The Lord’s Supper and the Mass The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper has been Disputed
The Sundays when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated are always special. The reason is not that these services are more important than the regular worship services. In every service we adore the same God and Father in heaven, we are grateful for the same Jesus Christ our saviour, we realize that the same Holy Spirit works in us, and we consider an aspect of God’s work in the preaching. The Supper itself functions against the background of the same promises and admonitions which can be heard in the preaching of the Word. However, there is a difference, for in the Supper God presents his grace to us in a tangible way. We can see, touch, and taste the salvation which Christ has obtained for us.
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ clarifies the core of our faith. 1 He shows us what God intended by sending Him into this world in order to save us from our sins. When we consider the meaning of this sacrament, we are filled with gratitude for the many aspects of God’s work of salvation and we rejoice in our Saviour who gave us this Supper. Being reminded of God’s work in Jesus Christ, we can only be thankful.
At the same time it cannot be denied that there is another side to this sacrament: the meaning of the Lord’s Supper has been disputed. Extensive debates have taken place and the results can still be found in our confessions. In particular, the Heidelberg Catechism has seen the need to explain this sacrament extensively. Actually, in the section on the sacraments we find the lengthiest answers anywhere in the Catechism (Lord’s Days 27-29).
And at the end of this section a question is brought up: what is the difference between the Lord’s Supper and the Mass as celebrated by the Roman Catholics? In its answer, the Catechism places the Lord’s Supper and the Mass in opposition, ending with the strong statement that the Mass in the Roman Catholic worship is “a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ, and an accursed idolatry.” The Catechism rejects outright the Roman Catholic view of the Supper.
Many people are no longer comfortable with this statement. The question has been raised whether such harsh statements, which have their origin in heat of the debates between the Roman Catholics and the Reformed many centuries ago, should be maintained today. As the time when people are persecuted for their faith is past, should this rigorous statement still be part of our confession today? Do we need to continue this lengthy explanation and rejection in the Catechism, or can these sections be relegated to a footnote, kept only as a historical note? What should we do with these harsh statements?
When the Catechism made this bold statement on the Roman Catholic Mass, it added a reference in the footnotes. This reference has disappeared in our present edition, but among the original footnotes was included a note referring to a statement from the Council of Trente. The first chapter of this document brings us right to the heart of the issue, for the Council stated that it “teaches and openly and straightforwardly professes that in the blessed sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine.” 2 This statement emphasizes with three words (“truly, really, and substantially”) how we should see the Lord’s Supper: in the Eucharist the substance of Jesus Christ’s body itself is given. And to make this statement totally unchangeable, a negative statement was added: “If anyone denies that the body and blood, together with soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, but says that Christ is present in the Sacrament only as in a sign or figure, or by his power: let him be anathema.”3 This is a long statement, but the meaning is obvious. It shows that the Roman Catholic Church taught, and still teaches, that a substantial change is taking place in both the bread and the wine every time the Mass is celebrated.
The Dispute Today
In our own Book of Praise this reference to the official documents has been deleted, but the documents are still available. Not only that, but the Roman Catholic Church maintains the doctrine expressed here. The difference concerning the meaning of the Lord’s Supper is as strong today as it was in the sixteenth century. It is regrettable, but this fundamental difference could not be resolved. That has consequences for the churches. It is still important today to teach that in the Lord’s Supper we are not confronted with a miraculous change, conveying a miraculous grace. Rather, the holy Supper is given to us as a repeated encouragement that Jesus Christ did fully pay for all our sins.
I was reminded of this footnote in the Catechism when our family enjoyed our vacation in Quebec. It is obvious that transubstantiation is maintained. Actually, it is so much a living issue that the development did not end here. Once transubstantiation was adopted with its view that Jesus Christ is really present in the host, other ideas were added. The first step, that Jesus Christ is really present in the host, leads to the second step, that Jesus Christ Himself is present wherever the host is present. 4 The host actually presents Christ. This doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the elements of the Supper is so important that Christ’s real presence is even called the great difference between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. Christians must adore the Christ particularly in the host, for there is his presence and power.
This has led to a special form of adoration of Christ, called “spending an hour to be with Jesus.” What this means is that people are encouraged to spend one hour in the presence of the bread used in the Lord’s Supper. Spending an hour with Jesus in the form of the host is a good work. Actually, it is presented as such a good work that it causes the forgiveness of a great number of sins.
This is followed by a shocking statement: Jesus “needs this gift of your hour to save souls.” Here Jesus Christ is no longer recognized as the only Mediator, who has brought about forgiveness of sins for all who believe in Him. Rather, He needs the support of believers in order to acquire enough good works so that believing sinners can be saved. Salvation of sinners is achieved in the cooperation of Jesus Christ with the help of the believers. Particularly people who have time on their hand are encouraged to do this. Therefore retired people, seniors, and the unemployed are called to spend time with Jesus in the sacrament. When they do so, they will contribute to the saving of people.
Here the Lord’s Supper is no longer God’s gift by means of which He strengthens our faith. Rather, the adoration of the host is an opportunity for us to be generous to God. The sacrament is changed into a means for us to do good works for God, so that we are to contribute to the salvation of many.
The Catechism showed how large the difference was between Roman Catholic and Reformed doctrine on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. However, it appears that since that time the gap has only widened.