If you’re church is committed to a particular service book or worship directory, chances are you already celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a way that broadly conforms to the ancient, ecumenical pattern. We free-church folk (Baptists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, and such) do not have such resources—and I’d like to see somebody try to impose one!
That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t worship in ways that reinterpret ancient patterns in ways that are appropriate for our theological and liturgical contexts. It just takes a little bit of creativity and a little bit of familiarity with past precedents.
The Basic Structure
The first thing we need to do is discern a basic structure. Fortunately, there is a glaringly obvious one if we look at the Gospel accounts‚ not of the Last Supper per se, but many other meals at which Jesus ministered. For example:
Taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Mt 14:19)Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. (Mk 8:6)
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. (Lk 24:30)
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take, this is my body.” (Mk 14:22)
One quickly notes that the same terminology (taking, blessing/giving thanks, breaking, and giving) is used both in the Last Supper narratives and elsewhere. This suggests it was very familiar language in the church and that other meal-settings from Jesus’ ministry were interpreted as in some sense ritually significant. Furthermore note that, in describing the Last Supper, the bread-blessing before the Passover meal and cup-blessing afterward are usually brought together. In Mark 14:23, the Evangelist narrates the cup-blessing as a separate liturgical movement, but he has already truncated the story by glossing over the meal entirely! This suggests an impulse toward liturgical minimalism was already at work, first bringing the bread- and cup-blessings into contact with one another with no meal in between, and then collapsing the two into a single rite with a single consecratory prayer: an innovation attested in the Didache (ca. 100) and universally practiced by the time of Justin Martyr (ca. 150). Here is Justin’s account of the Eucharist in his day:
… and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen. And there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (First Apology 67)
Justin does not mention the breaking of bread, but the other movements are there, and in the same order: taking (“bread and wine and water are brought”), blessing (“and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings”), and giving (“and there is a distribution to each”).
This has been the pattern, then, for about 95% of Christian history. Was it the way Jesus did it? No: Jesus ate a full meal with his disciples, and both the Old Testament and later Jewish writings even give us the menu! Unless we are celebrating the Lord’s Supper around tables in the context of a meal (not a bad thing, to be sure!), were are decidedly not “following the New Testament pattern.” But if we accept the Didache as a reliable guide to first-century Christian practice, neither were early Christians whose leaders were likely trained by the apostles themselves! If we are going to diverge from the New Testament pattern by celebrating the Lord’s Supper apart from a meal, why not diverge just a little bit more by following the fourfold pattern of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that has been in continuous use from the end of the first century until today?
Next: Taking and Blessing