Communion is the condition of fellowship shared by those who have a covenant relationship with one another. In Hebrew the word for this bond is chabu-rah. 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 eves of holy days) for a formal meal.
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.
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.
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 bread” was ever afterward the sign of the Church’s fellowship and of communion with God. 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.devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Fellowship did not depend on race, ethnicity, or past history. Even the most notorious enemies of Christ were welcome to communion, if they repented. After his conversion, Saul 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” (see 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.
Editor’s note: This article is the eighth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c). Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.