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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 68. Celebration of the Eucharist.


The celebration of the Eucharist or holy communion with appropriate prayers of the faithful was the culmination of Christian worship.400400    Names:εὐχαριστία, κοινωνία, eucharistia, communio, communicatio, etc.00 Justin Martyr gives us the following description, which still bespeaks the primitive simplicity:401401    Apol. l.c. 65, 6601 "After the prayers [of the catechumen worship] we greet one another with the brotherly kiss. Then bread and a cup with water and wine are handed to the president (bishop) of the brethren. He receives them, and offers praise, glory, and thanks to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit, for these his gifts. When he has ended the prayers and thanksgiving, the whole congregation responds: ’Amen.’ For ’Amen’ in the Hebrew tongue means: ’Be it so.’ Upon this the deacons, as we call them, give to each of those present some of the blessed bread,402402    Εὐχαριστηθέντος ἄρτου02 and of the wine mingled with water, and carry it to the absent in their dwellings. This food is called with us the eucharist, of which none can partake, but the believing and baptized, who live according to the commands of Christ. For we use these not as common bread and common drink; but like as Jesus Christ our Redeemer was made flesh through the word of God, and took upon him flesh and blood for our redemption; so we are taught, that the nourishment blessed by the word of prayer, by which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation (assimilation), is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus."

Then he relates the institution from the Gospels, and mentions the customary collections for the poor.

We are not warranted in carrying back to this period the full liturgical service, which we find prevailing with striking uniformity in essentials, though with many variations in minor points, in all quarters of the church in the Nicene age. A certain simplicity and freedom characterized the period before us. Even the so-called Clementine liturgy, in the eighth book of the pseudo-Apostolical Constitutions, was probably not composed and written out in this form before the fourth century. There is no trace of written liturgies during the Diocletian persecution. But the germs (late from the second century. The oldest eucharistic prayers have recently come to light in the Didache ,which contains three thanksgivings, for the, cup, the broken and for all mercies. (chs. 9 and 10.)

From scattered statements of the ante-Nicene fathers we may gather the following view of the eucharistic service as it may have stood in the middle of the third century, if not earlier.

The communion was a regular and the most solemn part of the Sunday worship; or it was the worship of God in the stricter sense, in which none but full members of the church could engage. In many places and by many Christians it was celebrated even daily, after apostolic precedent, and according to the very common mystical interpretation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer.403403    Cyprian speaks of daily sacrifice, ;. Ep. 54: "Sacerdotes qui Sacrificia Dei quotidie celebramus." So Ambrose, Ep. 14 ad Marcell., and the oldest liturgical works. But that the observance was various, is certified by Augustin, among others. Ep. 118 ad Januar. c. 2: "Alii quotidie communicant corpori et sanguini Dominico; alii certis diebus accipiunt; alibi nullus dies intermittitur quo non offeratur; alibi sabbato tantum et dominico; alibi tantum dominico." St. Basil says (Ep. 289): ’We commune four times in the week, on the Lord’s Day, the fourth day, the preparation day [Friday], and the Sabbath. "Chrysostom complains of the small number of communicants at the daily sacrifice.03 The service began, after the dismission of the catechumens, with the kiss of peace, given by the men to men, and by the women to women, in token of mutual recognition as members of one redeemed family in the midst of a heartless and loveless world. It was based upon apostolic precedent, and is characteristic of the childlike simplicity, and love and joy of the early Christians.404404    Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14. The Kiss of Peace continued in the Latin church till the end of the thirteenth century, and was then transferred to the close of the service or exchanged for a mere form of words: Pax tibi et ecclesiae. In the Russian church the clergy kiss each other during the recital of the Nicene Creed to show the nominal union of orthodoxy and charity (so often divided). In the Coptic church the primitive custom is still in force, and in some small Protestant sects it has been revived.04 The service proper consisted of two principal acts: the oblation,405405    Προσφορά.05 or presenting of the offerings of the congregation by the deacons for the ordinance itself, and for the benefit of the clergy and the poor; and the communion, or partaking of the consecrated elements. In the oblation the congregation at the same time presented itself as a living thank-offering; as in the communion it appropriated anew in faith the sacrifice of Christ, and united itself anew with its Head. Both acts were accompanied and consecrated by prayer and songs of praise.

In the prayers we must distinguish, first, the general thanksgiving (the eucharist in the strictest sense of the word) for all the natural and spiritual gifts of God, commonly ending with the seraphic hymn, Isa. 6:3; secondly, the prayer of consecration, or the invocation of the Holy Spirit406406    Ἐπίκλησις τοῦ Πν. Ἁγ. Irenaeus derives this invocatio Spiritus S., as well as the oblation and the thanksgiving, from apostolic instruction. See the 2nd fragment, in Stieren, I. 854. It appears in all the Greek liturgies. In the Liturgia Jacobi it reads thus:Καὶ ἐξαπόστειλον ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ προσκείμενα δῶρα ταῦτα τὸ Πνεῦμά σου τὸ πανάγιον, τὸ κύριον καὶ ζωοποιόν ... ἵνα ... ἀγιάσῃ καί ποιήσῃ τὸν μὲν ἄρτον τοῦτον σῶμα ἅγιον τοῦ Χριστοὺ σοῦ, καὶ τὸ ποτήριον τοῦτο αἶμα τίμιον τοῦ Χρ. σοῦ, ἵνα γένηται πᾶσι τοῖς ἐξ αὑτῶν μεταλαμβάνουσιν εἰς ἅφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν καὶ εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, εἰς ἁγιασμὸν ψυχῶν καὶ σωμάτων, εἰς καρτοφορίαν ἔργων ἀγαθῶν.06 upon the people and the elements, usually accompanied by the recital of the words of institution and the Lord’s Prayer; and finally, the general intercessions for all classes, especially for the believers, on the ground of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. The length and order of the prayers, however, were not uniform; nor the position of the Lord’s Prayer, which sometimes took the place of the prayer of consecration, being reserved for the prominent part of the service. Pope Gregory I. says that it "was the custom of the Apostles to consecrate the oblation only by the Lord’s Prayer." The congregation responded from time to time, according to the ancient Jewish and the apostolic usage, with an audible "Amen, "or "Kyrie eleison." The "Sursum corda," also, as an incitement to devotion, with the response, "Habemus ad Dominum," appears at least as early as Cyprian’s time, who expressly alludes to it, and in all the ancient liturgies. The prayers were spoken, not read from a book. But extemporaneous prayer naturally assumes a fixed form by constant repetition.

The elements were common or leavened bread407407    Κοινὸς ἄρτος, says; Justin, while in view of its sacred import be calls it also uncommon bread and drink. The use of leavened or unleavened bread became afterwards, as is well known, a point of controversy between the Roman and Greek churches.07 (except among the Ebionites, who, like the later Roman church from the seventh century, used unleavened bread), and wine mingled with water. This mixing was a general custom in antiquity, but came now to have various mystical meanings attached to it. The elements were placed in the hands (not in the mouth) of each communicant by the clergy who were present, or, according to Justin, by the deacons alone, amid singing of psalms by the congregation (Psalm 34), with the words: "The body of Christ;" "The blood of Christ, the cup of life;" to each of which the recipient responded "Amen."408408    This simplest form of distribution, "Σῶμα Χριστοῦ," and "Αἴμα Χρ., ποτήριον ζωῆς" occurs in the Clementine liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions, VIII. 13, and seems to be the oldest. The Didache gives no form of distribution.08 The whole congregation thus received the elements, standing in the act.409409    The standing posture of the congregation during the principal prayers, and in the communion itself, seems to have been at first universal. For this was, indeed, the custom always on the day of the resurrection in distinction from Friday ("stantes oramus, quod est signunt resurrectionis," says Augustin) besides, the communion was, in the highest sense, a ceremony of festivity and joy; and finally, Justin expressly observes: "Then we all stand up to prayer." After the twelfth century, kneeling in receiving the elements became general, and passed from the Catholic church into the Lutheran and Anglican, while most of the Reformed churches; returned to the original custom of standing. Sitting in the communion was first introduced after the Reformation by the Presbyterian church of Scotland, and is very common in the United States the deacons or elders banding the bread and cup to the communicants in their pews. A curious circumstance is the sitting posture of the Pope in the communion, which Dean Stanley regards as a relic of the reclining or recumbent posture of the primitive disciples. See his Christ. Instit. p. 250 sqq.09 Thanksgiving and benediction concluded the celebration.

After the public service the deacons carried the consecrated elements to the sick and to the confessors in prison. Many took portions of the bread home with them, to use in the family at morning prayer. This domestic communion was practised particularly in North Africa, and furnishes the first example of a communio sub una specie. In the same country, in Cyprian’s time, we find the custom of infant communion (administered with wine alone), which was justified from John 6:53, and has continued in the Greek (and Russian) church to this day, though irreconcilable with the apostle’s requisition of a preparatory examination (1 Cor. 11:28).

At first the communion was joined with a love feast, and was then celebrated in the evening, in memory of the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. But so early as the beginning of the second century these two exercises were separated, and the communion was placed in the morning, the love feast in the evening, except on certain days of special observance.410410    On Maundy-Thursday, according, to Augustin’s testimony, the communion continued to be celebrated in the evening, "tanquam ad insigniorem commemorationem." So on high feasts, as Christmas night, Epiphany, and Easter Eve, and in fasting seasons. See Ambrose, Serm. viii. in Ps. 118.10 Tertullian gives a detailed description of the Agape in refutation of the shameless calumnies of the heathens.411411    Apol. c.39: "About the modest supper-room of the Christians alone a great ado is made. Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it love. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy, not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment-but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After the washing of hands and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing-a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of roamers, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have aq ruucli care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet." (Translation from the "Ante-Nicene Library ").11 But the growth of the churches and the rise of manifold abuses led to the gradual disuse, and in the fourth century even to the formal prohibition of the Agape, which belonged in fact only to the childhood and first love of the church. It was a family feast, where rich and poor, master and slave met on the same footing, partaking of a simple meal, hearing reports from distant congregations, contributing to the necessities of suffering brethren, and encouraging each other in their daily duties and trials. Augustin describes his mother Monica as going to these feasts with a basket full of provisions and distributing them.

The communion service has undergone many changes in the course of time, but still substantially survives with all its primitive vitality and solemnity in all churches of Christendom,—a perpetual memorial of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and saving love to the human race. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are institutions which proclaim from day to day the historic Christ, and can never be superseded by contrivances of human ingenuity and wisdom.



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