Getting ready for Sunday Mass? Think about what you’re doing. Think for a moment: What did it mean to be a Christian in the time of the Fathers?
What set those first believers apart from their neighbors? What was the single act that best defined their life in Jesus Christ?
For the first Christians, to be a believer meant to go to Mass. The Eucharist was then, as it is now, the source and summit of Christian life.
We see this clearly in the Church’s earliest history, the Acts of the Apostles. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” “Day by day,” the author goes on, the Jerusalem Christians shared a common life of worship, “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:42,46).
In Troas with Paul, Luke recounts, “On the first day of the week . . . we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).
Wherever the first Christians assembled, they “broke bread.”
This was no ordinary meal. It was, rather, the fulfillment of the command of Jesus Christ at His Last Supper. “He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ ”
Jesus himself performed the first “remembrance” on the day of His resurrection. After His famous walk to Emmaus with two incredulous disciples, “When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight. . . . He was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:30-31,35).
To be faithful to Jesus, then, was to follow His command and His example. To keep faith was to give thanks and break bread in His memory. These actions, collectively, took their name from Jesus’ own words, “giving thanks,” in Greek, eucharistia — Eucharist.
More than a memorial
What did this thanksgiving mean to those founders of the Christian Church? It was a memorial, but it was more than that. The passage from Acts uses the Greek word “koinonia,” which can be translated “fellowship,” “sharing,” or “participation,” but “communion” is the preferred English term. The “thanksgiving” of the early Christians was a communion of persons — a communion of the believers with Christ and with one another.
St. Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, around A.D. 51: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17).
The first Christians knew holy Communion as something more than symbolic. It was a mingling of bodies and souls. The closest analogy they could find was in the union of a married couple. Thus, the Book of Revelation refers to the Mass, mystically, as “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rv 19:9).
Jesus himself had foretold His Eucharist in the most graphic, physical terms. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh” (Jn 6:51).
The early Church took Jesus at His word and always spoke of the Eucharist with the same flesh-and-blood realism. Belief in Jesus’ Real Presence was essential to a Christian’s profession of faith. To hold a different doctrine was an act of infidelity. “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body,” wrote St. Paul, “eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:29).
That judgment held in the subsequent generations. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Apostle, wrote around A.D. 107 that a distinguishing mark of a heretic was the denial of the Real Presence. “From the Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Eucharist fed the faith
All of this was the faith of the Church, before there were New Testament Scriptures, long before there were church buildings. The books of the New Testament were likely not completed until A.D. 90-100. The official list of the books of the Bible was not approved for the universal Church until 419. But the earliest liturgical manual we have, The Didache, was probably set to parchment around 48 A.D. (I follow Enrico Mazza in the dating of The Didache. His arguments are very persuasive.)
Moreover, Christianity arose long before the printing press. Few people had access to books of the various Gospels and letters that were in circulation.
Few people could read them anyway, as literacy was rare in many parts of the world.
Yet the faith endured because Christians received the Word and the sacrament within their eucharistic assemblies. Indeed, Word and sacrament were inseparable realities. As the early Christians read the books of the New Testament, they found not just isolated references to the Eucharist, but a sacramental motif pervasive from the very beginning of Jesus’ life. He was born, after all, in Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “House of Bread.”
When Jesus multiplied the loaves, believers saw a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. When Jesus changed water into wine, He prefigured the transformation of wine into His blood. It is the overwhelming judgment of the Fathers of the Church that when Jesus instructed us to pray for “our daily bread,” He taught us to pray for the Eucharist. In third-century Africa, St. Cyprian wrote: “We ask that this bread should be given to us daily, that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not, by the obstacle of some heinous sin, be kept back from receiving Communion, from partaking of the heavenly bread, that we may not be separated from Christ’s body.”
St. Cyprian, like his scriptural forebears, spoke with precision here. For to be “excommunicated” meant literally to be excluded from Communion, which for believers is a sentence of death (see 1 Cor 11:30).
Indeed, the Eucharist was life itself for the Church, and believers preferred death to missing Mass. The martyrs of Abitina, in third-century Africa, told their accusers, “Without fear of any kind we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, because it cannot be missed. . . . We cannot live without the Lord’s Supper.”
Those martyrs had drawn deeply from three centuries of devotion — and more. For Christ did not invent the Eucharist whole cloth, but rather presented it as a fulfillment of the Old Covenant sacrifices. His Last Supper took place, after all, at a sacrificial meal, the Passover. Over time, many of the prayers of ancient Israel would be taken up into the Mass. Hear, for example, the cup blessing of the Passover liturgy: “Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the fruit of the vine.”
The service of the synagogue repeats the words from Ezekiel (which appear again in Revelation): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The Dead Sea Scrolls hint at other Jewish sources of Christian ritual: “When the table has been prepared for eating, and the new wine for drinking, the priest shall be the first to stretch out his hand to bless the first-fruits of the bread and new wine.”
The early Christians must have had a vivid experience of the close communion of the Church. For, until the legalization of Christianity in 313, the Church owned no buildings. As we saw in the Acts of the Apostles, the faithful assembled for the Eucharist in family homes. Sometimes, when wealthy families converted, they turned over substantial estates for liturgical use. The Basilica of San Clemente in Rome may have been built upon just such a household. Another “house-church” was excavated, somewhat intact, in Syria. Late last year, a construction crew dug up yet another in Megiddo, near Jerusalem.
Still, though the first Christians were “at home” with the Eucharist, they were never casual in their practice. Their reverence was profound. In the third century, the Scripture scholar Origen of Alexandria wrote: “You who are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost.”
In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts his people to take the same care: “Tell me, if anyone gave you grains of gold wouldn’t you hold them with all care, on your guard against losing any? Won’t you keep watch more carefully, then, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and jewels?”
Just a few years later, St. Jerome — the greatest biblical scholar of the ancient Church — would write of the need “to instruct by the authority of Scripture ignorant people in all the churches concerning the reverence with which they must handle holy things and minister at Christ’s altar; and to impress upon them that the sacred chalices, veils and other accessories used in the celebration of the Lord’s passion are not mere lifeless and senseless objects devoid of holiness, but that rather, from their association with the body and blood of the Lord, they are to be venerated with the same awe as the body and the blood themselves.”
This is the reverence the early Christians gave to the sacrament they received. It was not reverence for the sake of ceremony. It arose naturally because they knew that here, under the appearance of bread and wine, was Emmanuel, God-with-us. It welled up within them because the Lord’s Supper was a meal they could not live without. They loved the sacrament as true lovers — because they were at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
And this reverence was more than a sometime thrill, the emotional response to beautiful liturgy. Reverence for the Eucharist was the foundation of a culture — a kingdom — that was thoroughly Christian.
According to one of the most ancient liturgical texts, our reverence for the Eucharist must be extended to the poorest of the poor: “Let widows and orphans be revered like the altar.”