Memorial Road Church of Christ. July 2. Edmond, Oklahoma

Rouillard, Philippe. “From Human Meal to Christian Eucharist.” Worship 53 (1979)

Stein, R.H. 1992. “Last Supper.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. I. Howard Marshall et al. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.

Wainwright, Geoffrey. 1980. Doxology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yarnold, E.J. 1992. “The Liturgy of the Faithful in the Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries.” The Study of Liturgy. Ed. Cheslyn Jones et al. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.