Beginnings and Ends: Eucharist and Eschatology

Recently, studies of the Eucharist [1] have begun to reclaim the importance of eschatology as an image and setting for the celebration of Holy Communion. [2] This "rediscovery" of the eschaton has crossed the boundaries of denominations, churchmanship and national identity, contributing both to theological reflection and liturgical revision. Chief among those working to restore the relationship between eschatology and the Eucharist has been Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright. His study Eucharist and Eschatology served to pull together a number of strands of scholarship at the time, presenting a full-orbed account of the relationship between the celebration of the Lord's Supper and the coming Kingdom of God [3].

The work done by Wainwright and others does not claim that eschatology is the sole proper focus of Communion, but rather that this is one element of the meaning and symbolism of the rite that has been neglected. To re-incorporate these images into our understanding of the Eucharist will not eclipse other elements, although it may qualify them, or help us to see them in a new light. Re-introducing eschatological images into the Eucharist may well open up to us new vistas of what God's will is for us, and what God's work will be among us, now and in the age to come.

This essay seeks to explore the issues present in the relationship between Eucharist and eschatology. The next section examines the historical background of this relationship, while also discussing the reasons for its decline. Following that, a section explores some of the fruitful images that can come about by refocusing on the eschatological elements of Communion, looking at some of the implications for our liturgy and life. The final part of the paper sifts through the most recent prayer books of the Episcopal Church, USA, looking at the 1928 and 1979 books and Enriching Our Worship (the most recent collection of supplemental liturgical materials), taking note of the evolution of eschatological awareness in the Communion rites. This section offers some suggestions as to how one aspect of this awareness can be heightened.

The Beginning and End of Last Things in the Eucharist

The church celebrated the Lord's Supper from the earliest times, although the setting, participants, and devotional focus have changed through history. Increasing numbers of scholars are seeing that Jesus intended for there to be - and the church interpreted there as being - an eschatological element to the Eucharist [4].

While it seems clear from Scripture and liturgical texts that the early church had a clear sense of the eschatological element of the Lord's Supper, this sense nevertheless waned over time, until it was dropped altogether. Wainwright offers numerous reasons for this transition.

Some Biblical scholars believe that Jesus taught about an imminent Parousia; that his return would be swift and that the end would be soon. As a result, the earliest church watched and waited vigilantly for this second advent. But as one generation of believers grew into another and another, and it seemed that the Parousia was delayed, the sense of need for constant readiness declined. [5]

Nevertheless, persecution and martyrdom of Christians persisted, as they struggled with being a marginalized sect, unwelcome in the Roman Empire. This sense of rejection led to an awareness that the world as it is is not our ultimate desire. Rather, the resurrection and renewed creation ushered in by the return of the Messiah occupied their hopes. But as Christianity became recognized, tolerated and established in the Empire, the tensions that believers felt with this world began to fade, being replaced with a more "positive evaluation of the present age." [6] Establishment, in particular, exerted powerful but subtle force on the church and its message to conform to the state and its message. [7] Witness to the Kingdom to come faltered; the ultimate, relativizing authority of the King was de-emphasized in favor of the authority of the king.

As time marched on, people began to see greater importance in Christ's earthly life than his return, and Eucharistic thought turned from eschaton to real presence and sacrifice. [8] Neo-Platonism encouraged an emphasis on a more "vertical" and individualized eschatology to the neglect of a more "futurist" and corporate eschatology. Add to this a benign neglect of the Holy Spirit in (especially Western) theology and liturgics [9], and a nearly universal movement away from the meal-likeness of the Eucharist (hence obscuring the anticipation of the heavenly banquet to come), and eventually the eschatological nature of the Lord's Supper was lost altogether. [10]

The Proper End of the Last Things in the Eucharist

Wainwright characterizes the eschatological elements of the Eucharist in terms of three different images: the Messianic feast, the advent of Christ, and the firstfruits of the Kingdom. [11]

Images and parables in the gospels and elsewhere in the Bible describe the Kingdom of God as a banquet or a feast. [12] An important reference to this appears in the synoptic versions of the Last Supper, in which Jesus forswears sharing in the cup until he can drink it with his disciples in the kingdom. (Mt. 26:29 and parallels.) This wine is described as "new," implying the newness of the restored creation (Mk 14:25), or it will be drunk "with you," implying the essentially communal nature of the Kingdom (26:29). [13] And so participating in the Lord's Supper, we receive a foretaste of the feast in the Kingdom to come - but only a foretaste. This nicely illustrates the tension present in these images of the Eucharist, the tension of a Kingdom that is already inaugurated in Christ, but not yet arrived in its fullness.

That the eschaton is seen as a feast also reinforces the notion that the Kingdom has to do with the whole person, body and soul; in the end, the material and the spiritual are not opposed to each other. [14] As the new age will be (in some sense) material, then this means that material relations among people will also be set right - although presumably these relations will not be dictated by scarcity, as they are now. Inasmuch as we receive a foretaste of this new age here and now, this gives us warrant for being interested in present material relations and arrangements in the church and the world.

The Eucharist is also properly seen as an anticipation of the second advent of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul specifically makes reference to celebrating the Lord's Supper "in remembrance" of Christ (1Cor. 11:24-26) - referring to Christ's first advent and the work that he began. But Paul also connects this eating and drinking with proclamation of Christ's death "until he comes," (v. 26) that is, until Christ's second advent, when the Kingdom comes in its fullness and Christ's work is completed.

But this is not just an anticipation of Christ's return; the sacrament is a sign of Christ's presence among us even now. Wainwright observes that Christ functions here and now as he will in the eschaton: he acts as judge, pronouncing guilt and forgiveness, giving assurance to the penitent and condemnation to the impenitent. [15] Christ makes the second advent present for us in an anticipatory way, while the Eucharist also represents the "larger reality" of the eschaton for us with signs and symbols. [16]

Both the current and anticipated presence of Christ help us to see that, while we are responsible to work for the Kingdom, it is ultimately not up to us. As Christ inaugurated the Kingdom, so also will he bring it in its fullness at the right time. This helps us to rely on God for our strength and direction, and results in us taking the politics of the Kingdom quite seriously, but not necessarily taking ourselves all that seriously. Finally, the Eucharist may be seen both to manifest and bring about the firstfruits of the Kingdom. By means of participation in communion, we begin to see in a partial way what the Kingdom will be like, how we will be changed, and so forth. Thus, the Eucharist is viewed as a participation in the worship of heaven; this is most clearly seen in the sanctus present in many rites, in which our voices are joined with the "heavenly chorus" in a song of praise and worship to God. Also, Augustine theorized that as we eat the Eucharistic body of Christ, we (the church) become the body of Christ. [17] Paul writes that "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Cor. 11:17) The apostle seems to be saying that the Eucharist (the "one bread") brings about the church's unity ("one body"). But the sacrament does not just cause unity, it also shows forth already existing unity - although, paradoxically, that unity may be hidden. [18]

In a recent essay, theologian Miroslav Volf wrestles with the implications of the communal nature of the Kingdom of God for eschatology. [19] He argues that the eschaton will not simply be focused on individuals but also on peoples' relationships, since these relations themselves constitute our identity. He also maintains that we should move away from seeing "justice as desert" at the final consummation, but rather see this sort of justice as one stage in a process that ultimately ends in grace and mutual reconciliation. [20] Volf envisions this "mutual reconciliation" as a "move towards one's former enemies," involving both the oppressor and the oppressed - and he's convinced that each of us belongs in both categories. This move results in a "mutual embrace, made possible by the Spirit...and grounded in God's embrace of sinful humanity on the cross." [21]

I bring up this treatment to round out the discussion of the "firstfruits" image. If Volf is correct in saying that the eschaton will be social in nature, and will involve this level of "face-to-face" reconciliation, then presumably some of the firstfruits of that dynamic which result in the kingdom will be manifest in our celebration of the Eucharist here and now. Communion will bring about confession, repentance, and forgiveness between individuals and God, but will also be the occasion for confession, repentance, and forgiveness between individuals and among groups in the church. And this reconciliation will have effects outside of the church, as the ecumenical document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry explains: "[reconciled] in the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection." [22]

These three images shed light on several aspects of the Eucharist, some of which were previously forgotten. By means of them we can see the Eucharist as a foretaste of the Kingdom, as involving the whole of our persons (including our material relations with others). We can see Communion as an anticipation of the second advent of Christ, as well as a sign of his abiding with us, granting grace, pardon and assurance, and where appropriate, condemnation. These active roles of Christ also reinforce the graciousness of the Kingdom - that it is an unearned gift that confers responsibility, yet frees us of the illusion that we bring it about. Finally, the Eucharist brings forth the firstfruits of the Kingdom: participation in the worship of heaven, reconciliation, and unity as the body of Christ. In the next section, we will look at liturgical revision in the last century in the Episcopal Church, noting how the eschatological images of the Eucharist have been employed, and suggesting one or two ways that they might be improved.

The (re-)Beginning of Last Things in the Eucharist

Thankfully, this rediscovery of the eschatological aspects of the Eucharist has not gone unnoticed. Numerous liturgists write about the importance of the coming reign of God for both the forms in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and ongoing reflection on and revision of the church's rites. [23]

The eschatological perspective that is being re-incorporated into the rites is by no means a disembodied or otherworldly escape: the ethical and political dimensions of the coming Kingdom are clearly recognized and put forth in both reflection and the revised rites. [24]

While this is properly termed a "reclamation," we should not be surprised to find that the way we understand eschatology is different than those in the early church. I say this not because we are more "critical" or "sophisticated" - the very canons of what counts for us as being "critical" or "sophisticated" are themselves under siege [25] - but because the church finds itself in a very different world and context than it did in its infancy. Then, the church found itself a tiny, persecuted sect of Judaism: but the church found that it had resources to help interpret its predicament and its relationship to the world around it. Now, the church finds itself in a post-Christendom context, no longer established, or even the plausible option for many people on Sunday mornings - but we are not a tiny, marginalized sect. The church consists of many people from different walks of life: some oppressed and left out of society, some wealthy and powerful, and many, many in between. In our situation, we too have found resources to help interpret our predicament and our relationship to the world around us. In a post-Christendom world, we are invited to remember that our proper end is not the present world, but enjoyment of God and life in the world to come. And as we realize that we also possess status, power and wealth (which is no longer taken for granted), we are invited to become stewards of God's gifts. As we look ahead to the final reconciliation, we are invited to become the image of Christ and servants of this reconciliation for the world around us. [26]

These themes have been picked up in liturgical revision of Eucharistic prayers in the last 25 years. Typically, reference to the coming Kingdom of God is found in the anamnesis, in which we remember Christ's death and resurrection, and "remember" Christ's coming again. It is also found in the oblation of ourselves to God, which is frequently paired with a prayer that we may be brought into the Kingdom at the last day.

Looking at these sections in some representative rites (see Appendix A), we see some clear lines of development. First, in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there is no reference to the Kingdom of God or the second advent at all. This is corrected by some eschatological reference in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. [27] Prayer A includes a looking forward to Christ's return in the anamnesis, said by celebrant and people, and a petition appended to the oblation that we may be brought into God's "eternal Kingdom." Enriching Our Worship includes three different complete Eucharistic prayers. Each of these prayers includes an anticipation of Christ's return in the anamnesis; prayer three in particular uses some nicely evocative phrasing: "longing for Christ's coming in glory...." [28] In this same anamnesis, the presider and people declare "Christ Jesus, come in glory!" no doubt echoing the Maran Atha of the Didache and early church prayers. In the self-oblation and petition of the Eucharistic prayer, reference to the coming reign of God is greatly expanded, referring to our "everlasting heritage," the "banquet prepared from the foundations of the world," and "our true eternal home." [29] Prayer two fills out the notion of the comprehensiveness of the coming Kingdom rather well, drawing from Revelation 5: "bring us with...all your saints, from every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast at the banquet..." [30] Of course these are not the only places in these rites in which eschatological reference is made. If we consider petitions that the church might be made one, or that we might proclaim Christ's love to the world, or that we might be people of justice and peace as oblique references to the reign of God, then the recent rites are positively shot through with eschatological imagery. Eucharistic Prayer Two in Enriching Our Worship even makes specific mention of Jesus' pre-Last Supper meals: "He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor." [31] We saw above (footnote 12) how these meals are themselves a sign of the coming Kingdom.

One specific way in which the eschatological sense present in the Eucharist may be heightened is an increased focus on the passing of the peace. This practice was not a part of the American liturgy of word and sacrament prior to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Although this section is variously executed [32] - and it's not technically a part of the liturgy of Holy Communion, which begins with the offertory - it is nevertheless an important, anticipatory segment of the Eucharist. If Volf is correct in his claim that the return of Christ will be marked by mutual reconciliation between people and among groups, then it seems plausible to see the passing of the peace as an important and integral part of the Eucharist itself. Warrant for this is found in Jesus' admonishment in Matthew 5:23,24, when he says "...if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." [33] If we look at our Eucharistic prayer, we find that the "gifts" we are offering at the altar include ourselves. When we pass the peace in an authentic way, and take the opportunity to be reconciled with our brother or sister before taking part in the Eucharist, then we are participating in the coming reign of God in an anticipatory way.

What are some ways that we can emphasize the passing of the peace in our congregations as an integral part of making Eucharist together? First, one of the greatest barriers to this sort of reconciliation lies in the fragmented and segregated nature of our churches. If people with genuine differences are to be reconciled - or at least begin that process - then they will have to learn to worship in proximity to each other. This will take a great deal of effort, as we have worked rather hard at segregating ourselves in many ways: race, gender, age, socioeconomic status, political stance, theological conviction, and so on. Secondly, we can call attention to the passing of the peace and its significance in our congregations; many may not understand its meaning or see it as a simple to say "good morning" or an unnecessary, "trendy" incursion into what is otherwise a personal time for themselves. Teaching on this matter should take the form of both word and example: how long does our congregation spend with the peace? Who do we greet? Who do we avoid? Finally, liturgists can look at the form of the peace itself, and consider expanding the introductory words to give some background and context for the practice, perhaps providing a few alternative opening words. One option would be moving the offertory sentence (especially the one taken from Matthew 5) to just before the peace, instead of just after. However, this would cause some logistical headaches as the peace, the offering of gifts, the collection of alms, and the preparation of the table would all take place at the same time. Moreover, the celebrant and altar party would be effectively excluded from passing the peace, and the common practice of special musical offerings would also be discouraged. Another option presents itself to us from other parts of the Anglican Communion. Other churches - or the Church in Sudan, at any rate - preface the passing of the peace with a brief explanatory rubric which connects our unity in Christ with our passing the peace:

Priest: Christ is our peace. He has reconciled us to God in one body by the Cross. We meet in His Name and share His Peace: The Peace of the Lord be always with you.


We are the Body of Christ. In the Spirit, we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for the peace and builds up our common life: The Peace of the Lord be always with you.

People: And also with you.

Priest: Let us offer one another a sign of the peace. [34]

Other introductory sentences may be devised fairly easily.

In conclusion, there has been a "rediscovery" of the importance of eschatological images for the Eucharist in the last thirty years. There were numerous reasons for the initial decline and forgetfulness, but reclaiming these images helps us to see the Eucharist as a foretaste of the messianic feast, an anticipation of the second advent of Christ, and the manifesting of the firstfruits of the Kingdom of God. These images have repercussions for the mission and unity of the church, especially when it comes to issues of justice, mutual reconciliation, and peace. They help us to connect the message of the gospel with our lives, growing deeper in our faith in and love for God and love for those around us. Thankfully, this rediscovery of eschatology has been taken up in the field of liturgics, as a comparison between the 1928 and 1979 prayer books shows, as well as an examination of the supplementary materials contained in Enriching Our Worship. Eschatological images may be further employed in ongoing revision of our liturgy; the passing of the peace is one area that would benefit from greater scrutiny from an eschatological perspective.

Appendix (PDF: Requires free Adobe Acrobat plugin)


Braaten, Carl E. Eschatology and Ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House. 1974.

Crockett, William R. Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation. New York: Pueblo Publishing Co. 1989.

__________, "Eucharistic Theology and Anglican Eucharistic Revision," in Holeton, David R., ed. Our Thanks and Praise: The Eucharist in Anglicanism Today. Toronto, ON, Canada: Anglican Book Centre. 1998. Pp. 35-50.

Enriching Our Worship: Supplemental Liturgical Materials prepared by the Standing Liturgical Commission, 1997. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated. 1997.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. tr. By Norman Perrin. Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International. 1966. (ET of Die Abendsmahlworte Jesu, 3d Ed.)

Meyers, Ruth. "One Bread, One Body: Ritual, Language, and Symbolism in the Eucharist." In Holeton, David R., ed. Our Thanks and Praise: The Eucharist in Anglicanism Today. Toronto, ON, Canada: Anglican Book Centre. 1998. Pp.82- 98.

Stuhlman, Byron D. Eucharistic Celebration 1789-1979. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated. 1988.

Volf, Miroslav. "The Final Reconciliation: Reflections on a Social Dimension of the Eschatological Transition", Modern Theology 16:1 (January 2000), pp.91-113.

Wainwright, Geoffrey. Eucharist and Eschatology. New York: Oxford University Press. 1981.

__________, "Recent Eucharistic Revision" in Jones, Cheslyn, et al., The Study of Liturgy, rev. ed., New York: Oxford University Press. 1992. Pp. 328-338.

Some helpful links for those unfamiliar with the Book of Common Prayer or the Anglican Church: This is a great place to familiarize yourself with the text of the Book of Common Prayer A central clearinghouse for information on all parts of the Anglican Communion, including liturgical resources. The home page of the Episcopal Church, USA (The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society - DFMS)


[1] I use the names "Communion," "Eucharist," and "Lord's Supper" interchangeably throughout this essay; no distinction is intended thereby.

[2] See, for example, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Eucharist, paragraphs 22 through and The Dublin Documents, 278, 279.

[3] Although "Reign" of God is preferable on gender grounds, and may be preferable on exegetical grounds, I retain the older phrasing here, as I prefer the connotation of space (as opposed to rule); however, either term may be used without harm to my essential argument.

[4] It is not central to my argument to claim that "Jesus said" something; while a basic continuity between Jesus and the church certainly seems plausible to me, I am not trying to push one higher-critical agenda or another.

[5] Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology, (hereafter EE) p. 124.

[6] Ibid. pp. 124,125.

[7] The impetus for these changes surely came from both within and from outside the church: it is not simply a case of the state single-handedly molding the church.

[8] Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation. p. 256.

[9] Liturgically, this can be seen clearest in the contrast between the Eastern and Western Eucharistic canons. The East typically conceived of the moment of consecration as the epiclesis, the calling of the Holy Spirit; the West, on the other hand, typically considered the recitation of the words of institution to be the moment of consecration.

[10] Wainwright, EE, pp.125-127.

[11] Ibid., p.6

[12] Crockett, Eucharist:... makes the connection between Jesus' dining with outcasts and sinners and the coming reign of God. (p. 253)

[13] Jeremias, 218.

[14] Wainwright, EE, p. 59.

[15] Ibid. p. 92.

[16] Ibid. p. 92; See also Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM), Eucharist, paragraph 22.

[17] Wainwright, p. 114.

[18] Ibid. p. 117.

[19] Volf, "The Final Reconciliation..."

[20] Ibid. p. 107

[21] Ibid. p. 104.

[22] BEM, Eucharist, paragraphs 22-26..

[23] See, for example, Stuhlman, p.146. for the 1979 BCP, and Crockett, "Eucharistic Theology..." p. 49 for a discussion of the importance of eschatology for future revision.

[24] Meyers, p. 97f.; Crockett, Eucharist... p. 256.

[25] I take it that postmodernity, although itself as much a form of hypermodernism as anything else, has at least seriously qualified the hegemony of modernist discourse on what counts for being "critical" or "sophisticated." At any rate, the collapse of foundationalist epistemologies and recognition that our knowledge seems quite perspectival and situated certainly calls such canons into question. But I digress...

[26] BEM, Eucharist, paragraphs 22-26.

[27] The form of Eucharistic prayer looked at here is Form A; there are three other complete forms for Rite II that could be examined, and five others besides (Rite I and the "Rite III" forms) but space forbids.

[28] EOW, p. 64

[29] EOW, pp. 59, 62, 64.

[30] EOW, p. 62.

[31] EOW, p. 61.

[32] This author recently visited a certain parish on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in which the peace was nothing more than a brief verbal exchange between the presider and the congregation, with no congregational interaction. Alternatively, the author's home parish usually pauses for several minutes while people get up and greet each other with a sign of peace. Additionally, a parish on the west side of Chicagi takes the time for everyone in the congregation to greet everyone else.

[33] I am not interested in arguing that this is what that passage "means," I am only presenting this as one legitimate reading of the passage.

[34] I do not have access to the original source of these for a citation; they are an English translation from the Anglican prayer book as used in the country of Sudan.

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