Saturday, October 24

The Eucharist and Real Presence in Early Christianity

One of the common theological discussions between the different Christian denominations today concerns the Eucharist (from the Greek eucharista, meaning "to give thanks") - the celebration of the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, the sharing of bread and wine. It has also been called Communion or the Lord's Supper. The Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine (1971) between Anglicans and Catholics declared that it has also been called "holy mysteries, synaxis, mass, holy communion. The Eucharist has become the most universally accepted term." Over the past few decades, a number of churches have made theological leaps and bounds in coming together in agreement over different points concerning the Eucharist. There has been the aforementioned agreement between Anglicans and Catholics, as well as the Roman Catholic/Methodist Statement on the Eucharist (1976), a joint agreement between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church (1978) and others. However, disagreement remains concerning the doctrine of the Real Presence. In the medieval period, St. Thomas Aquinas took a cue from the writings of Aristotle and used the word transubstantiation to describe the change in substance - he, along with many others, held that there is a point in which the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, hence, it becomes the Real Presence. Although discussion continues on how this takes place (transubstantiation vs consubstantiation and so forth), it may be fruitful as we continue ecumenical efforts to return to our early sources and our roots and see how the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist.

Our earliest account of the Eucharist comes from 1st Corinthians 10:16-17, "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf." A further reference is found in the following chapter, "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes." Each of these pieces are used in most churches services and Masses today. The primary section here makes up what is called the Institution Narrative of the Eucharistic Liturgy. Other references to the Eucharist are found in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:31-34. Another early reference to the Eucharist is found in an early church manual, Didache 9 (AD 50-120).

But perhaps the most common passage that comes up in this discussion is John 6:51-59, "'I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.' Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' Jesus said to them, 'Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.' He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum." This understanding of Jesus as the body and blood was tied very early on to the Eucharistic, so much so that the Romans began a rumor that the Christians were cannibalistic. Interestingly, the normal word for “eat” is foge in Greek, but here, John 6 uses troge - which means in English, to gnaw or munch on the flesh and drink his blood. That being said, how did the early Christians understand the Eucharist?

Justin Martyr (AD 155, within 50-60 years of the New Testament) is the earliest Christian apologist. In his work, Apologies, he is surprisingly frank, referring directly to the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He is also the earliest person to describe a full-length Mass, which is easily recognizable in Modern Mass today. Others seemingly believed in the Real Presence, such as St. Irenaeus of Lyons. After talking about the blood and body, he notes that "When the mingled cup and the man-made bread receive the Word of God, they become the Eucharist of the blood and body of Christ. From these things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported." Some heretical groups, such as the Ebionites, offered only water instead of wine and water mixed together (which was done because both blood and water flowed from Jesus in John 19). Hippolytus of Rome also gives us a glimpse of liturgical traditions that vanished long ago - for example, the custom of dispensing a chalice of milk and honey, along with the eucharistic elements, during the Easter liturgy. This symbolized the newly baptized Christian's entrance into the true promised land through the sacraments. The chalice of milk and honey is attested to by many other authors as well, including pseudo-Barnabas, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome.

When I visited the catacombs of Rome, I noted carvings which evoke the sacraments through symbols. One of the inscriptions in the catacombs, the Inscription of Pectorius, reads "Receive the delicious nourishment of the Savior of the saints. Eat, drink, taking the food with both hands." The apocalyptic Vision of Paul from the early-mid AD 200s criticizes those who say that "the bread and cup of the eucharistic blessing are not the body and blood of Christ." Commenting on the aforementioned passage from John's gospel, St. Origen of Alexandria wrote, "What people are accustomed to drinking blood? In the Gospel, the Jews who follows the Lord heard and were offended, and they said: 'Who can eat flesh and drink blood?' But the Christian people, the faithful people, hear these things and embrace them, and follow him who says: 'Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you; for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.'"

Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the Eucharist was identified with the "daily bread" given in the Lord's Prayer in early Christian literature. It is also worth noting that in Genesis 14:14 we read, "Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram..." The Church Fathers believed that this prefigured the Eucharist. They also noted that Bethlehem meant the "house of bread," and made the connection to Jesus as the living bread, having been born there. Tertullian of Carthage (AD 222) spoke of the Real Presence in graphically realistic terms: "The flesh feeds on the body of Christ so that the soul might grow fat on God" (On the Resurrection of the Body 8). St. Cyril of Jerusalem is explicit about the doctrine of the Real Presence and Transubstantiation. He says, "The bread and the wine of the Eucharist, before the invocation of the holy and adorable Trinity, were simple bread and wine,; but, after the invocation, the bread becomes the body of Christ, and the wine the blood of Christ" (Mystagogical Lecture 1.7).

He later writes, "The bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is no longer merely bread, but the body of Christ" (Mystagogical Lecture 3.3). Elsewhere he says, "Since he himself has declared of the bread, 'This is my body,' who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since he himself affirmed, 'This is my blood,' who shall ever hesitate, saying that it is not his blood? Once, in Cana of Galilee... he turned water into wine, resembling blood. Is it incredible, then, that he should have turned wine into blood?.... What seems to be bread is not bread, though it tastes like bread, but the body of Christ. And what seems to be wine is not wine, though it tastes like wine, but the blood of Christ" (Mystagogical Lecture 4).

Taken as a whole, the New Testament (Luke, John, 1st Corinthians, Acts, Hebrews and Revelation), the Didache (AD 50-120), St. Clement of Rome (AD 85-95), St. Ignatius of Antioch (AD 100-107), Pliny the Younger (AD 112), St. Justin Martyr (AD 155-165), St. Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-202), St. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 215), the Didascalia (AD 200-250), Sts. Abercius and Pectorius (AD 216), the Acts of John (AD 150), the Acts of Thomas (AD 150-225), the Acts of Thaddeus (AD 200s), the Vision of Paul (AD 250), the Acts of Peter (AD 150-200), the Gnostic Gospel of Judas (AD 160-180), pagan rumors of Christians drinking blood and eating flesh, St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254), St. Dionysius the Great (AD 200-265), Tertullian of Carthage (AD 190-222), St. Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200s), St. Cornelius of Rome (AD 200-250), St. Firmilian of Caesarea (AD 200-270), the Liturgy of Addai and Mari (AD 100-300), Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 280-310), the Anaphora of St. Mark (AD 100-200), the texts from the Council of Nicea (AD 325), St. Sarapion of Thmuis (AD 300-370), the Liturgy of St. James (AD 300s), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 300-350), and many other early Christian writers, apocryphal texts and liturgical texts refer to the Real Presence in the Eucharist.

This was a widely held belief in the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Martin Luther espoused the notion of Consubstantiation, and later Reformers and Protestant movements continued to get farther away from the Eucharist of early Christians - Anabaptists, Baptists, renewal movements such as Pentecostals, Non-denominational churches, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons (who call it "The Sacrament"), and Jehovah's Witnesses seeing it as more of a sacramental symbol. In fact. in many of today's Protestant churches, the Eucharist (often called Communion) no longer has a literal meaning, but is seen as symbolic. Alcohol is often not used in these services either, but instead, crackers and juice or non-alcoholic wine is offered. In Roman Catholicism, the wine is pure grape wine. It cannot be watermelon, dandelion wine or others. In Europe, grape wine is part of culture - but not in the Orient, they have saké - and neither do the Africans. Mustum is usually used for priests who are alcoholics (mustum being the pure grape juice).

There was a movement during the late 1960s that said that Jesus used elements of his time - bread and wine was part of their meals, and therefore, we ought to use elements of our time. They felt that since the common food in Palestine was bread and wine and Jesus used those to show his presence, now it was chicken wings and beer - hot wings are for those have really bad sins. But within the Christian tradition, this type of relativism limps. While chicken wings and beer or pizza and Coke may be your common meal in college, for example, it will transition when you leave college to steak and eggs, or sushi, or what have you. If you want to have a prayer service, and as a sign of sharing life together you have pizza and sushi - that may be fine, but when it comes to the Universal experience, this is the capital T Tradition. Where did we really experience Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist traditionally? In the bread and the wine.

On the whole, The early church evidently felt that the Eucharist was very important, regardless of how the Real Presence has been viewed, or how the Eucharist has been celebrated. On a spiritual level, it is also important to remember that Christ's words "This is my body, which will be given up for you" is a motto that Christians ought to live by. Service is an integral part - if not the very foundation - of Christian mission, and when a Christian willingly gives themselves to another in service they are essentially repeating the words of Christ. In doing so, when we offer ourselves in service and in love to our friends, our family, and our neighbor we are telling them "This is my body, which will be given up for you." Christ is calling each of us to come to the point where we will be willing to say, "I offer myself in service - this is my being, which will be given up for you and for all. I will serve and love others to the best of my ability." Thus, the doctrine of the Real Presence may here be read as the need for Christians to make manifest the presence of God through our actions - a call to love and to serve as we continue to journey together. 

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