The Extraordinary Gift of Communion

Communion is the condition of fellowship among those who share a covenant relationship with one another. In Hebrew the word for this bond is chaburah. In Greek it is koinonia.

Communion is a kind of friendship, but it is more than that. It is more like a family bond; and both Hebrew and Greek usage, in the time of the Apostles, suggested a religious dimension to the bond. The word chaburah described a group of friends who gathered for religious discussion and common prayer. They met weekly on the eve of the Sabbath (and the eve of holy days) for a formal meal. A rabbi held chaburah with his disciples. It was customary to serve fish at such a dinner, and the historian of Judaism Erwin Goodenough has proposed this ancient tradition as the distant ancestor of the modern parish fish fry. In the most ancient images of the Last Supper, Jesus and the Apostles are often depicted seated at table around a large platter of fish. They are gathered in chaburah, koinonia, fellowship, communion.

A communion is something more than a community. It is closer-knit, gathered for the most important purpose on earth as well as the most festive. It is defined by a common meal and sacred conversation. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, such a meal renewed their most basic identity — as Israel, as God’s chosen people. According to biblical theologian Scott Hahn, “The divine covenant brought about powerful fellowship among the People of God.”

But the Jews stopped short of describing any chaburah between God and any human beings. They believed such communion to be impossible. The very idea would be an affront to God’s transcendence.

Although the Jews shared a covenant with God, they dared not go the extra step and call it a communion. Yet, for Christians, God’s Incarnation changed the terms of the divine-human relationship. God had made a New Covenant in the blood of Christ, and he had done so at a chaburah meal (Luke 22:20). At that meal, Jesus — God incarnate — declared his disciples to be no longer slaves, but friends (John 15:15). He sanctified them through his blood (Heb. 13:12). The shared blood of Jesus made it possible for his disciples to “enter the sanctuary” and enjoy communion with God (Heb. 10:19). Through the Incarnation, Jesus made it possible for his disciples to enjoy a share of his own eternal sonship, by sharing in his flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14). The language of sharing, so often used by the Apostles, is the language of communion — the verb form of the noun koinonia.

This article is from “The Apostles and their Times.” Click image to preview or order.

When Jesus consecrated bread and wine and declared it to be his Body and Blood, he commanded his Apostles: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Thus he established, for all time, the model and source of communal life for his chaburah.

The Acts of the Apostles presents the Church as such a communion: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The “breaking of the bread” was, ever afterward, the sign of the Church’s fellowship and of communion with God. St. Paul asked the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation [koinonia] in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).

Paul went a step further. He said that the bread was the cause and the sign of the Church’s unity. Because the bread is Christ’s Body — and the children share in that Flesh and Blood — the Church is Christ’s Body. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

The ritual meal, then — Holy Communion, as we have come to know it — is the most vivid expression of the reality Christ revealed to Paul (Saul) on the road to Damascus. God’s people have become God’s Body. They have been invited to share God’s inner life (2 Pet. 1:4), “called into the fellowship [koino-nian] of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” and of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 13:14).

Their union with God is closer than they had ever known to be possible. And so was the union of Christians with one another.

* * *

Twice at the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples an explicit instruction for their life together: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12).

St. John elaborates on this principle in his first letter. He begins by speaking of the Incarnation; he repeatedly uses forms of the word koinonia communion, fellowship, which is made possible through the blood of Christ.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. . . . If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:1–3, 6–7, emphasis added)

God had drawn his people, collectively, into fellowship with him. They could not sustain that relationship with him unless they kept communion with one another.

As the story of the Apostles moves forward, the circle of that communion grows ever wider. Persecution forces the disciples to leave Jerusalem, and they take the gospel with them — to Samaria, to Antioch, and even to Damascus. Philip the deacon encounters an Ethiopian, an official of the royal court, and leads him to faith in Christ. The Samaritans — Israelites who had for centuries been estranged from Temple worship — are brought into fellowship when they receive the gospel.

Fellowship does not depend on race, ethnicity, or past his­tory. Even the most notorious enemies of Christ are welcome to communion, if they repent. After his conversion, Paul was delighted to share “the right hand of fellowship [koinonias]” with the inner circle of Jesus’ original disciples: Peter, James, and John (see Gal. 2:9).

* * *

The sign of the Church’s deep fellowship was “the breaking of the bread.” (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; see also Luke 24:35). The disciples of Jesus shared among themselves the common ritual meal their Master had established. As in friendship or family, the meal was a sign of the bond, and the shared meal strengthened the bond.

Anthropologists call this commensality —which they define as “table fellowship,” the act or practice of eating at the same table. It was an essential element in Old Testament covenants; the Eucharistic meal was the divinely ordained occasion of the New Covenant. Now table fellowship was shared not only between Jews and Gentiles, but also between men and God.

Commensality was an intense concern of St. Paul as he established churches. Table fellowship is a central theme of his four most important letters: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians. The Jewish Christians in Rome and Galatia, even after accepting the Way of Jesus, preferred not to share their table with Gentiles. Some Gentile Christians in Corinth thought they could live immoral lives and then present themselves to receive divine life in Holy Communion.

The Apostle saw clearly that these transgressions were contrary to Jesus’ intention and destructive to the life of the Church.

To the immoral he spoke sobering words, insisting that anyone who “eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” is “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” and “has earned the punishment of death” (1 Cor. 11:27, 29–30).

To the Romans he said: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Rom. 14:20). In Jewish culture, to refuse to eat together was to sever a relationship (see 1 Sam. 20:34) and even to declare one another as enemies.53 To refuse hospitality to Gentiles was like sexual immorality in that it was a profanation of the Lord’s Body and Blood. For Christ, by his Cross, had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27) and sent salvation to them (Acts 28:28).

In the Old Testament, the Jews had segregated themselves in order to avoid pollution by the idolatry — the contagious impurity — of the Gentiles. In the New Testament, God has sac­ramentally endowed his people with “contagious holiness.”

* * *

The Apostles immediately observed the rite as Jesus had commanded. “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). Paul established the rite wherever he went, not as something he was inventing, but as something he had “received” (1 Cor. 11:23) — something that was already well established.

Paul, however, contributed a necessary theological reflection on the Eucharistic mystery. Jesus did not promise the kind of power sought by magicians (see Acts 8:18–24). He promised a power like his own, which was “made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9) — even the weakness of repentant sinners and converted Gentiles.

Begun in Baptism, Christian life was renewed in the breaking of the bread. Everywhere in his letters, St. Paul recognizes the mingling of lives that marks Christian communion.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)

To live in Christ is to be filled with his Spirit, the spirit of son-ship: the Holy Spirit. For that reason — and only for that reason — Christians could call God Father.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Rom. 8:15)

The ordinary sacramental life of the Church had bestowed an extraordinary gift. It was, for the disciples, a profound sharing in the life of the Trinity. Throughout the Apostolic age, we encounter Christians filled with the Holy Spirit, united with Jesus Christ, and calling upon God as their Father. This was a life unprecedented, unimagined, and unknown before Christ founded the Church.

The Church has the power to live in communion because it shares the life of the Blessed Trinity. Christ has made this possible because he assumed human nature — taking on flesh — and then bestowed his Spirit.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4–6)

Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Apostles and Their Times: Archaeology, History, and Scripture Unveil What Life Was Really Like During the Apostolic Age, which is available from Sophia Institute Press

image: By Willuconquer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Mike Aquilina

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Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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  • This article was a bit more balanced than many articles on the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament of our interconnectedness as Christians. In New Testament Christianity, we receive the Spirit of Christ by faith. This is why there is no mention of the Eucharist in the epistles other than in 1Corinthians.

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