How Often Should We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

The Bible is quite specific with regard to the Lord’s Supper that ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes’ (1 Cor.11:26). However, it does not directly tell how often we are to celebrate it; we know more about the ‘how’ than the ‘how often’. In the middle of the second century Justin Martyr left a description of the weekly church service each Sunday where he mentions the Lord’s Supper as being a part of that service.

Over time, public worship has changed in many ways, not always for the better. By the time of the High Middle Ages, attendance at mass each Sunday was compulsory, but actually taking part in communion was not. Increasingly, communion was only given in one kind, and the laity were excluded from taking the cup. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had to insist that layfolk communicate (i.e. take communion) once a year. The consecrated host had to be worshipped with head bowed. One magistrate in Queen Mary’s day in the 1550s hid in a loft so as to spy on the congregation to see if any failed to gaze on the consecrated host. By the 1200s eucharistic miracle stories flourished, and people became impressed by tales of hosts supposedly bleeding, or healing the sick.

During the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, it was the Protestants, not the Catholics, who were keener on a more frequent celebration of the Supper. In fact, Ignatius Loyola, the great founder and leader of the Jesuits was twice imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. Part of the reason for his falling under suspicion with church authorities was to do with his advocacy of frequent Holy Communion, which led to the suspicion that he might have Reformed leanings!

Thus it was that when John Calvin at Geneva advocated a weekly communion, the Council and the people in general were somewhat startled. They were simply not used to such a frequent eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table. In his Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541 Calvin urged that the Supper be frequent. He wanted this to be weekly but felt that was not likely to succeed so he argued for a monthly celebration, and finally had to settle for a quarterly communion. And that is how it became common in Scottish Presbyterian circles for communion to be celebrated every quarter! Everything else in the Reformed system of thought and worship might be contested and overthrown, but the quarterly communion continued!

The New Testament does seem to favour a more frequent eating of the Supper than Scottish Presbyterians have practised. Because the Passover was an annual celebration, some have argued that its fulfillment, the Lord’s Supper, should also be an annual event. Yet after the Day of Pentecost we read that believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). The breaking of bread there presumably refers to the Lord’s Supper, which would strengthen the argument that it is also referred to in Acts 2:46 where the breaking of bread is said to be taking place ‘day by day’. At Troas the church met together on the first day of the week – Sunday – in order to break bread and to listen to the apostle Paul (Acts 20:7).

Accordingly, the elders here at Revesby have decided that we will celebrate the Supper on the first Sunday of every month – at the morning service for each even month and at the evening service for the odd month. Most importantly, we need to recall the benefits of the Supper. As Calvin declared: ‘there is none of us who can find a single grain of righteousness in himself’. He added: ‘Here, then, is the peculiar consolation we receive from the Supper, that it directs and conducts us to the cross of Jesus Christ and to his resurrection, in order to assure us that, whatever iniquity there may be in us, the Lord does not cease to regard and accept us as righteous; whatever material of death may be in us, he does not cease to vivify us; whatever the wretchedness we may have, yet he does not cease to fill us with all felicity.’ The Supper proclaims the gospel to us, helps us to remember Christ crucified and risen, confirms our fellowship with Christ and His people, and gives us cause for thankfulness. No wonder Charles Spurgeon commented for all of us: ‘I need to be reminded, forcibly reminded, of my dear Lord and Master very often.’

With warmest regards in Christ,

– Peter Barnes