Since the early days of Christendom, the meaning of the Lord's Supper - the ritual sharing in churches of bread and wine - has been a battleground for the faithful.
Martin Luther, disbelieving in a literal transformation of bread and wine into the body of Jesus Christ, broke with Rome partly over the Lord's Supper. Protestants waged bloody wars in Europe over whether Jesus was actually - or figuratively - present in the Eucharist.
In the theologically calmer 20th century, most mainstream American Protestants have tended to view the Lord's Supper, one of the most sacred of the church rites, as a figurative or symbolic act commemorating Jesus.
Yet today a shift in that view of the Eucharist is under way. A core group of liberal Protestants, many trying to reclaim 16th-century reformer John Calvin's ideas, are moving their denominations closer to the position that Jesus is physically or "actively" present in the bread and wine of communion. They want to find common sacred ground and, through this rite, offer "meaning, mystery, and majesty."
The shift is still limited to a scattering of theologians and pastors. But a push to recognize the "real presence" of Christ in the eating and drinking of the Eucharist is manifesting itself in more communion services, new hymnals and prayer books, ecumenical dialogues, and workshops across the Protestant spectrum.
Though now small, the change could reopen one of the deepest debates of the Reformation, having to do with the character and nature of Christ Jesus. But it also represents a potential shift in theology and worship that may echo into the 21st century, and in time move many Protestants closer to an evolving Roman Catholic view.
Later this month, for example, the largest Lutheran church in the US will vote on whether to accept "full communion" with three other Protestant churches. If accepted, ministers would be interchangeable among the four faiths. But differing views of the Eucharist remain a sticking point.
Lutherans believe that Jesus is present in the bread and wine. In order to join with the Lutherans, the other three, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Reformed Church of America, have been reexamining their roots, and finding new ground to share with Lutherans.
"There's a recovery of tradition," says Gabriel Fackre, a UCC theologian. "We can all affirm the real presence of Christ, we just differ in the mode. We agree the Lord's Supper is not just a visual aid, but represents the real presence in a sacrament that ought to be celebrated every Sunday."
"It is fair to say there is a stronger push among mainstream Protestants to find the presence of Christ in the Eucharist," says Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University Divinity School. "The Catholics are rediscovering the word, and the Protestants are rediscovering the sacraments."
The new UCC hymnal includes a classic Catholic hymn by Thomas Aquinas, stating that "underneath these forms lies your reality," a notion of Christ "in" the bread and wine. A new Methodist prayer reads, "Pour out your Holy Spirit ... on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us, the body and blood of Christ." The most recent Presbyterian "book of worship" urges more liturgical services for the Eucharist.
Other Protestants, from evangelicals to the mainstream, say the evolving emphasis is misguided and smacks of betraying church history. Much of the Protestant reformed tradition has held that Christ is purely spiritual, can't be evoked by a rite, and is not "containable" in a finite ceremony.
"As a conservative evangelical, I don't believe in the physical presence of Christ," says Wayne Gruden of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. "I think this is a willingness to sacrifice historical distinctiveness in our views in order to preserve church structures in the face of declining membership."
The Lord's Supper is a form of ritual worship that dates back roughly to AD 1000. The rite usually takes place after the sermon, involves a sharing of bread and wine or juice, and derives from Jesus' command to his disciples before his crucifixion to "take" the bread and wine as his body and blood. The ceremony can be modest or elaborate, depending the church tradition followed.
Evangelical churches, and, until recently, many mainline Protestant churches, have not stressed a formal Eucharist rite. Protestant denominations traditionally require about four communion services a year. Yet that number increased dramatically in the 1980s and continues to rise today. It is especially popular among younger people as a ceremony that adds color and evokes mystery. Advocates say it restores a sense of the sacred in churches that are criticized for emphasizing a social-justice agenda, or that are "too secular."
A Presbyterian study shows 40 percent of its churches have monthly communion. "When I was growing up there was a sense that the more frequently you celebrated communion, the less it meant," says the Rev. Gregg Mast of First Church, Albany, N.Y., a Dutch Reformed church. "That's changed. Now you see a number of churches moving to a weekly ceremony."
For some critics, the Eucharist - as an answer to lack of spirituality in church - is a chimera. "T.S. Eliot used to say that when the church stops hearing serious biblical preaching it compensates by elevating the mystical," says one leading East Coast theologian. "I think that's what we are seeing."
The taproot of today's debate dates to a historic 16th-century showdown between Martin Luther and Swiss reformer Huldrich Zwingli. Luther, who earlier revolted against the Catholic idea of "transubstantiation" in which Jesus Christ becomes bread and wine when the right words are said, still felt that Christ was present in the Lord's Supper. To Zwingli, the spiritual nature of Christ was absolute and above the possibility of entering material elements. Zwingli felt communion was a symbolic act made meaningful by the subjective prayers of the worshiper.
The two reformers fought unstintingly at a meeting called the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 - creating a gulf between Protestants that helped spawn a war that itself took Zwingli's life in 1531. (A typical exchange. Zwingli: "This is the [Bible] passage that will break your neck." Luther: "I don't know what it is like in Switzerland, but in [Germany] necks don't break so easily.")
In many ways, the Protestant world has since remained divided along the Luther-Zwingli lines. Lutherans hold with the idea that the infinite Christ can enter into the finite elements of the Eucharist. Many in the reform wing feel that Jesus' famous act of sharing the cup is not to be taken literally. "Jesus didn't mean the cup he was holding was itself the new covenant," says Dr. Gruden, "he meant it as a symbol."
View from the pews
Studies show that in the pews, most believers, even many Catholics, lean toward a notion that the bread and wine isn't the real body of Jesus Christ.
Yet for some Protestants the views of Zwingli seem too transcendent for the building of bridges with liturgical advocates, like Lutherans. "Pastors and theologians have a higher view of the Lord's Supper and are less Zwinglian now," says Theodore Gill a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church. "They are looking for ecumenical answers that could link Presbyterians with Lutherans and even with the Roman Catholic church eventually."
For that task, the upper Protestant echelon is rediscovering John Calvin, who split the difference between Luther and Zwingli on the question of the presence of Christ.
Whether Lutherans will later this month join a pact agreed to by the three reform churches is unclear. "Is the finite capable of holding the infinite? We say it is," says John Reumann, at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, speaking of the view that Christ is objectively present in the bread and wine. "The other side disagrees. And we say finally that theology matters."