Patterns of Christian Meals
In my previous post, I only discussed Christian meals that have an explicit Eucharistic element. Other sources are ambiguous, and scholars have debated for some time whether certain texts (e.g., the Didache) are describing the Eucharist or some other form of Christian banquet. Finally, some documents take pains to insist that the meal they are describing is not the Eucharist.
Part of the problem is almost certainly our tendency to impose later understandings of what constitutes a “proper” Eucharist. Jesus shared meals with his disciples (and with the outcasts of society) throughout his earthly ministry, and all of those mealtimes factor into the first Christian patterns of meeting and eating together. The Last Supper has a special place because it was the last meal before the crucifixion, and therefore was especially remembered by at least some early Christian communities.
In The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix suggests an almost surgical disentanglement of the Eucharist from the agape, leaving an agape-free Eucharist as the regular custom by the time of Ignatius (ca. 110). He takes great pains to highlight the theological and liturgical acumen that went into discerning precisely what needed to remain a part of each observance. He is probably correct that the separation was accomplished with great sensitivity to the underlying Jewish meal liturgy, and I am willing to agree that it was probably accomplished in most regions by the early decades of the second century, if not sooner.
But there is in fact evidence to suggest that the separation took some time to accomplish. First, there is the evidence of combined Eucharistic agapes well into the 2nd century and beyond. Furthermore, even when the Eucharistic nature of the agape was explicitly denied, there are tantalizing hints that in an earlier stratum of tradition one might have read a different story.
The final separation is attested in the Apostolic Tradition, where the author took great pains to hammer home that the agape is not to be construed as a Eucharist in any sense (ApTrad 26:2). Even here, though, there are indications that the agape is more than a simple meal. There is the explicit requirement for the clergy to officiate, and there are exhortations to sobriety and decorous conversation. Above all, the “blessed bread” is forbidden to catechumens. Indeed, in describing an agape, Apostolic Tradition 26:5 declares, “A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s Supper.” In short, had Ignatius’ contemporaries possessed prayer books, they are unlikely to have thrown them out overnight to embrace the liturgical innovation of celebrating the Eucharist apart from a meal.
Liturgical texts for agapes are rare and often subject to varying interpretations. There is enough evidence, however, to suggest some overall structures. Occasionally, we are even in a position to suggest the wording of actual prayers. For the most part, however, we are forced to use our imagination in applying what we know of the “normative” Justinian liturgical pattern to the “alternative” situation. Some of the most primitive Eucharistic prayers, for example, might have been used at a combined Eucharistic agape.
A Syro-Egyptian Pattern
We begin with the most commonly encountered structure, found in Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor. In both the Didache (Syria, ca. 100) and the Canons of Hippolytus (Egypt, ca. 340), we encounter a combined Eucharistic agape, with the Eucharist positioned at the beginning of the meal. There is also a 4th century Egyptian treatise On Virginity in which one finds an agape very similar in structure to that of the Didache.
In the Canons of Hippolytus there are two descriptions of an agape. One is for a funerary meal and the other is for an ordinary “Lord’s Supper.” The Lord’s Supper pattern begins with the Eucharist, received standing. Then comes the fellowship meal. The meal is concluded with the lighting of lamps and psalmody.
Whereas earlier commentators disputed the Eucharistic character of the meal ritual depicted in Didache 9-10, the growing consensus is that this is in fact an ancient Eucharist. In Didache 14:1, believers are to confess their transgressions to one another before the Eucharist, “that your sacrifice may be pure.” Aaron Milavec suggests that the corporate confession was omitted at a baptismal Eucharist, as is depicted in chapters 9-10, for pastoral reasons (The Didache: Text, Translation, Analysis, and Commentary [Michael Glazier, 2003] 77).
The cup and the bread are both consecrated in a single prayer before the meal, in distinction to the New Testament pattern (cf. 1 Cor 11). Surprisingly, the cup is mentioned first in the prayer of thanksgiving, a pattern only repeated in the shorter textual tradition of Luke 22. Didache 9-10 presents a rather straightforward Jewish religious meal, but with no mention of a second cup associated with the final prayer. The consecration of the cup and the bread consists of three brief prayers, each concluding with a chatimah or ascription of praise. Many interpreters believe these simple praise sentences were chanted by the congregation.
At the conclusion of the meal is a final prayer that bears strong affinity to the Jewish birkat ha-mazon or table grace. Originally, the prayer would have almost certainly been spoken over a cup, which would then have been shared by the participants. In its current context, the cup is nowhere to be found.Following these prayers is a brief section that has been construed as a kind of liturgical dialogue:
May grace come, and may this world pass away.
Hosanna to the God of David!
If any is holy, let him come; if any is not, let him repent.
Marana tha! Amen.
There is no shortage of possible interpretations of what this text is and what it is doing in its current context. Lietzmann simply says it has been mis-placed in the textual tradition. Senn suggests it is not a liturgical piece as such, but an exhortation to the reader. Jeremias believes Didache 9-10 describes the non-Eucharistic portion of an agape, and that these words form a transition to the Eucharist proper with which the meal concludes.
Milavec has suggested that these brief praise acclamations “represent the spontaneous shouts or chants of various members of the congregation who were caught up by the future expectation wich which the prayer leader closed the official prayer” (71). He further speculates that these sentences may have served to “prime” the prophets for their charismatic prayers of thanksgiving. By this interpretation, which has much to commend it, these words form a transition between the meal and the symposium. Judging from 1 Corinthians 12-14, the exercise of spiritual gifts in the earliest churches took place at precisely this point-after the conclusion of the meal.
Finally there is the meal structure found in a treatise dubiously attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria called On Virginity. Whether or not Athanasius wrote it, this instruction for female monastics reflects Egyptian practice in the 4th century.
Apart from the absence of any mention of a cup, the basic pattern of the meal described in On Virginity follows closely that of the Didache rite, and shows clear literary dependence on that source. The observance proceeds in three movements. Before the meal, while the nuns are still standing, there is a bread-blessing rite which includes:
- A threefold sign of the cross
- A prayer over the bread, with a wording virtually identical to that of Didache 9.
- The Lord’s Prayer
- Sharing the broken bread
Next comes a common meal, at which catechumens and “careless and frivolous women” are to be excluded. After the meal, all rise and there is a final blessing that “appears to be remotely derived from the first paragraph of the old Jewish berakah after meals” (Dix, 94):
Blessed be God, who is merciful and nourishes us from our youth, who gives food to all flesh.” Fill our hearts with joy and good cheer, that everyone everywhere might have sufficiency, abounding into every good work in Christ Jesus the Lord, with whom to you belongs glory, might, honor and worship, together with the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
This does not seem to be a Eucharistic consecration. While it may simply be the communal meal of the monastic community, one wonders whether perhaps we have here a form of Communion from the reserved sacrament. The practice of Communion outside of the Eucharist was of course a well-established tradition by this time. Most commonly, Communion would be in the form of pre-consecrated bread only, although occasional mention is made of the practice of dipping the pre-consecrated bread in ordinary wine. The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as a pre-Communion devotion was first being introduced in this general period, it being first attested in the Mystagogical Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem around 380. Certainly the presence of a prayer patterned on the Didache‘s Eucharistic prayer is significant. Whenever else this prayer form appears in an Egyptian text (for example, in the anaphora of Sarapion of Thmuis and in the Der Balyzeh papyrus) it is as part of a Eucharistic consecration.
A Western Pattern
The western pattern also places the bread (and possibly the cup) before supper. The relevant texts from Rome and North Africa have no overt Eucharistic reference. Evidence for this form of worship-meal comes primarily from the Latin text of the Apostolic Tradition and the description of an agape found in Tertullian’s Apology. From Cyprian (Epistle 63, 16), we learn that the western agape involved sharing a common cup, at least in North Africa.
The Latin Apostolic Tradition gives a bread-blessing rite followed by a cup. Each participant is to speak the blessing over his or her own cup, following Jewish custom. This is essentially a bare-bones Jewish meal, without even mention of a grace after the meal, although perhaps there was one.
Tertullian’s description of the agape (Apology 39) is a more fleshed-out version of the same pattern. In fact, if Cyprian’s common cup is associated with Tertullian’s concluding prayer, the Jewish pattern is reproduced almost perfectly.
Here is Tertullian’s description in full:
We do not take our places at table until we have first tasted prayer to God. Only so much is eaten as satisfied hunger; only so much drunk as meets the need of the modest. They satisfy themselves only so far as men will who recall that even during the night they must worship God; they talk as those would who know the Lord listens. After water for the hands come the lights; and then each, from what he knows of the Holy Scriptures, or from his own heart, is called before the rest to sing to God; so that is a test of how much he has drunk. Prayer in like manner ends the banquet. (Apology 39:17-18)
The pattern is thus:
- Beginning Prayer (all standing)
- Hand-washing and lamp-lighting
- Hymnody (including “table talk” and/or charismatic expressions?)
- Concluding Prayer
Tertullian noted that the agape both begins and ends with prayer. Can we interpret him to imply that there was an opening prayer over the bread and a closing prayer over the cup? It is tempting to do so, and the church’s rule of secrecy (disciplina arcani) surrounding the details of the liturgy might be legitimately invoked as the reason he omitted reference to these symbols in a document intended for outsiders. But there is no way to know for sure where Cyprian’s common cup should go. Assuming the opening prayer is a bread-blessing (as in all known agape structures), placing the common cup directly thereafter would produce the same format we find in the Apostolic Tradition. Placing it at the end of the meal gives us the original Jewish domestic liturgy.
It is not inconceivable that the cup would have been omitted entirely under the pressure to create a clear distinction between the agape and the Eucharist. But if that were the case, however, one would expect mention of the cup in the earlier source (Tertullian) and omission of it in the later (Cyprian).
An Egyptian Pattern
A final pattern is found only in the Ethiopic text of the Apostolic Tradition and a passing comment in the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates (ca. 440). These sources are probably too late to be totally reliable guides to pre-Constantinian practice, but they are included for the sake of completeness, and because of the apparent antiquity of the practice that Socrates describes.
In this pattern, the rituals surrounding bread and cup come after the main meal. In the Apostolic Tradition the observance is emphatically not to be construed as a form of Eucharist, while in Socrates it is explicitly a combined Eucharistic agape.
First let us look at what Socrates wrote:
The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebaid, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings they partake of the mysteries. (Ecclesiastical History 5:22)
This Egyptian observance stands out on a number of counts. First, the Eucharist (“partaking of the mysteries”) comes after a meal, even though the general custom in Socrates’ time was to fast before Communion. Second, it takes place in the evening. Sunrise was the customary time for the Eucharist from the second century on, but an evening meal was the original practice, attested in Pliny’s Letter to Trajan. Finally, the meal takes place on the Sabbath rather than Sunday, whether at the beginning of the Sabbath (i.e., Friday night) or the end of the Sabbath (i.e., Saturday night), is not specified. All three of these features suggest great antiquity. If Socrates is to be believed, he provides evidence for the persistence of a combined Eucharistic agape well into post-Nicene times.
The Ethiopic text of the Apostolic Tradition describes a more elaborate observance than the Latin text noted above. Like the Latin text, the Ethiopic text begins with bread- and cup-blessings and then a common meal. The Ethiopic text, however, gives a much fuller picture of what transpires after the meal is completed (ApTrad. 26:20-32). First the deacon brings in lamps and the bishop offers a prayer. After the lamp-lighting the children and virgins are invited to sing psalms. The banquet ends with a second ritual involving both bread and a cup:
And afterwards the deacon holding the mingled cup of the oblation shall say the Psalm from those in which is written “Hallelujah,” [likely a later interpolation: "after that the presbyter has commanded: 'And likewise from those Psalms.'"]. And afterwards the bishop having offered the cup as is proper for the cup, he shall say the Psalm “Hallelujah.” And all of them as he recties the Psalms shall say “Hallelujah,” which is to say: We praise him who is God most high: glorified and praised is he who founded all the world with one word. And likewise when the Psalm is completed, he shall give thanks over the cup, and give of the fragments to all the faithful (ApTrad. 26:29-32).
The basic structure is thus a confused or mutilated version of the Passover Seder as it would have been practiced in the second or third century:
- An initial bread-blessing, by the bishop
- Blessing of cups, by each participant individually
- Meal (and “table talk”)
- The the first part of the Hallel, by the deacon
- A prayer over “the cup of oblation”
- The second part of the Hallel, by the bishop
- A prayer of thanksgiving over the cup
- The people share broken bread
The concluding cup and bread ritual may be a reminiscence of primitive Eucharistic customs, but we are not in a position to offer conclusive proof. Put alongside Socrates’ remark about Alexandrian agape practice, however, the possibility remains open.
Next: Why Did Eucharist and Agape Diverge?