Celebrating the Eucharist during the early Christian centuries

Celebrating the Eucharist during the early Christian centuries

Br Barry Coldrey

We saw in the previous article that the developing Eucharistic liturgy - deeply influenced by the Jewish synagogue service - had two parts.

There was the Proclamation of God's word, comprising prayers, readings from Scripture and a homily. The Proclamation was attended by the baptised and those preparing for baptism. Their preparation was a lengthy experience

The other, the Eucharist, was attended only by baptised Christians. In the literature of the early Church, references to the Eucharist are often veiled with 'the breaking of the bread' for the initiated only.

What follows are some references to the Eucharist and the prayers which surrounded 'the breaking of the bread' in the early Christian church. In each of these citations we need to bear in mind the following key points:

* Jesus left His life, death and resurrection as witness and left His teachings as a guide. However, Jesus did not establish the Church's structures, leaving that to the Apostles and first disciples and their successors.

* Jesus left the Eucharist, the actual consecration of bread and wine into His Body and Blood. He did not leave details of the service within which this consecration might take place.

* The format of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Mass, developed over time. The earliest Christians, organised in scattered house churches, celebrated with a joyful agape followed by 'the breaking of the bread'.

* The prayers, ritual and ceremonies which surrounded the Eucharist varied from place to place and over time, and have still been developing over the last fifty years.

* The agape prior to the Eucharistic celebration disappeared, with the stages of its disappearance varying from place to place. This was because it became difficult to organise as the numbers of Christians grew significantly in any one centre.

A generation after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, Christians, by and large, no longer took part in the Jewish assemblies. Nonetheless, the synagogue service provided the model for their own meetings.

In addition to the New Testament Gospels and Epistles, there was an extensive Christian literature during Roman times. Only part of this literature has survived, with references made to 'lost' works in extant Christian writings. Occasionally 'lost' writings are recovered when ancient libraries of clay tablets or papyri are revealed in archaeological excavations.

This occurred in 1873, when the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople found a manuscript containing the so-called Didache or 'Teaching of the Lord given to the nations by the Twelve Apostles' in an ancient library. The Didache is very old and its author is unknown. It is one of the most important Christian documents after the New Testament.

The Didache belongs to a period before the Eucharist and agape were separated. It was written in the latter part of the first century AD prior to the Gospel of St John and some of the later epistles. Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache include prayers to be said at community meals. These prayers are influenced heavily by Jewish prayers used at special meals.

Chapter 14 has comments on the Sunday liturgy as celebrated by the Christian community at the end of the agape.

Extracts from the above chapters are reproduced here since these fit the present article's purpose.

Thus the Didache shows early Christian communities grappling with Jesus' command, 'Do this in commemoration of Me'.

Chapter 9: 'But as touching the Eucharistic thanksgiving give thanks thus. First, as regards the cup: 'We give You thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine of Your son David, which You made known to us through Your Son Jesus; Yours is the glory for ever and ever.'

Then as regards the broken bread: 'We give You thanks, O our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Your Son Jesus; Yours is the glory for ever and ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.

'However, let no one eat or drink of this Eucharistic thanksgiving, but those who have been baptised into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said: 'Don't give what is holy to the dogs.'

Chapter 14: 'On the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, so that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no man who has a dispute with his fellow join your assembly until he has been reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for it was this sacrifice that was spoken of by the Lord: 'In every place and at every time offer Me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, says the Lord, and My name is wonderful among the nations.'

Formalised ritual

There are other writings of early Christian leaders, martyrs and saints, such as Justin and Hippolytus, who show the Eucharist or Mass developing into more a more formalised ritual, reflecting the increasing numbers of Christians in many communities. By the early third century, two hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the celebration of the Eucharist had these features, similar, but not identical to the Mass which we have at the present time:

* There are readings from the Old Testament and New Testament. The bishop or priest presiding chose his own readings. Each town might have its own bishop.

* The celebrant (president) had a number of assistants at Mass, referred to as deacons and presbyters (elders). The president gave the homily and recited the Eucharistic Prayer.

* There were prayers from the assembly, similar to the prayers of the faithful.

* There was preparation of the gifts, the bread and wine, and a procession of the gifts to the altar.

* The Eucharistic Prayer was improvised by the bishop.

* The so-called 'Great Amen' concluded the Eucharistic Prayer, with all present showing their agreement with the thanksgiving.

* Communion was distributed.

* Those Christians unable to be present for one good reason or another could have communion brought to their homes.

In the first 300 years of the Church's existence, her believers faced the risk of savage persecution for the practice of their faith. There were periods of calm alternating with periods when there were many martyrs. Christians worshipped discretely in 'house churches' since they could not risk drawing attention to themselves by building imposing structures for their Eucharistic celebrations.

However, in 313, during a wave of vicious civil strife, the Roman ruler of Britain, Constantine, had a spiritual experience as he confronted his opponent, Maxentius, near the Milvian bridge over the Tiber close to the centre of Rome. After his victory, Constantine gave credit for his success to the God of the Christians. As a result he legalised Christianity in the area he controlled and gave Christians freedom of worship without fear of persecution for the first time since the Christian ministry commenced.

In due course, Constantine disposed of his other rivals and assumed control of the whole Roman Empire. Everywhere practice of the Christian faith was legalised and encouraged.

The Church now had official status with huge numbers of people being baptised. Paganism was soon in full retreat and Christianity was very much in vogue. The Eucharist now moved from private houses and underground catacombs into large public halls, the basilicas, which were modelled on the Emperor's own audience chamber. The ceremonial surrounding the Imperial Court provided the model for popes and bishops.

The Sunday Mass became increasingly ceremonial, with processions, genuflections, candles, incense and special vestments, while choirs of trained singers enriched the liturgy. The early Christian private assemblies had used Greek, but Latin was the official language of government and so Latin replaced Greek as the language of the liturgy in the wake of Constantine's conversion.

Persecution had created obvious problems for the Christian people, but official government support would provide other challenges. In grappling with the vast numbers of people wanting to convert, church leaders established a regular structure for admitting new members.

As many pagans sought membership, where possible the Church developed a process for Christian initiation to test the sincerity of those who wished to become Christians. The arrangement was called the catechumenate. Christian in-itiation was not a single event, rather it was a process and the initiation took time, commonly around one year.

The catechumens were given knowledge of their new faith, practice in Christian living and experience of the liturgy. In these they were assisted by sponsors from among the community. The catechumens were not admitted to the celebration of the Eucharist, attending only the liturgy of the word, the first part of the Mass.

At the centre of the Church's year, the celebration of Easter, the candidates judged ready for membership were given the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. They then became full members of the Christian community.

If the catechumenate was a substantial positive for a church emerging from persecution, the decline in reception of communion was a negative. Up to the fourth century, it was normal for each Christian to go to communion at every Mass unless s/he had special reasons not to do so. However, over time, occasional communion became the norm.

The fourth and fifth centuries showed a remarkable growth in Church membership and developments in the styles of worship. Simplicity, secrecy and quiet were no longer the norms. The church was now part of the establishment in the Roman Empire hence celebration of the Eucharist, as indicated, was influenced by imperial court ceremonial.

All human institutions tend to wax and wane, flourish and decline. The Roman Empire had provided unity in the Mediterranean world and Western Europe for centuries and in this world the Christian Church had emerged, grown and prospered..

However, during the fifth century in Western Europe the Empire disintegrated as Germanic peoples, the 'barbarians', infiltrated and then flooded into the area. The Church had a colossal missionary task to Christianise these pagan peoples, a task that would take centuries.

Urban civilisation in Western Europe collapsed, with few towns of any size left. Life became predominantly rural while the standard of living sank to well below the norm during the heyday of the Empire.

Christian East

Meanwhile, in the Christian East, the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire's urban civilisation remained intact having survived the barbarian invasions. However, the Greek world was moving away from Rome long before the break was formalised in 1054.

In the sixth century, much of the Middle East, North Africa and southern Spain was forcibly converted to Islam or conquered by Islamic rulers. Christian Europe was on the defensive. However, in the West the popes in Rome provided symbols of unity for the continent when in political terms Europe had fragmented and plunged into a 'Dark Age'.

This drift to unity sponsored unity in worship with Christian communities showing their unity by imitating Papal celebrations of the Eucharist whenever possible. Splendid celebrations were the norm, notably in monasteries.

Gradually liturgical books were introduced with the prayers of the Mass no longer improvised by the bishop or priest. It was during these years that the word 'Mass' became the term for the Eucharistic celebration. The word refers to the dismissal of the people at the end of the celebration ('Ite missa est') and why it became the term for the whole celebration is unclear, but it did!

The expression 'Mass' still refers to the whole Eucharistic celebration.

Dr Barry Coldrey is a former teacher in Christian Brothers secondary schools and is now active in youth ministry in Melbourne.

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