Home » +The Breaking of Bread (Page 2)
Category Archives: +The Breaking of Bread
I am fairly comfortable with the historic Baptist position on the Lord’s Supper. In other words, I find the way it is observed and talked about in most Baptist churches today to be dismally inadequate. I may not agree with you about the philosophical and theological niceties of how Christ is present in the bread and the cup, but please place me in the “real presence” column and not in the “real absence” camp of most of my contemporary fellow Baptists.
I prefer to live in a sacramentally charged world where even everyday, earthy things can be conduits of grace. I’ve been thinking of a couple of incidents that may explain what I mean by that unBaptist statement. Both of them point to fresh ways traditionally non-sacramentally minded folk might think about Communion and its importance. If nothing else, perhaps these illustrations can help others see why this is an important issue for me.
Connie was a preschool teacher in Louisville. Jonathan was one of her two-year olds. One day on the playground, Jonathan gave Connie a rock. “Here, Miss Tonnie: a rock!” and he proudly plopped it into her waiting hand.
Later, Jonathan’s mother explained what a great honor it was to be given one of Jonathan’s rocks. He didn’t give them to just anybody, you see. He loved to play with them on the playground, pick them up, feel their weight and texture, look at their shapes and colors. He was just fascinated with rocks. For all I know, Jonathan is hoping to enter the University of Louisville in the next couple years as a geology major!
Connie has cherished that rock for over fifteen years. It was one of the sentimental treasures we were sad we lost when our house was burglarized last year.
But it’s only a rock, right? Why should anyone get so worked up about a rock?
Sure, it was only a rock to people who didn’t know the story—who didn’t live the story. In itself, it was just an aggregate of silicon, oxygen, and other elements, a perfectly ordinary product of geological processes at work before any of us were born. But when Jonathan took it in his hands that rock was transformed. When he gave it to Connie, he was giving her a part of himself. Nor did it matter that Connie was clueless about what the rock meant. Now she knows, and she’s genuinely sad and frustrated that she no longer has it.
At big family get-togethers, we make “Henrietta Rolls.” They are absolutely delicious, but they are also a lot of work. You have to mix up the dough and then let it rise, then let it rise again. Then you have to punch out little circles of dough, slather them in butter, and set them aside until you’re ready to bake them. We call them Henrietta Rolls because my Mom got the recipe from Henrietta, who was the leader of one of her civic clubs when she was younger. Henrietta made the rolls for Mom and the other young ladies and shared the recipe with them. They’ve been Henrietta Rolls ever since.
We had company over for Christmas dinner and mom told the story of the rolls and remarked about how it always brought back fond memories when she makes them. Rebecca was hearing the story for the first time, and when Mom started talking about how the rolls reminded her of special times, she offered this powerful theologoumenon: “They’re a memory you can eat!”
That’s it exactly! The eating is pleasant enough, but the whole experience—mixing the dough, kneading it, shaping it, buttering it, baking it—has far greater significance than the taste of the finished product. If you don’t know the story, it’s just a roll—the best roll you’ve ever tasted, I guarantee, but still just a tiny morsel of bread. Once you know the story, and once you’ve lived it in the kitchen of people you love, you know it’s something more.
I never knew Henrietta. Whenever I eat those rolls I can’t help but think of family feasts or a house full of honored guests—my Dad’s basketball teams, my Mom’s parliamentarians, or just the friends who always used to come to my parents’ New Year’s Day open house. I remember my grandmother and my Aunt Lena helping to bake sheet after sheet of the things!
Connie usually refers to them not as Henrietta Rolls but as Grandmommy Rolls. I’ve got a feeling that’s what Rebecca will be calling them decades from now.
Why is the Lord’s Supper so important to me? Because it is a gift Jesus gave us, and therefore we ought to receive it graciously and gratefully. And, because faith tells me there’s more to it than a tiny morsel of bread.
It is a memory we can eat.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16)
It was a shock to me when I learned that first-century Christians held their weekly worship services around the dinner table and that the first “Lord’s Suppers” were real-live meals and not just tiny crackers and thimbles full of grape juice. How could anyone possibly have the Lord’s Supper and a church potluck at the same time? It just wasn’t natural.
For the first Christians, it made prefect sense to share meals together in which they remembered the many meals Jesus shared with his disciples, and especially the last supper on the night he was betrayed. The Corinthians, however, faltered in preserving the spiritual significance of their meals. Instead of a sharing in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16), their gatherings became occasions for drunkenness and class prejudice (11:20-21). Paul needed to remind them that eating the bread and drinking from the cup were not magic rituals. Sharing the church’s meal couldn’t protect them from God’s judgment any more than eating the Passover protected those Israelites who fell into idolatry in the wilderness.
Christ is present when his people gather in his name. We should remember that when we approach his table.
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Lk 11:2-4)
Jesus taught the disciples to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Bread is such a powerful symbol of God’s provision that I’m surprised we don’t pay more attention to its use in Scripture. In our economic abundance, perhaps we have forgotten that, for most of human history, food was often hard to come by. Fruits and vegetables were only available in season, and meat was mostly a delicacy of the rich. Bread, however, was a staple at every meal. In ancient Greek, one of the words for “fish” even means something like, “that which is eaten with bread.”
Jesus supplies our every need. More than once in the Gospels, this is illustrated through the provision of bread. When Jesus gives bread to his followers, the spiritually attentive see it as a sign of divine presence. Like the Emmaus disciples, they “recognize Jesus” in the breaking of the bread.
Do check out this article by Mark Galli at Christianity Today. Galli has recently written a book about the growing attraction some evangelicals feel for traditional Christian liturgy. Here, he summarizes some of why that attraction exists. Some of my favorite bits include:
The worship leaders wear medieval robes and guide the congregation through a ritual that is anything but spontaneous; they lead music that is hundreds of years old; they say prayers that are scripted and formal; the homily is based on a 2,000-year-old book; and the high point of the service is taken up with eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a Rabbi executed in Israel when it was under Roman occupation. It doesn’t sound relevant.
Yet many evangelicals are attracted to liturgical worship, and as one of those evangelicals, I’d like to explain what the attraction is for me, and perhaps for many others. A closer look suggests that something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. “The liturgy begins‚Ä¶ as a real separation from the world,” writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to “make Christianity understandable to this mythical ‘modern’ man on the street,” we have forgotten this necessary separation.
[C]hurches that perceive themselves as relevant often by their nature limit a full-bodied expression of the church‚Äîthat is, they “target” 20- and maybe 30-somethings, and usually those of that group who are middle- and upper-middle-class white-collar types rising in income and influence. Few churches that consciously seek relevance want to clear the way to church for the poor, the homeless, welfare moms, drug-addicted men, or those trapped in nursing homes and convalescent hospitals. These “target audiences” are not very relevant to many “casual, contemporary” churches.
This is one reason I thank God for the liturgy. The liturgy does not target any age or cultural subgroup. It does not even target this century…. Instead, the liturgy draws us into worship that transcends our time and place. Its earliest forms took shape in ancient Israel, and its subsequent development occurred in a variety of cultures and subcultures‚ÄîGreco-Roman, North African, German, Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, and so on. It has been prayed meaningfully by bakers, housewives, tailors, teachers, philosophers, priests, monks, kings, and slaves. As such, it has not been shaped to meet a particular group’s needs. It seeks only to enable people‚Äîpeople in general‚Äîto see God.
Ponder as well at Michael Bird’s aphoristic explanation of why one needs a healthy balance between word, sacrament, and Spirit:
1. If you focus predominantly on the power of the preached Word, but push the Sacraments to the corner and domesticate the Spirit to suit your theology, then you’ll turn the church into a Mosque.
2. If you focus on the experience and euphoria of the Spirit, and have the Word eviscerated into some pop-psychology, and relegate the Sacraments to something too “liturgical” and passe you’ll soon find yourself practicing Mysticism.
3. If you focus on the Sacraments as instruments through which we encounter God, but reduce the Word to sound bites of moral advice, and censure the Spirit as the concern of a few eccentric enthusiasts, then you’ll find yourself pushing Magic.
Press deadlines beckon, but I expect I’ll have more to say about all this in a couple of weeks.
So far we have seen that the earliest forms of distinctively Christian worship have their origins at the dinner table where a few baptized and committed believers gathered to share a common meal. Furthermore, the evidence strongly suggests this form of worship was a private affair at which non-believers were forbidden. Wayne Meeks, for example, describes how Paul understood the Lord’s Supper ritual as a “boundary marker” of Christian community (The First Urban Christians [Yale University Press, 1983] 159-60). This exclusion flies in the face of current ministry philosophies that make much of the church’s weekly worship service as a “front door event” at which pre-Christian seekers are assumed to be present.
Modern church practice, crossing all denominational lines (as far as I know), does not bar anyone from simply attending a service where the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. I have been present at Catholic Mass on several occasions, even though as a Protestant I would be deemed unqualified to receive Communion. My mere presence, however, was never a sticking point. Churches generally give some sort of notice, either spoken or printed, as to who is or is not invited to receive the bread and the cup. The attendance of people not permitted to participate fully is not considered a problem. This practice is an outgrowth of medieval Christendom, in which it could be safely assumed that nearly every member of society had been baptized in infancy and was thus at least nominally Christian. As our society becomes more secular and post-Christian, this assumption will need to be named and evaluated biblically, ecclesiologically, and theologically.
On at least one occasion, however, Paul discussed Christian worship on the assumption that unbelievers would be present. In discussing the exercise of charismatic gifts, he told the Corinthians,
If all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:24-25)
It should be noted that Paul (1) assumed that the presence of an “unbeliever or outsider” was a real possibility, and (2) urged the Corinthians to adjust their worship practices so as not to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in such a person’s path.
From earliest times, therefore, Christians invited the unbaptized to participate in some forms of Christian worship but not others. Specifically, only the baptized were permitted to attend the Eucharist. A number of options presented themselves for working out the logistics of this decision.
Let us call the most widespread arrangement the “Classical” option. This option was universal by the fourth and fifth centuries. Simply put, the unbaptized were permitted to attend the first part of the service, in which the Sciptures were read and explained, but were dismissed before the Eucharist. So long as there was a vital catechumenate, those who had made at least a preliminary commitment to follow Christ were dismissed with a blessing and sent to another location, where they would receive additional instruction.
Two earlier options may be designated by the locations in which they first appear in the documentary record. The “Bithynian” option is suggested by Pliny’s interrogation of certain lapsed Christians. Around the turn of the second century, Pliny discovered that the custom of Christians was to meet in the pre-dawn hours for prayer, and then to gather again in the evening to share a common meal. It has been conjectured that the early-morning prayer service was modeled on Jewish synagogue practices. Although there is no indication of the presence of seekers at the morning service, it seems likely that they would have been welcomed, just as “God-fearers” were welcomed in Hellenistic synagogues in the first century.
Earlier still, we find the “Corinthian” option in the writings of Paul. In 1 Corinthians, the Lord’s Supper was apparently exclusively for Christians (1 Cor 11), but seekers were permitted to join in the “symposium” immediately following (1 Cor 12-14). Though it may seem strange to us, it was unremarkable in ancient times for hosts to invite only a few close friends for dinner and to invite additional guests to come after supper to take part in the evening’s entertainments. Such a practice seems to be implied in 1 Corinthians.
Finally, we should mention the “Constantinopolitan” option, known only from a historical reminiscence in a sermon of John Chrysostom (Homily 27 on 1 Cor 11:17). Chrysostom described an ancient church custom by which “the poor” were invited to a dinner that took place in the church at the conclusion of the Eucharist. If “the poor” included unbelievers (and this is not certain), this would be the only ancient option in which non-believers were invited to share food with Christians! There is no evidence that any church actually observed this custom in ancient times, but it deserves consideration, if for no other reason than it is faithful to Jesus’ own example of eating with society’s outcasts.
As yet we have not addressed the most vexing question of all: why did Christians see fit to separate the Eucharist from the agape?
As early as the New Testament itself evidence surfaces that there were abuses connected with the agape. These abuses apparently arose from failure to grasp the spiritual nature of the meal.
Paul described a situation in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in which social stratification led to inequities in the food. As Paul described it, when the worshipers gathered for the agape, the rich (who, with more flexible schedules, are most likely to arrive early) shared their own higher quality food and wine before the poorer members of the church could arrive. One goes hungry, Paul observed, while another becomes drunk. As Theissen suggests, this seems to have been acceptable behavior by Greco-Roman standards. Paul was eager to expunge this practice from the Eucharist. He therefore urged the Corinthians to discern the body (11:29) so as to eat worthily. Rather than bring such behaviors into the observance where the church was to celebrate and demonstrate its unity and equality, Paul suggested those who wanted more sumptuous fare to eat at home before coming to worship. Otherwise, they must wait for everyone to arrive before beginning to eat.
Another form of abuse is hinted at when Paul speaks of drunkenness as a problem at the Lord’s Supper. Jude 12 also indicates immoral behavior as a blemish upon the church’s agapes.
All in all, the agape did not fare well when it first entered the Greco-Roman milieu. This may well explain the later exhortations to uphold the feast with sobriety and decorum. One early example of such exhortation is found in the Apostolic Tradition:
But when you eat and drink do it in good order and not unto drunkenness, and not so that any one may mock you, or that he who invites you may be grieved by your disorder, but [rather] so that he may pray [to be made worthy] that the saints may come in unto him. For he said, “You are the salt of the earth” (ApTrad. 26:7).
Such abuses would have created an impetus for removing the Eucharist from a morally questionable environment. Indeed, they probably played a part in the complete discontinuation of the agape. These abuses, however, do not provide the only rationale for separating the Eucharist from the fellowship meal. Additional factors also contributed to the separation.
In Pliny’s letter to Trajan, he describes the practice of Christians in Asia Minor around the turn of the second century. According to lapsed Christians whom he interrogated, it was their former custom to gather for worship early in the morning, and then to re-assemble for an evening meal. Pliny further recounts that they had discontinued this meal practice after he issued an edict, following upon Trajan’s instructions, forbidding “political associations” (hetaeriae).
This imperial policy was probably instrumental in moving the Eucharist from evening to morning. By the time of Justin Martyr, a Eucharist at sunrise was apparently the norm. Justin’s accounts of the Eucharist make no mention of an agape. The first Christians perhaps could not bring themselves to completely abandon their communal banquet, but under the threat of persecution reasoned that it was justifiable to reduce it to only the barest elements.
A practical consideration at this point is the cultural expectations about supper as opposed to breakfast. In late antiquity the main meal of the day took place in the late afternoon or early evening. Breakfast, however, was traditionally quite small and simple. It often consisted of a single piece of bread. Pre-Christian sources sometimes even describe a breakfast of bread dipped in wine. So the transition from evening to morning Eucharist entailed a transition from supper to breakfast as the predominant mealtime frame of reference. It is not difficult to see how a light meal of bread alone could eventually become a single morsel of bread, eaten not to sustain the body but for purely sacramental motives.
All of the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper show signs of liturgical shaping. Details of the Passover Seder became eclipsed so as to cast greater emphasis on Jesus’ words and actions surrounding the bread and the cup.
Lietzmann’s reconstruction of literary dependency would seem to hold:
- The original tradition was preserved in two forms, Mark 14 and 1 Cor 11.
- Matthew is an elaboration on the Markan form of the tradition.
- Luke is dependent on both Mark and Paul.
Dix suggests that this phenomenon shows a growing disinterest in the details of the Last Supper itself, particularly in Mark and Matthew bringing together the bread and the cup.
No one would gather from either account that anything occurred in between. They are writing primarily for gentile readers, to whom the details of the Jewish custom would be unfamiliar and perhaps not particularly interesting. But they are also writing for Christian readers, and it rather looks as though the interrelation of Eucharist and supper to one another was no longer familiar or interesting to Christians.
Rather, the early Christian communities were re-casting the observance in terms of their own liturgical practice.
The ascetic impulse began early in Christian history. In second-century Syria, even John the Baptist’s food in the desert became something of an embarrassment. The statement that he consumed meat—albeit locusts—apparently caused a scandal among the ascetically minded. Some writers simply made John into a vegetarian, explaining the akrides of the Greek text either as a plant name, or as a corruption of akrodrua, “wild fruits.” Tatian removed the problem entirely in his Diatessaron by making John’s diet consist of milk and honey.
The ascetic standard with regard to food was simple, vegetarian fare, and as little as possible even of that. Athanasius’s Life of Antony describes the ideal ascetic diet:
[Antony] ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only. Of flesh and wine it is superfluous even to speak, since no such thing was found with the other earnest men. (Life of Antony 7)
In a subculture that stresses physical self-denial and fasting, even what was originally a full-on meal is likely to become attenuated until it is ultimately only a “token” eating.
The earliest documentary evidence suggests that from the very beginning only baptized Christians were allowed to participate at the Eucharist. Even so, Paul voiced the expectation that there would be outsiders present at Christian worship assemblies (1 Cor 14:23-25). So from the beginning churches had to make arrangements for both restricted and unrestricted gatherings. Jeremias suggests that this might have been accomplished by holding the Eucharist at the very end of the agape, after outsiders had been dismissed. This theory assumes that originally all were invited to participate in the agape, a possibility raised by John Chrysostom’s mention of inviting the poor to the common banquet in Homily 27 on 1 Corinthians.
Of course, an equally compelling case can be made for holding the Eucharist first and then bringing in additional guests for the agape. At any rate, it was deemed necessary to separate the special food ritual of the Eucharist from the more common (albeit still religiously significant) agape ritual that the unbaptized could attend.
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?
It is universally agreed that the earliest forms of Christian worship were integrally related to the congregation’s communal meal or agape. This is certainly the case with the fullest description of worship from the New Testament (1 Cor 11-14), from the Didache (ca. 100), and from Pliny’s Letter to Trajan (ca. 111). Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, gave this account of interrogations he conducted with certain lapsed Christians:
They stated that the sum total of their error or misjudgment, had been coming to a meeting on a given day before dawn, and singing responsively a hymn to Christ as to God, swearing with a holy oath not to commit any crime, never to steal or commit robbery, commit adultery, fail a sworn agreement or refuse to return a sum left in trust. When all this was finished, it was their custom to go their separate ways, and later re-assemble to take food of an ordinary and simple kind. But after my edict which forbids all political societies, they did in fact give this up (Epistle 96).
This account, extracted from informants who had abandoned their Christian faith as long as twenty years previously (that is, in the early 90s), indicates two forms of Christian gathering. First, in the early morning there was some sort of service for prayer and moral instruction. Second, the church re-convened in the evening for a communal meal. It is likely that the first meeting took place early on the Sabbath. By Jewish liturgical reckoning, since the agape began after sundown, it fell on “the first day of the week” (Ac 20:7). The pre-dawn meeting may well have been patterned on the Jewish synagogue service. The distinctive element in Christian worship was the conduct of their religious meal.
Most of the earliest post-biblical descriptions of Christian worship, however, describe a liturgy in which the actual meal is absent. According to Justin Martyr’s First Apology (ca. 150), the Christian gathering began with Scripture reading, a sermon, and prayer. Then, bread and wine were brought forward, prayed over by the “president” of the community, and distributed to the faithful. Much is made of the Eucharistic bread and cup, but the agape is nowhere to be found. Sometime between Pliny and Justin, the Eucharist became separated from the fellowship meal and attached to the morning prayer service.The same basic skeleton is at the heart of liturgical worship even today. And of course, it is likely that what Justin described was customary in Rome, and possibly elsewhere, several decades before he wrote.
Traces of earlier patterns, where Christians gathered around a dinner table for worship, are rare and often subject to diverse interpretations. One must therefore proceed with due humility in attempting to reconstruct the earliest Christian meal-liturgies. There are no fully-developed descriptions of such rites, although early sources such as the Didache — and indeed the New Testament itself — provide important clues as to the general structure. Other clues are present in alternative traditions which seem to preserve older patters that eventually fell out of use. These liturgies are “alternative” only in that they ceased to be mainstream, continuing in the church’s memory only as the idiosyncracies of small, perhaps remote populations or as reminiscences of earlier times.
The Symposium and the Seder
Both Christian and Jewish meal rituals developed from the ancient Greco-Roman symposium, literally “drinking party.” The original symposium had a two-part structure. First came the meal, introduced by a blessing of the bread. Then came the symposium proper, the after-dinner entertainment introduced by a blessing of wine. Though there were certainly immoral excesses, condemned as much by pagan moralists as by Christians, often the entertainment consisted simply of conversation on traditional philosophical themes.
This basic structure of bread (meal)-wine (interaction) is perhaps implied by the organization of Paul’s instructions concerning Chrisian worship in 1 Corinthians 11-14:
- 11:2-16: Propriety in “praying and prophesying” (at the bread blessing?)
- 11:17-34: Propriety during the meal itself
- 12:1-14:40: Propriety during the “symposium”
Guests may have greeted each other with a kiss upon arriving at the banquet. The custom of a kiss before a meal is seen, for example, in Luke 7:45 (where its omission is considered a great insult). Early on, the kiss was understood to be an act of reconciliation with one’s brothers and sisters before the offering as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5:24. The Didache expresses a similar sentiment when it enjoins worshipers to confess their faults to one another before celebrating the Eucharist so that their sacrifice may be pure (Did 14:1).
Christian liturgy ultimately developed from the Greco-Roman symposium as filtered through the banquet customs of Second Temple Judaism. The Passover Seder is of particular importance, although other communal Jewish meals, including the weekly Sabbath banquets, would have certainly exerted an influence on Christian patterns. The Seder provides an important benchmark precisely because there is sufficient information to reconstruct the broad outlines of Christian observance of the Pascha (Easter) in the mid-second century.
Dennis E. Smith’s research (From Symposium to Eucharist [Fortress, 2003] 147-150) suggests that the earliest form of Passover Seder would have been in basic conformity to the wider Greco-Roman banquet pattern. In its most primitive form, its liturgy would probably have been something like this:
The Appetizer Course
- Hand-washing (one hand only)
- Blessing of the wine and the day (kiddush) over the first cup
- Appetizers: greens, bitter herbs, and fruit pur?©e (charoset)
The Main Course
- Hand-washing (both hands)
- A blessing spoken over the unleavened bread
- The Passover meal itself
- The grace after the meal (birkat ha-mazon) spoken over the second cup
- The Haggadah or “table Talk,” centered on the Exodus story
- Chanting of the Hallel Psalms (Pss 113-118)
Later alterations or elaborations to this basic pattern were made until the liturgy began to approximate its current form sometime in the second century. Three significant changes should be noted. First, two additional cups of wine were added to the symposium, one dividing the Hallel into two halves and the other at the conclusion of the Hallel. Second, the grace after the meal was moved from the second cup to the third. Finally, the “table talk” was repositioned before the meal rather than after.
The Quartodeciman Pascha
When compared with the Christian paschal celebration in the mid-second century, we see how his pattern became adapted for Eucharistic worship. Apparently, Christians preserved the link between agape and Eucharist at the special occasion of Pascha even when they allowed the two observances to diverge generally. The outlines of the paschal feast may be discerned from the practice of the Quartodecimans. These second-century dissenters preserved the original date of Easter, the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Nisan (quartodecim is Latin for “fourteenth”) but they were not distinctive in their manner of observance.
In the Epistle of the Apostles 15 (ca. 150), we read Jesus’ own imagined instructions to the disciples regarding how to celebrate the Pascha:
After I return to my Father you are to remember my death whenever Pascha comes about. Then will one of you be thrown into prison on account of my name, and will be in trouble and sorrow because he is in prison while you are keeping Pascha, and he is not keeping the festivity. For I shall send my power in the form of my angel and the gates of the prison shall be opened. He will come out and will watch with you and remain until the cock crows, when you will have completed my agape and my commemoration, and he will be thrown once again into prison as witness to me, until he comes out and proclaims as I have commanded. So we said to him: “Lord, have you not fulfilled the Pascha? Is it necessary that we should take the cup and drink it again?” He replied “It is indeed necessary, until I return with those who died for me.”
In other words, Easter worship consisted in its most basic form of (1) a night vigil lasting until the early morning, (2) an agape meal, including (3) the “commemoration” of Christ: the Eucharist. It is not entirely clear whether the Eucharist would have come before or after the meal. A formal meal in the ancient world concluded with a dessert, which in the Seder was replaced by a final piece of bread known as the aphikoman. If this morsel were intended to represent the presence of the Messiah (see Melito of Sardis, On Pascha), it would not be a great leap to conceive of this as Eucharistic bread once the Seder became Christianized. This would suggest the pattern was agape-then-Eucharist. This would also account for the church’s early adoption of the customary liturgical dialogue preceding the prayer after meals as a prelude to its Eucharistic prayer.
On the other hand, the weight of evidence overall suggests the Eucharistic action would have come before the meal. In the Didache, which predates the Quartodeciman sources, the blessings of the cup and the bread come before the communal meal, not after.
Devotional and theological reasons might be advanced for either option. For instance, a desire to fast before Communion would imply the necessity of placing the Eucharist before the agape. Likewise, having Communion first might have been intended to set a properly worshipful tone for the entire evening. Conversely, in some congregations the Eucharist may have come last so as to end the evening on a high note. Furthermore, If the meal customarily began before sunset on Saturdays, it may have been desirable to wait until the end of the meal — after dark — in order to celebrate the Eucharist on what would then be “the first day of the week.” Clearly, different customs arose in different localities, which were only later harmonized with each other into a more or less uniform liturgical practice.
A Eucharistic Agape
Let us concentrate on the Eucharist-first pattern, simply because it eventually became the most popular option. By filling in some of the details by way of other sources we may propose the following outline for the paschal vigil:
- Scripture Readings (the Exodus narrative, and possibly the Old Testament prophets)
- “Table Talk”
- Agape Meal
- Psalmody (the Hallel Psalms?)
In both Judaism and Christianity, the “table talk” shifted to a position before the meal — and the fact that both communities made the same shift suggests that the relocation first occurred quite early. In the Jewish Seder, it came between the appetizer and the main course. Since the Christian Pascha came at the end of a fast, the appetizer course was omitted, and the “table talk” became the first element in the whole observance. It seems likely, however, that the entire liturgy still took place around the dining room table.
The connections with Justin’s liturgy are hard to miss. The service begins with reading and discussing scripture and moves on to the Eucharist. But in Justin’s description of the normal Sunday ritual, the meal had fallen away.In this light, mention should also be made of an intriguing reminiscence from John Chrysostom (4th century). Chrysostom related a tradition that, in the earliest years of the church, Christians regularly held a fellowship meal after worship. He wrote,
The faithful, after hearing the teaching, after the prayers and the communion of the sacraments, when the assembly was now over, did not leave at once for their homes, but the wealthy and well-off brought food and provender from their homes, called the poor, and offered communal tables, communal dinners, and communal banquets inside the church itself. In this way, the love between them was strengthened by the sharing of the table and by the piety exuded by the place and on all sides. As a result, they were on the one hand happy, and on the other greatly benefitted. Indeed, the poor took great comfort and the wealthy won the favor both of the people who ate and of God, for whom they did all these things. And having received much divine grace, they returned to their homes. (Homily 27 on 1 Cor 11:17)
The pattern is virtually the same: scripture teaching, corporate prayers, Eucharist, then a meal.
Next: Later Developments
Mike Aquilina links to Catholic News Service article that makes mention of breastfeeding imagery associated with Holy Communion. (The article has apparently since been revised; I can’t find the specific wording immediately below in the article Mike links.) With respect to the custom of receiving the host on the tongue‚ as opposed to in the hand, the article states,
Bishop Schneider said that just as a baby opens his mouth to receive nourishment from his mother, so should Catholics open their mouths to receive nourishment from Jesus.
“Christ truly nourishes us with his body and blood in holy Communion and, in the patristic era, it was compared to maternal breastfeeding,” he said.
I don’t have a dog in that fight, so I’ll withhold comment on the liturgical issue at hand. I did, however, want to provide a brief summary of some of the ancient writers who indeed compared Christ’s self-giving, on the cross and in the Eucharist, to the act of breastfeeding:
A cup of milk was offered me
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
The Son is the cup
And the Father is he who is milked
And the Holy Spirit is she who milked him.
Because his breasts were full
And it was undesirable that his milk should be ineffectually released.
The Holy Spirit opened her bosom
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father
Then she gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing.
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand. (Odes of Solomon 19:1-5)
The Word [i.e., Christ] is all to the child, both father and mother, and tutor and nurse. (Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus [ANF 2:220])
Celestial milk poured out from the sweet breasts of a young bride … [Christ’s] little children, with their tender mouths, are nourished by those incorporeal nipples. (Clement of Alexandria, Hymn to Christ the Savior)
Thy breasts are sweeter than wine and the odor of thy ointments above all ointments … in this comparison which shows how far superior is the milk we draw from the divine breast to the joy we derive from wine, we learn that all human wisdom or the exercise of the imagination cannot be compared with the simple nourishment we derive from divine revelation. (Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Canticle)
Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten. (John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 65)
Though the Most High, yet he sucked the milk of Mary, and of his goodness all creatures suck! He is the Breast of Life and the Breath of Life: the dead suck from his life and revive. (Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity)
He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness. For just as a mother, suckling her infant, transfers from her flesh the very same food which otherwise would be unsuited to a babe, … so our Lord, in order to convert his wisdom into milk for our benefit, came to us clothed in flesh. (Augustine, On the Psalms, vol. 2)
Although not explicitly linked to breastfeeding imagery, the following quotations from the Middle Ages also describe Jesus in an explicitly maternal fashion:
But you also, Jesus, good Lord, are you not also Mother? Are you not Mother, who are as a hen who gathers her own chicks under her wings? Truly, Lord, you also are Mother. For that which others have been in labor with and have born, they have received from you. (Anselm, Oratio LXV ad Sanctum Paulum Apostolum [Migne, 158:981-82])
We realize that all our mothers bear us for pain and for dying, and what is that? But our true mother, Jesus‚ All-love‚ alone bears us for joy and for endless living, blessed may he be! Thus he sustains us within himself in love and hard labor, until the fulness of time. (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)
Christ was humankind’s foster-mother, enduring with greatness and strength of the Deity united with your nature, the bitter medicine of the painful death of the cross, to give life to you little ones debilitated by guilt. (Catherine of Siena, Dialogue)
This is powerful imagery the church needs to do a better job of reclaiming.
Let me state at the outset that I am jealous of Mike Aquilina for having produced The Mass of the Early Christians. It is the sort of book I wish I had written. (Actually, I pitched a similar idea to some publishers a few years back, albeit unsuccessfully.) It is an accessible summary of what can be known about Christian worship in the early centuries, written by some who obviously loves worship and thinks often and deeply about it.
The book begins with several chapters summarizing the early development of the Eucharist and its centrality to the early church. The author briefly touches on such topics as: the Last Supper, the Christian appropriation of Old Testament sacrificial imagery to the Eucharist, early forms of Eucharistic devotion, and the theology of the Eucharist.
These chapters are informative, to be sure, but the real treasure of the book comes in its major central section, in which Aquilina has collected English translations of nearly every important early source for reconstructing the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper in the early church, from the first century (New Testament, Didache, 1 Clement) to the fourth (Eusebius, Sarapion, Cyril, and others). I’m not aware of another user-friendly resource that puts all these documents together in one place. Lucien Deiss’s Springtime of the Liturgy has many of them, including one or two Aquilina omits (but Aquilina also has some that Deiss omits), but that book doesn’t provide the kind of big-picture summary that The Mass of the Early Christians does. Paul F. Bradshaw’s The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship is unbeatable as a a brief introduction to the subject, but is written for a far more academically inclined readership. Frank C. Senn’s Christian Liturgy covers all the historical, practical, and theological bases admirably and gets high marks for readability, but at 747 pages is more than a little foreboding for anyone who is simply curious about how and why the early Christians worshiped as they did.
In his final chapter, Aquilina invites the readers to imagine themselves as participants in the kind of worship he has described in the preceding chapters. He walks us through “an imaginative venture” that describes in narrative form what it would have been like to be a Christian in pre-Nicene North Africa going to church on Sunday. Some might think such an undertaking would end up being cheesy or contrived, but here it is actually rather effective.
By my estimation, there is only one notable flaw in The Mass of the Early Christians, and I don’t know if I notice it more because I’m a Protestant or because I’m a New Testament scholar. That flaw is that there seems to be little if any discussion of liturgical development in the pre-Nicene period. I come away from the book aware that, if I had not already known that certain liturgical practices had their origin in a particular region and only gradually spread to other communities, I would not have found out about it from this book. Although Aquilina’s style is warm and engaging, he is no slouch when it comes to the scholarship. I’m confident he could have handled this issue without losing his readers or jeopardizing the page count. Having such material woven into the first five chapters of the book would have blown me away!
First, as a Neutestamentler, I understand that the apostles weren’t conducting the Eucharist the same way Cyril of Jerusalem described 300 years later‚Äîand I’m sure Mike Aquilina knows that, too. To me, however, how we got from “point A” to “point B” is the most interesting part of the story, and it was disappointing to find it so little discussed. Second, as a Protestant, especially one in the free church tradition, I am perhaps more attuned to issues of regional and cultural variety in worship. Egyptians, West Syrians, and East Syrians (not to mention Romans, Milanese, and several others!) followed their own inherited traditions about how to conduct the liturgy, and that is as it should be. That is also, in my opinion, an important part of the story of the Mass (Eucharist, Divine Liturgy, Lord’s Supper, etc.) of the early Christians. Diversity within a greater unity ought to be celebrated‚Äîjust as it was, for example, when the eastern-rite clergy participated at Pope John Paul’s funeral in accordance with their distinctive traditions (to offer but one example my readers may remember).
Despite my misgivings on this one issue, I am happy to recommend The Mass of the Early Christians to anyone who is looking for a solid basic summary of worship in the first three or four Christian centuries. Christian leaders, especially non-Catholics, will probably want to supplement this with other resources such as those suggested above, but as a first step into the world of liturgical worship it will be hard to beat.