As from the second century we gain further glimpses of the worship of the churches, we find that it was built about the Lord's Supper. This was coming to be called the Eucharist, from a Greek word meaning the giving of thanks. The Eucharist was being clearly separated from the agape. The emphasis upon the Lord's Supper was to be expected, for it perpetually focussed attention upon the source of the Church's origin and vigour — Christ, his death, his resurrection, his continuing life, and the new and eternal life given to the Christian through him. It was with the narrative of the death and resurrection of Christ, if we may judge from the proportion of space given it in all Four Gospels and from the emphasis upon it in the other writings in the New Testament, that the instruction of catechumens was largely concerned and on it the thought and faith of Christians were centred.
One of the earliest descriptions of the Eucharist, that by Justin Martyr, not far from the middle of the second century, recognizes the similarity to what was seen in one of the mystery cults, Mithraism, but holds that this was because the latter had imitated the Christians. Latterly it has been repeatedly asserted that in baptism and the Eucharist Christians borrowed from the mysteries and that Christianity was simply another one of these cults, with Christ as its hero-god, slain by his enemies and raised from the dead, and, like them, drawing its appeal and power from the assurance to the initiates that through its rites the believers would share in the death and in the resurrection and immortality of its god. The similarity is striking.
Yet fully as striking are the differences. None of the others could point to a clearly historical figure, nor could the other figures begin to match Christ in teachings and character. It was in retaining their belief in Jesus Christ as fully man as well as fully God that the majority of Christians rightly discerned that the uniqueness of their faith consisted, against the Gnostics who would minimize or reject Jesus as a particular man who lived at a particular date in history, or the Marcionites who held that he was not truly flesh, but only seemed to be man, or those who maintained that he was merely an ordinary man who somewhere in the course of his life had been adopted by the Divine Spirit.
There is no proof of either conscious or unconscious copying from the mystery religions by Christians. Indeed, the voluminous writings of Christian apologists of the early centuries which have survived make very little mention of the mystery religions. Their attacks are directed, rather, against the Greek and Roman polytheism with its pantheon and its stories of the gods, or against the Greek philosophies, as though the mystery cults did not count. Presumably many Christians were aware of the latter and might even once have been adherents of them. They may have carried over into Christianity some of the conceptions of religion derived from them. This, however, has yet to be demonstrated. Certainly Christianity was essentially different from what we know of these cults, and the similarities are only superficial.
Already in the second century the chief day of worship and of the celebration of the Eucharist was Sunday, and the reason given was that it was on this first day of the week, "the Lord's Day," that Christ had been raised from the dead. In choosing that day instead of the Jewish Sabbath (although for centuries even many Gentile Christians also observed the seventh day, or Sabbath) or of Friday, the day of their Lord's crucifixion, Christians were giving further evidence that their faith was primarily in the risen Christ.
Two somewhat detailed descriptions of the fashion in which the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the second century have come down to us. The one, in the Didache, was intended primarily for Christians. The other, in one of the apologies of Justin Martyr, was designed to be read by non-Christians. The two show variations from each other, an indication that uniformity had by no means been attained, but they also display striking similarities. Both, for example, speak of the rite as the Eucharist, evidence that this designation had become very widespread.
In the Didache the direction is given that only the baptized shall share in the Eucharist. First the cup was given, with the prayer of thanksgiving, apparently already fixed and ritualistic:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus Thy servant; to Thee be the glory forever.
Then came the broken bread with the prayer:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus Thy servant; to Thee be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered over the hills and having been gathered together became one, so let Thy church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
After the communicants had been "filled" there was another prayer of thanksgiving:
We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name, which Thou hast caused to dwelt in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus Thy servant; to Thee be the glory forever. Thou, Master Almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; both food and drink Thou didst give to men for enjoyment, in order that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us Thou hast graciously given spiritual food and drink and eternal life through Thy servant. Before all things, we thank Thee that Thou art mighty; to Thee be the glory forever. Remember, Lord, Thy church, to deliver it from every evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, it, the sanctified, into Thy kingdom, which Thou hast prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory forever. Let grace come and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the son of David. Whoever is holy, let him come; whoever is not, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.
Maranatha, it will be noted, appears to have been one of the earliest expressions of Christians, for we find it in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. It seems to have been an Aramaic word meaning either the affirmation "our Lord has come" or, as a prayer for Christ's second coming, "Our Lord, come."
There was also the instruction to "permit the prophets to give thanks as much as they will," presumably making a place for spontaneous prayers by the "prophets," either itinerant or resident, who were a feature of the Christian communities which the Didache depicts.
Justin Martyr, describing the Eucharist as he knew it not far from the middle of the second century and presumably in the cities of Asia Minor, among them Ephesus, says that immediately after he had been baptized, which Justin calls "illumination," the new Christian was brought to the assembly of the "brethren," for prayers in behalf of themselves, the freshly baptized, and "for all others in every place," that they might be counted worthy, by their works, and that they might "be saved with an everlasting salvation." After the prayers, the Christians saluted one another with a kiss, a custom enjoined by Paul and perhaps of even earlier origin. There was then brought to the one of the brethren who was presiding bread and a cup of wine mixed with water. He took them and gave thanks to "the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," usually at considerable length, and presumably "free prayer," without prescribed form, that the communicants were counted worthy to receive these things at his hands. When he had finished, the congregation said "Amen," and the deacons gave to those present the bread and the water mixed with wine and carried portions to those who were absent.
Justin Martyr goes on to say that the bread and the wine so blessed were not received as common bread and drink, but "as the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh." He also reports that the Eucharist was observed regularly on Sunday, presumably in addition to these special celebrations for the newly baptized. On Sundays it was preceded by readings from "the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets" "as long as time permits." After the reader had ceased, he who was presiding "instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things." Then all rose together and prayed and there followed the service of the Eucharist in the manner described above. Justin also said that contributions made by the well to do, apparently in connexion with the Eucharist, were deposited with the presiding officer, and the latter used the fund to succour widows, orphans, the sick, prisoners, strangers visiting the Christians, and others who were in need.
The Eucharist as described by both the Didache and Justin was open only to the baptized, in it thanksgiving was made, and the bread and the wine were consumed. Yet there are differences, although some of these may be due to failure of one or the other account to give all the details. In the Didache the wine came first, the bread second, and in Justin the reverse was the case. In the Didache there was place for a fixed form of prayer as well as free prayer; in the service as known to Justin only free prayer. Justin regards the bread and the wine as the body and blood of Christ, while the Didache docs not so describe them. The former speaks of the wine as mixed with water, the latter knows nothing of water with the wine. The former tells of portions of the consecrated bread and wine being taken to the absent, of a presiding officer, and of deacons who do the distributing;
the latter makes no mention of any of these. Justin describes a Sunday observance of the Eucharist as preceded by reading from what we would now call the Old Testament and the New Testament and a discourse by the one who was presiding, but the Didache speaks of neither. In contrast with Justin, the Didache tells of a prayer of thanksgiving after the bread and the wine. It also knows prayers for the unity of all Christians, while Justin mentions prayers for all Christians only in connexion with the Eucharist as it was celebrated for the newly baptized.
Hippolytus, of Rome, writing in the first half of the third century, says that immediately after baptism the neophytes were given the Eucharist. The bread came first, and then, in order, they tasted of three cups — of water, of milk mixed with honey, and of wine. Here were variations, but still a simplicity which in succeeding centuries was superseded by more elaborate forms.
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