Why do some Christians use (unfermented) grape juice or leavened bread in Communion since what was on the table at the Last Supper was almost certainly unleavened bread and fermented wine?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The Bible records that on the night of Jesus’ arrest he blessed and distributed bread saying “take; this is my body,” and shared a cup saying “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” He concluded with “do this in remembrance of me,” and billions of Christians have done just that across the centuries in rites known as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, Mass, Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy.
Historians assume that, yes, Jesus’ “Last Supper” would have consisted of commonplace fermented wine, not fresh and non-alcoholic grape juice, and bread without leavening since this occurred during Jewish Passover. Modern Christians differ on the elements they serve, as we’ll see, but there’s a limit. Believers were offended by a TV ad produced for the 2011 Super Bowl (but never aired) with a pastor boosting church attendance by providing sacramental Doritos and Pepsi.
Roman Catholic canon law is precise about using the literal elements from the Last Supper at daily Masses. The bread, typically wafers (“hosts”), “must be only wheat” so gluten is mandatory, and also unleavened to preserve “ancient tradition.” The wine must be alcoholic and not grape juice, mixed with some water as ancient Jews would have done.
Those rules are problems for priests and parishioners who shun wheat gluten due to celiac disease, or alcoholic beverages due to alcoholism. A 2003 Vatican edict sought to help while upholding tradition. With the bishop’s approval, priests my now offer wafers with gluten content as low as one-hundredth of a percent. Similarly allowed is “mustum” wine with fermentation halted soon after it begins so alcohol content is under 1 percent. But some alcohol is required so non-alcoholic mustum or pasteurized grape juice are “invalid matter for Mass.”
This edict also said worshippers may consume only a “small amount” of such low-gluten wafers or low-alcohol wine. The canons provide that a Catholic may receive Communion in the form of bread alone (which commonly occurs anyway) and also “wine alone in a case of necessity.” Thus the only remaining difficulty is for an alcoholic who also has celiac disease.
Eastern Orthodox churches, which celebrate only on Sundays and special feasts, likewise insist that the wine be alcoholic, but customarily use leavened bread. While Catholicism accepts wine of any color the Orthodox drink only red as a symbol of Jesus’ blood. Unlike Catholicism and like Protestantism, the Orthodox insist that both bread and wine are always consumed. The Orthodox mix bread fragments with wine in a common cup to symbolize church unity, and the priest then places the sacred elements directly into the mouth with a small spoon. Another Orthodox distinction is that an infant receives first Communion directly after baptism.
Protestants employ all sorts of bread, leavened or unleavened, wafers or shared loaves or bread cubes. Increasingly, churches offer gluten-free options due to preferences even among those without celiac disease. Some churches distribute the elements at the front of the sanctuary while others distribute trays in the pews.
Protestants globally often use wine, but grape juice became common in the U.S. when the temperance movement arose. In 1869, teetotaling dentist Thomas Welch successfully pasteurized grape juice that was non-alcoholic for sacramental use in his Vineland, New Jersey, Methodist church. His dentist son Charles later marketed the product to Methodist and other churches and grocery stores. Today the United Methodist Church recognizes the historic use of wine by many churches but says unfermented juice supports abstinence as a Christian witness, shows pastoral concern for recovering alcoholics, and allows children to partake.
In the Presbyterian Church (USA), each congregations decides “what form of the fruit of the vine” is offered in light of “the biblical precedent,” history, other churches’ usage, local custom, and health and conscience concerns. Whenever wine is served “unfermented grape juice” must be provided as an alternative and clearly identified.
Episcopal Church rubrics allow leavened or unleavened bread, and wafers or loaves. But “unfermented grape juice is not used.” The Lutheran standard is wine with any form of bread, but denominational policies accommodate worshippers with gluten-free bread or non-alcoholic wine or grape juice as needed.
Variations: 1) The Friends (“Quakers”) never observe Communion, believing external rituals are spiritually unnecessary. 2) Similarly with the Salvation Army. 3) Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) distribute only water, never grape juice, at the weekly sacrament to apply the total abstinence taught in founder Joseph Smith Jr.’s scriptural “word of wisdom.” 4) Jehovah’s Witnesses observe their Lord’s Evening Meal only once a year but few if any ever partake. The bread and wine are reserved for 144,000 redeemed “anointed class” members who reach heaven (an interpretation of Revelation 14:1-5), a quota that was essentially filled decades ago.
Historical footnote: During U.S. Prohibition, federal law permitted “the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, possession, or distribution of wine for sacramental purposes” by authorized religious functionaries.