The Lord's Supper has from the earliest days of the church been central to Christian worship. The understanding of that rite has evolved and changed and been debated down through the centuries. For me it is one of the most important if not the most important elements of worship. As I think about the Eucharist I think about the many nuances of this act. Yes, it has meanings that are difficult to reconcile with modern theology, but there is much to be gained by both the celebration and the reflections upon it.
Having said this, tonight's post offers a definition of the word Eucharist. Eucharist is an oft used term, but many people not know what it means or why its important to be used here. The simplest answer is that it reflects one of the actions/words that Jesus is said to have spoken at the Last Supper (I realize there is considerable debate as to whether this practice goes back to Jesus -- I've not been convinced that the essence of this celebration couldn't go back to Jesus, but that's for another post).
In the Words of Institution that I pronounce each Sunday, I say something to the effect that: "on the night when he was betrayed [Jesus] took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
Jesus gave thanks, and the Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharisteo. My friend Keith Watkins writes that:
One use of eucharisteo was to give thanks to God for food. Another was to honor deity or to praise leaders of the people. It is the word used in instituting the Lord's supper; and during the early decades of the church's life this word, adapted into English as eucharist, became the most widely used name for the distinctive act of Christian worship. When this word appears in New Testament passages like the third chapter of Colossians, it is not clear which of these meanings was the most prominent in the mind of the writer or of the hearers. Perhaps all of the meanings were intertwined so that the general meaning of thanksgiving and the specialized meanings of the Lord's supper interpenetrated each other. (Keith Watkins, The Great Thanksgiving: The Eucharistic Norm of Christian Worship, Chalice Press, 1995, pp. 3-4).
Keith writes that a good equivalent is "thankful praise." Too often the Lord's supper becomes somber and as Mike said in an earlier comment -- guilt producing -- but such need not be the case, if we understand that this is a feast of thanksgiving.