I took some time to see if and how the Protestant Churches in my town are observing Holy Thursday this evening. The local Episcopal Church observes a full schedule of the Triduum virtually parallel to the Roman Catholic rites, and refers to this day as Maundy Thursday, as did the Roman Catholic Church in my memory [though Holy Thursday was the more popular Catholic usage.] The term “Maundy” is derived from the Gospel of tonight’s Mass, where Jesus, after washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, tells them that “I have given you a new commandment” [mandatum, Latin “mandate”] to wash the feet of one another. [John 13: 1-15] It is curious that after Vatican II, when the official title of this day was confirmed as Holy Thursday in the Catholic world, other Christian Churches retain the name “Maundy.”
The Presbyterian Church is observing “Maundy Thursday” with a 6 PM Worship followed by a dinner. The Church of the Nazarene is conducting a 7 PM service. The Nazarenes are descendants of the Wesleyan evangelical tradition of the 1700’s which began when John Wesley’s evangelical preaching and theology created a radical break from the strict Calvinists. [A reformation of a reformation, you might say.] The Methodist Church here in town, also descendants of Wesley, is observing a “Maundy Service” at 7 PM. The Methodist guidelines are very interesting in that they parallel much of the Roman Catholic Thursday practice except for the Eucharistic procession. The two largest Baptist Churches in town have no reference to any Triduum-like observance except that one church is closing its office on Good Friday.
I have to say that some of these churches, which used to be quite powerful in town, appear to be much smaller now from information gathered on their websites, which suggests to me that Catholicism is not alone in its difficulties retaining members. I had started my search with the Lutheran Church, given that Martin Luther’s theology of the Eucharist is rather intense. The church here does not have a website, and I moved over to the Missouri Synod data base in search of a possible link, only to discover that the official membership of my neighbor church is less than 60. The Evangelical Lutheran national webpage indicates that the reception of communion is part of the Maundy Thursday rite where it is celebrated.
Given that Martin Luther rejected the term “transubstantiation” and that interfaith communion is not permitted in most circumstances in Roman Catholic discipline, there is a temptation to play down the sanctity of communion shared in the Reformation Churches and to accentuate “deficiencies” in the bread and cup shared in other denominations. This is an unfortunate and often inaccurate misunderstanding of what the many Christian churches celebrate in good faith around the world, including on Maundy/Holy Thursday. Vatican II states that while all truth necessary of salvation subsists in the Catholic Church, it also recognized the holiness of churches with good will who worship Christ in ways and rites that Catholic theology might describe as incomplete. The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptism administered by any church that baptizes in the Trinitarian formula.
It may be of some help to understand how Luther and others came to differ in defining the meaning of Eucharistic Presence. Christians from earliest times understood that Christ was present in “the breaking of the bread” and that there was true reception of the Lord in the Eucharistic rite. Christians believed that Jesus remained in the sacred species, as we know from ancient accounts of Eucharistic bread brought to the sick and prisoners. Exactly how this process took place—in what we might call scientific or analytic ways--was never much debated; reception of the Eucharist was and remains an act of faith, which is why we say “Amen” upon reception, a statement of belief.
The first analytical description of the Eucharist appears to have come from St. Paschasius Radbertus, a ninth century abbot, who coined the term transubstantiation, “the change of substance by which the bread and the wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the physical Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ.” Later, Thomas Aquinas adapted the Aristotelian terms of substance and accidents to round this definition into logical completeness: the essence or reality of a thing might change, but its outward qualities could remain the same. Not everyone accepted the Paschasius definition; in the 1050’s the first great debate in the Church on Eucharistic presence was sparked by Berengar of Tours, who countered that the elements of the bread and wine became symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass, and nothing more.
Berengar’s theory was condemned several times, but it persisted till the IV Lateran Council (1213-1215) which declared the process of change known as transubstantiation to be infallibly true. Eucharistic devotion was enhanced considerably through the high middle ages by the introduction of the Feast of Corpus Christi and the writings of Aquinas, whose work includes the majestic Pange Lingua sung during tonight’s Eucharistic Procession after communion. The next serious challenge to Eucharistic doctrine came with the reformers of the late medieval era, whose primary focus was not so much the idea of communion as the philosophical system which described it. I discussed on this stream a few weeks ago the writings of the Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham, who maintained among other things that the claims of Thomistic philosophy (known generically as scholasticism) were excessive and basically faulty. Ockham is remembered today for a competing philosophy of reality called nominalism which holds that the best we can know about anything is its name (from the Latin nomen, name.)
Martin Luther was well versed in philosophy, and his sympathies lay with Ockham. He found the Thomistic or scholastic approach to reality excessive in its hold on the Church. He turned to Sacred Scripture itself and did not find basis for the process of transubstantiation. He did not deny Real Presence and searched for another way of explaining it. He came to accept a term used by the earlier reformers the Lollards, consubstantiation, whereby the real body and blood of Christ is present alongside the substance of the bread and wine. This is essentially what Lutheran theology holds todays.
The first reformer to outright deny Real Presence was Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). He broke relations with Luther on issues of the Mass and the Eucharist. Zwingli, whose radical thinking profoundly divided the Reformation, held that transubstantiation was impossible because the Mass itself was a presumptuous denial of Scripture. He argued that the Bible defined Christ’s death as a one-time event which was sufficient for all men in all times. To repeat it in worship was viewed by Zwingli as a blasphemy against the Bible. John Calvin, when he arrived on the scene, also denied transubstantiation and Real Presence, but he did hold that real communion with Christ could take place spiritually with an individual.
The development of the many sects and denominations of Protestantism and their respective stances on the meaning of communion would take days to elucidate. Many of the mainstream churches incorporate communion into their rites, at least periodically, which shows that even a purely symbolic gesture by Catholic standards has the impact upon believers of encountering Christ individually and in fellowship. While our differences in understanding do not permit full intercommunion, we can on this Holy Thursday rejoice with the idea that fellow Christians are with us spiritually on this holy night with equal hopes in their respective traditions of meeting Christ in the breaking of the bread.