Paul Simmons

What did the early Christians believe about the Mass?

by Mike Aquilina
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2007, pp.255, $27.00 ISBN: 978-1-59276-320-7. Available from Freedom Publishing.)

In the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper, Matthew, Mark and Luke each describe how Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, "This is my body". And after Supper, he took the cup, blessed it and gave it to the disciples saying, "This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me."

These are the words which the priest repeats verbatim at the consecration, the central point of the Mass, and the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Churches.

From the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the reformers attacked not only the abuses which were present in the church at the time, including the trafficking in indulgences, but the church's teachings, particularly those related to the Mass and the priesthood.

The reformers – Luther, Zwingli and others – argued that the Mass was a human creation, and not of divine origin.

Some argued that a communion service was just a memorial of the Last Supper, that the bread and wine remain unchanged through the service and is an expression of Christian fellowship. They denied  that the service is a sacrifice, and denied that it is linked to Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday.

The reformers argued that they were going back to the true teaching of the Bible, and the teaching and practice of the early church.

Original sources

This book looks at the teachings of the New Testament and the beliefs and practices of the early church on the issue.

Each of the Synoptic evangelists gave a detailed account of the institution of "the Lord's Supper". This is clearly important, but what exactly, was its importance?

Together with St John's emphatic statements of Jesus asserting "I am the bread of life" (Chapter 6), and "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day", the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have accepted that this is literally true, and refers to His real presence at the moment of consecration in the Mass, and in the communion of the faithful.

In this book, Mike Aquilina sheds a great deal of light on the way in which the early Christians and the church understood the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, and the way in which the doctrine of the Eucharist developed.

 One minor criticism of his approach is that he seems to assume from the outset that the "living tradition" of the church guarantee that what is practised today is the same as what was practised 1000 years ago, and right back to New Testament times.

This can be seen as asserting what needs to be proved.

In any event, there is a vast volume of evidence, dating back to the Apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians, written some time in the 50sAD. This was just 20 years or so after Jesus' crucifixion, and a considerably shorter time since Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus.

Yet in this letter, Paul is absolutely emphatic that worship in the Christian community is centred around a re-presentation of the Last Supper, and that the assembled believers received the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, which had the appearance of bread and wine.

Incidentally, this proves that the liturgy was being celebrated even before the new testament scriptures had been written. It shows that the scriptures were written down, in part, to support the liturgy rather than vice-versa.

Not long afterwards, St Luke the Evangelist, who had written an account of the Last Supper in his Gospel, wrote the Acts of the Apostles, in which he said that after Jesus' ascension into heaven, Jesus followers "devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

Quite clearly, the "Apostles' teaching" refers to the apostles' teaching that Jesus was God and also the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies, the "fellowship" is the early church, "the breaking of bread" was an early term given to the Mass, and the prayers are those which observant Jews performed both at home and in the Temple.

Jewish rituals

Mr Aquilina has a most perceptive discussion about how the first Christians, being Jews, followed Jewish religious rituals, as did Jesus.

He says, "Jesus was a Jew and his apostles were Jews. They conducted their lives and worship according to the patterns established in the law and tradition of Israel."

After describing how Jesus and his followers attended synagogue, he adds, "Jesus probably also held a weekly solemn 'fellowship meal' (chaburah) with his disciples. On the eve of the Sabbath, families or groups of friends traditionally conducted such a meal, which began with the blessing of bread and wine."

It stands to reason that the early Christian Eucharists would have followed Jewish synagogue worship which as we know consisted of readings from scripture and an exposition from a rabbi, then followed by what St Luke describes as "the breaking of bread", in which the words of Jesus were repeated over bread and wine, before being given to the believers.

Support for this view can be found in the astonishing account of Jesus meeting the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday.

After meeting them on the road, Jesus reveals to them the true meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures as they walk along the road, and then after they reach the inn, he blessed the bread and gave it to them, before disappearing. "And they recognised him in the breaking of bread."

Here is the form in which the new covenant would be celebrated, the "breaking of bread", the Mass.

And so today at Mass, we have prayers and scripture readings, an exposition on the scriptures, an offertory, consecration and communion, just as it was experienced by the two disciples.

Mike Aquilina also refers to the references to the Eucharistic sacrifice from the next generation of Christians, right down to the fifth century AD.

We see that the early church gradually standardised the form of the service, ensuring that the correct form of words were used at the consecration, correcting erroneous and heretical interpretations of Jesus' life and works, and ensuring that those who offered the sacrifice were worthy.

The author includes quotes from many of the early Fathers, St Irenaeus, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Clement, St Cyprian of Alexandra, in which the doctrine is asserted, always being traced back to the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and the teaching of the apostles.

He also quotes non-Christian sources, including Pliny the Younger in the 2nd Century AD, pagan rumours and heretical texts, to show how the teaching was understood by those outside the church.

This is a most interesting work which confirms that the Christian Eucharistic service which we in the West know as the Mass, and Orthodox Christians refer to as the Divine or Holy Liturgy, has been the cornerstone of Christian worship since the foundation of the church.

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