The destructive shift in the Church’s communion meal — from celebratory feast to solemn service — reached the lowest point of its departure from the Scriptural witness and the faithful practice of the earliest Christians during the Middle Ages. The move from table to altar, from a celebration of Christ’s resurrection and reign to an introspective and remorseful remembrance of the crucifixion, was well underway. Prayers and rituals designed by church officials to scare nominal Christians into better living were certainly having an impact. Priests and bishops pounded church members with the notion that unfaithful living during the week prohibited one from eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ on Sunday. To partake of the communion bread and cup in this “unworthy” manner would result in eternal damnation. So you must straighten up if you’re going to do communion.
Oops. Church officials never considered that church goers might just stop doing communion.
Over the years, people just stopped going forward for the bread and cup. It was too scary, too risky, too dangerous. Go to hell if I’m not worthy of the communion? Well, how was one to know? Who’s truly worthy? I think I’ve been good all week, but what if I’ve missed something? So people began to just stay in their seats during communion time, turning the interactive participatory feast into mainly a spectator event.
The doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and the wine actually turn into the literal and actual body and blood of Jesus at the words of sanctification, had done a real number on communion. Consider the progression of thought and practice during the middle ages:
Instead of a festive table, communion had become the solemn altar where Jesus was re-sacrificed every Sunday. Cyril of Jerusalem’s communion prayers contained the words, “We offer Christ who has been slain for our sins.” Gregory Nazianzus wrote communion instructions to his church, reminding his parishioners “we sacrifice the Master’s body with bloodless knife.”
Special unleavened bread was introduced in the 900s. Instead of common table bread that had been used by the Church for nearly a millennium, priests and bishops needed the elements to be more ritualistic, more distinctive than what one would find in their own pantries. So they began using a pure, white wafer of unleavened bread, specially baked by sanctified hands, to symbolize the pure and incorruptible priestly sacrifice. This made the bread more mysterious, more sanctified. And it caused the ceremony to be even more connected to that last supper Jesus ate the night before his death.
Eventually, the cup itself was taken from the people. Spilling the actual blood of Jesus would be an unforgivable offense; only the ordained priests could be trusted with such a precious responsibility. So communion became the swallowing of a thin, flavorless wafer and nothing with which to wash it down. The priests were the only ones drinking the wine in more and more elaborate ceremonial style. These elements contained power. They had to be treated with reverence and awe. The bread and the wine were said to confer blessing, to heal disease, to protect from evil. Only the clergy could handle it. As a result, fewer people were coming forward for any of it at all.
By the Lateran Council of 1215, the Church was officially recommending that Christians partake of communion once a year. On the other 51 Sundays, people were encouraged to pray their own individual prayers during the ceremony. Prayer beads and prayer books were introduced to keep the laity occupied while the clergy did their thing with communion down front. The Lord’s Supper became more and more personal. It was private, just between you and God while the priests did the eating and drinking on behalf of the church. With all the robes and banners and magic words and smoke, the emphasis was much more on the adoration of Christ, instead of communion with Christ.
Few have seriously attempted to renew the original table aspect of the communion feast. It’s not an easy thing to do. In order to change what had evolved (or devolved) over the course of a thousand years means taking a highly critical stance against Church tradition. And it requires a strong restoration impulse, a deep desire to go back to what was original and unblemished. But by the mid 1400s, several reformers had said, “Enough is enough!”