This is one of those “deep” pieces for Christians only dealing with Catholic and Protestant relations. If you’re prone to anger, just stop here. Also, if you need fluff and unicorns and rainbows, stop here.
Communion has always been a touchy subject, even for those shepherds in all denominational pews with finesse and people skills. While most Protestant denominations take a “Come as you are as long as you believe in Jesus” approach, Catholics are a demanding crowd. You must be in union with the teachings of the Church, you must be free of all mortal sin (serious, premeditated decision to commit a major sin), you should not (notice I didn’t say cannot) receive Communion in any denominational pew but your own.
Latin rite Catholics are not permitted to receive with any Protestants or with Greek Orthodox Catholics, but may in the absence of a local parish receive with Russian Orthodox or Polish Catholics. Feel like you need a flowchart diagram or decision tree yet?
Why is this? Why is it that the one moment when we should have the most unity and love for each other and for our Lord that we fall apart?
Aside from the work of the enemy of our souls and pride, it has to do with interpretation of Scripture. Two passages are in focus here: John 6:25-59 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. I prefer to use the New International Version, Complete Jewish Bible, and a Catholic version of the Bible to get a full flavor of the passages. I would encourage you to do the same before continuing.
Our Catholic brothers and sisters believe that Communion literally is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. The priest prays a prayer calling down the Holy Spirit, and in that moment with those words, the bread and wine mystically and substantially become the Real Presence of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit (this is transubstantiation). Since God can tolerate no sin, you’re supposed to approach the altar for Communion only if you accept and genuinely try to live Catholic teaching. Literally, Catholics eat Jesus in hopes of growing closer to Him and His teachings.
Lutherans have a similar belief. However, Lutherans tend to believe that the believer’s faith plays a part (consubstantiation).
I believe (but have not had deep training) that most other Protestants see Communion emblems of bread and wine as just symbolizing the Body and Blood. Figuratively, as we eat, we are to be humbling ourselves before God and choosing unity with our Christian brothers and sisters.
What do I personally believe? I don’t know.
As a writer, I understand both the figurative and literal perspectives. I can’t imagine something that is just a symbol making anyone so sick they would die. And yet, I accept that Jesus could act just the way Catholics believe He does with transubstantiation without wanting to call them vampiric cannibals for following Jesus’ commands.
Without falling into legalism, I want to believe whatever Jesus wants me to believe. He’s left His Word. To know what I should believe, I would have to understand the Greek and Aramaic of the day. I would have to understand tense and language structure to know whether like English the decision about figurative and literal is based on the rhetorical situation and context.
If figurative and literal were based in tense with language structure, I would assume the scholars would have figured that out by now. If not, maybe I’ve given some ancient linguistic PhD candidate his or her doctoral dissertation project.
If figurative and literal language are contextually based on the environment and culture of the day, then I will have to pray and take it on faith that if I make the wrong decision I have done so with a clear conscience and will be covered in mercy, grace, and Christ’s Blood.