Early Christianity

We listed above six themes that have characterized Catholic (and other Christian) reflection on the Eucharist. The development of the sacramental rite, official teaching, and popular devotion conspired to carry forward the understanding and interpretation of the Eucharist.169 Let us first see what believers wrote of the Eucharist in the first two hundred years of Christianity, looking at the Didache, and the writings of Justin, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. (We recommend for study the eucharistic prayer from the third-century Apostolic Tradition; in an adapted form it came into use as the Second Eucharistic Prayer in 1969, and in that way is readily available.)

The notion of the Eucharist as sacrifice was quickly supported by an appeal to the prophet Malachi: 'From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering' (Mal. 1: 11). Apropos of the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, the anonymous author of the Didache, when instructing some early community, connected the purity of the sacrifice (theme 3) with the unity of the community (theme 6).

On the Lord's own day gather together, break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one who has a quarrel with a companion join you until they have been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice concerning which the Lord said: 'In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for.my name is marvellous among the nations.' (no. 14)

About a century later Irenaeus called on the same passage from Malachi to vindicate his faith in the Eucharist as the 'pure sacrifice' for all nations (Adversus Haereses, 4. 17. 4). Many centuries later the Council of Trent would appeal to the same, now classical, passage when expounding the sacrificial character of the sacrament (DH 1742; ND 1547). In the late twentieth century the post-Vatican II Third Eucharistic Prayer includes a clear echo of the same verse in its opening paragraph.

St Clement of Rome, who wrote around the time the Didache was composed, endorsed a sacrificial reading of the Eucharist. He did so by

169 See J. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins andDevelopment (2 vols.; Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1981); E. Mazza, The Celebration oftheEucharist: The Origin of the Rite and the Development of its Interpretation (Collegeville, Minn.: Pueblo, 1999); N. Tanner, 'The Eucharist in the Ecumenical Councils', Gregorianum , 82 (2001), 37—49.

applying the regulations of the Book of Leviticus to Christian worship, and used (for the first time in Christian history) the term 'layperson' to distinguish priests from people (Epistle to the Corinthians., 40). Later Christians were to take Clement's appeal to the OT orders in the Jerusalem Temple further, and equated the high priest with the bishop, priests with the presbyters, and levites with the deacons.

The second-century philosopher Justin was the first post-NT writer to attest clearly the consecratory character of the eucharistic prayer (theme 4), which means that the 'eucharistic gifts' are not 'ordinary food or ordinary drink'. Just as Jesus Christ 'took flesh for our salvation', so 'the food over which thanksgiving has been offered' (what Justin calls 'the eucharisted bread'), from which 'our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation', is 'the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh' (First Apology, 66. 2). Thus Justin connected the transformation of the bread and wine over which thanksgiving has been offered with the transformation of the communicants.

The spiritual nourishment effected by the Word of God who truly assumed the human condition and became present among us (theme 4) had already been emphasized by Ignatius of Antioch. He wrote of his desire for 'the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ', and 'for drink I desire his blood, which is incorruptible love' (Epistle to the Romans, 7. 3). This bishop, martyred as was the philosopher Justin, linked the reality of the incarnation with that of the eucharistic presence and with Christ taking flesh in those who offer, eat, and drink. He denounced the Docetists, who denied a true incarnation (see Ch. 4), for staying away from the sacrament, 'because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ', who suffered 'for our sins' and was 'raised up by the goodness of the Father' (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 6). In a passage to become famous, Ignatius took further the link between the Eucharist and the resurrection, when he wrote of 'breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death which gives eternal life in Jesus Christ' (Epistle to the Ephesians, 20. 2). Thus Ignatius linked, albeit briefly, the reality of the incarnation and the eucharistic presence with the reality of the resurrection, both that already achieved by Christ and that hoped for by believers. Even more, the unity of the worshipping community (theme 2) ran through the letters of Ignatius. There was only 'one Eucharist', 'one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood, one altar', and 'one bishop'

or his delegate to preside at the ritual itself and the one 'agape (love-feast)', the common meal of Christians in which the Lord's Supper was initially embedded (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 4; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8).

Where Justin had touched on the trinitarian aspect of the eucharistic assembly (theme 1) which 'blessed the Maker of all things through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit' (First Apology, 67), Irenaeus took this theme further. Opposing the Gnostics who denigrated the material world (see Ch. 1), Irenaeus understood the institution by Jesus of the Eucharist to entail 'offering to God [the Father]', with 'firm hope and fervent love', 'the first fruits of his own created things', bread and wine. When 'the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God [the epiclesis], it 'is no longer common bread but Eucharist', and believers are 'nourished by the body and blood of the Lord' Adversus Haereses, 4. 18. 4, 5). At the Eucharist Western Catholicism echoes the language of Irenaeus (and of the Jewish tradition) when, during the preparation of the gifts, the priest blesses the 'God of all creation' for 'the bread which earth has given' (which will 'become the bread of life') and for the wine, 'the fruit of the vine' (which will become 'our spiritual drink'; see 1 Cor. 10: 3—4). As Irenaeus observed, the Eucharist invariably involves gratitude both for the gifts of divine creation and for those of redemption. The Gnostics could not logically accept the Eucharist if they refused to accept Christ as being also the Son of the Creator and the Word through whom (with the Spirit) all things were created:

How will they [the Gnostics] allow that the bread over which thanksgiving has been said is the body of the Lord and that the chalice is the chalice of his blood, if they deny that he is the Son of the Creator of the world, that is to say, his Word through whom the tree bears fruit and the fountains flow and the earth yields first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear? (ibid. 4. 18. 4)

The trinitarian aspect of the Eucharist belongs inseparably with faith in the tripersonal God of creation. Any denial of this was dismissed by Irenaeus as heresy masquerading as orthodoxy.

Irenaeus also took further a theme already initiated by Ignatius, the impact of the Eucharist on our coming resurrection (part of theme 5): 'our bodies, after partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of eternal resurrection' (ibid. 4. 18. 5). Against the Gnostics who denied 'the salvation of the flesh' and alleged 'the flesh incapable of immortality', Irenaeus maintained that our 'flesh' can enjoy 'eternal life', since it is 'fed on the flesh and blood of the Lord' (ibid. 5. 2. 2—3). It was left to Tertullian to express this hope for 'the resurrection of the flesh' in the larger context of Christian initiation and life. Through the indissoluble link between bodily baptism, confirmation, and reception of the Eucharist and the cleansing, consecrating, fortifying, illuminating, and nourishing of their soul, human beings are enabled to live a life of faith and service that prepares their entire existence for the glorious reward of bodily resurrection. Tertullian wrote:

No soul whatever is able to obtain salvation unless it has believed while it was in the flesh. Indeed, the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges.The flesh is washed [baptism], so that the soul may be cleansed. The flesh is anointed, so that the soul may be consecrated. The flesh is signed [with the cross], so that the soul too may be fortified. The flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of hands [confirmation], so that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit. The flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ [the Eucharist], so that the soul likewise may feed on its God. They [the body and soul] cannot then be separated in their reward, when they are united in their service. (De Resurrectione Carnis., 8. 2).

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