Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a weekly Lenten series on the body and blood of Christ by Church History Professor Kelly Pigott.
In 1054 CE, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, picked a fight with Pope Leo IX. Cardinal Humbert was sent to Constantinople to try to work things out. He was absolutely the wrong person to send. He already had a reputation for being a bit of a hatchet man for his strict approach to reforming the church. And so when Patriarch Cerularius made Humbert wait a very long time before granting an audience, the cardinal lost patience. The following Sunday, Humbert marched down the aisle during mass at Saint Sophia’s and slapped papers of excommunication on the altar. He then shook the dust from his sandals and stormed out. Never mind that Pope Leo IX had died, raising questions about the legitimacy of Humbert’s visit. Cerularius retaliated by excommunicating Humbert and his posse. And from that moment on, the Roman Catholic Pope and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch have viewed one another as outside the fold.
Tragically, this is but one of several epic feuds to take place at the communion table, the place where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and offered them grace, and in so doing, modeled what it meant to serve and to forgive. During the Middle Ages, the altar, the centerpiece of the mass, evolved into a type of sanctum sanctorum where only the purest and most spiritual were allowed. It got so bad, that as the 16th century approached, a curious practice developed called “ocular communion” whereby the average worshiper received a blessing merely by looking at the host. No “taking and eating” or “taking and drinking,” and therefore no need to go through the overwhelming preparations (including sexual abstinence) in order to be consecrated enough to receive the elements. With ocular communion, you could come just as you are. And so, holes were carved into walls surrounding the wafers so that adoring worshipers could venerate the host. Peering through might be a businessman praying for generous profits, or a pregnant woman pleading for a healthy child. And nearby, a priest encouraging the sinners to peer through the “elevation squint” to receive their answers to prayer, while stuffing donations in a box. So that now, apparently, the church had rewritten the narrative of the Lord’s Supper so that as Jesus lifts the bread and the wine in front of His disciples, He commands, “Squint and look.”
Fueling this idea was a subtle shift in the way the Eucharist was understood. At the Fourth Lateran Council, the term “transubstantiation” was used to describe what happens to the Eucharist when it is consecrated. Essentially, this is the notion that when the priest says, “hoc est corpus meum,” during mass, the bread literally changes into flesh (according to an Aristotelian worldview). By the way, if you say the Latin really fast, as many priests in the Middle Ages did, you’ll discover where the magic word “hocus pocus” came from.
John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor who lived during the fourteenth century, called into question the doctrine of transubstantiation by essentially saying that it was merely superstition to believe that magic words could change the nature of the bread. He then came up with the doctrine of the Real Presence, which denied a literal transformation of the bread, but acknowledged that the presence of Christ was still in the host.
But then in the sixteenth century a man named Ulrich Zwingli came along and challenged even this notion. Zwingli was considered the leader of what’s known as the Swiss Reformation. He became pastor of a church in Zurich after promising not to seduce a virgin, a nun, or a married woman (the implication being that the rest of womankind was fair game).
In a famous meeting with Martin Luther at Marburg, the two reformers debated heatedly. At one point, Luther grabbed a piece of chalk and scribbled on a table, “hoc est corpus meum,” and emphatically declared that one must interpret this phrase literally. The bread IS the body of Christ.
Zwingli shot back that it all depends on what your definition of “is” is. In this case, “is” means “signifies” allowing for a symbolic understanding of the bread. He then referred to John 6:63 where Jesus states, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” Essentially, Zwingli made the case that communion was merely a memorial meal. The focus should be to remember the sacrifice of Christ, nothing more. He was very proud of himself; and he boasted menacingly that his argument was so good it would break Luther’s neck.
Unfortunately, Zwingli never lost his predilection for breaking necks. When he returned to Zurich his rhetoric incensed the Catholics enough that they raised an army and attacked the city. Lacking the patience, wisdom, and/or common sense to wait for help, Zwingli led a ragtag group of fanatic townsmen on a desperate attempt to rescue a group of soldiers stationed outside the city gates. They were slaughtered. Zwingli himself was knocked off his horse, run through with a sword, decapitated, and then he had each limb tied to four horses, which were slapped on the butt to make them bolt in four different directions. I imagine you have a fine picture in your mind right now of the outcome. However, this gruesome act wasn’t sufficient for Zwingli’s enemies. They burned his quartered body into ashes, mixed it with dung and pig entrails, and scattered it over the countryside.
The message to other would-be reformers: don’t mess with transubstantiation. Unfortunately, as in the case with some of Zwingli’s followers who become known as the Anabaptists, the message wasn’t heeded. During this period of Christian history, tens of thousands of Christians were brutally tortured and killed by their fellow believers because they differed over issues like this. No group suffered more than the Anabaptists, who were hunted by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics to such a degree that more Anabaptists were probably killed during the Reformation than all the early Christians combined during the first three centuries. And the Anabaptists were pacifists!
But you think that’s bad! John Wesley, founder of Methodism, hero of Pietism, one of the leaders of the Great Awakening, served as pastor in Savannah during his early years. While there, he fell in love with a young Georgia peach. The two dated for a while, but the young woman eventually decided that Wesley was not the one, and she let him know by telling him to his face that he wasn’t spiritual enough. I mean, honestly, can you think of anything worse to say to your boyfriend/pastor? The following Sunday, still fuming from the rejection, Wesley scowled as his ex-girlfriend gingerly stepped down the aisle to receive communion. To the gasps of many in the room, Wesley skipped over her, thus refusing to offer her the wafer.
Now, this was a serious declaration of church discipline. It was supposed to be done by a pastor when he deemed that there was some great immorality in a person’s life that needed repentance. Essentially, it was a public slap in the face. The family, understandably, was outraged, and demanded that Wesley explain his actions. In response, Wesley coolly declared that the woman was, and I quote, “frivolous.”
But we all know the real reason.
Well, maybe Wesley’s passive-aggressive behavior isn’t as epic as the others, but it still serves to illustrate how a sacred act of worship designed to be a moment of grace had turned into a battleground.
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