21 June 2012

The Eucharist in Church history

In a 1955 letter to her friend Betty Hester, the American writer Flannery O’Connor described a dinner party she had attended some years earlier.

Conversation had eventually turned to the Eucharist, which O’Connor’s host, who had left the Church in her teens, said that she had come to think of as a symbol, and a fairly good one at that. “Well,” said O’Connor in a shaky voice, breaking the silence that had marked her evening, “if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

Unfortunately, if last week’s Ipsos MRBI survey for the Irish Times is to be believed, 62 pc of Irish Catholics share O’Connor’s host’s view that the Eucharist merely represents the body and blood of Christ.

Richard Dawkins’ branding of all such Catholics as dishonest should be recognised as the ignorant smear that it is, given that this is less likely to be the fruit of considered dissent than poor catechesis and human weakness, but the fact remains that in this respect it seems the majority of Irish Catholics are out of step with the Church throughout time.

The Eucharist, described by the Second Vatican Council as “the source and summit of Christian life”, has always been central to the Church’s existence.

Acts 2:46 describes how the early Jerusalem Church celebrated the Eucharist daily, meeting at the Temple for preaching and prayer, but breaking bread in their own homes rather than attending the Temple sacrifices.

Poor translations sometimes make it seem as though the phrase “breaking bread” is just another way of saying that the early Christians ate together, but the original Greek text is unambiguous in its distinction between liturgy and lunch.

Early Church
The first Christians’ devotion to the Eucharist shouldn’t surprise us. Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24-5 record how at the Last Supper Jesus commanded them to celebrate the Eucharist in remembrance of him, while at John 6 Jesus repeatedly describes himself as the bread of life, clearly stating “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

It might be tempting to interpret this passage in a symbolic or spiritual way, but the Greek text simply doesn’t allow this.

The passage describes the listening crowd being horrified at Jesus’ words, and asking him to clarify them; he did so by making his language more graphic, emphasising the reality of what he was asking his followers to do by replacing the word phagein – to eat – with the rather more tactile word trogein – to munch, or gnaw, or chew.

Significantly too, the word the passage uses for “flesh” – sarx – is used on six other occasions in John, each time as something emblematic of the physical rather than the spiritual world, beginning with the declaration that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.

Intolerable teaching
Many disciples left after this, finding Jesus’ teaching intolerable, while those who remained did so in apparent confusion.

It wasn’t until after the Last Supper that the meaning of Jesus’ words became clear and the Eucharist was embraced as a real participation in the body and blood of Christ, such that, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 10:27, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”

The disciples’ own disciples took this to heart, and it seems clear from the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch – a pupil of John, and bishop of the city where Christians first bore that name – that an acceptance of the Eucharist as Christ’s body and blood was the hallmark of orthodox Christianity before the end of the first Christian century.

On his way under armed guard to Rome, where he was to be martyred, he wrote a series of letters to churches including one in which he said that those Gnostics who believed that Jesus’ body was but an illusion were easily identifiable:

“They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness raised up again.”
St Justin Martyr, writing a few decades later in the middle of the second century, gives us the earliest detailed description of Christian worship: the main Christian ceremony took place on Sundays and had two parts: a liturgy of the word with readings from the scriptures and a sermon, and then a liturgy of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine were offered up, blessed, and distributed.

Explaining mainstream Christianity to the Roman emperor, he describes the Eucharist as follows:

“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these... the food which is blessed by the power of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
The Eucharist was so central to early Christianity that it was common for the Church’s Roman persecutors, who scorned that which they couldn’t understand, to describe Christians as cannibals – as well as incestuous atheists!

The early Church was so convinced of the reality of the Eucharist, that it wasn’t even deemed necessary to refer to the Eucharist in the Nicene creed; it simply went without saying that during Mass the Eucharistic elements would become the body and blood of Christ.

Of course, it was obvious that they didn’t appear to change, but the Church was unanimous that Christ’s word was to be trusted.

It was not until the ninth century that speculation began about how this change took place.

These debates attracted little attention at the time, but almost two hundred years later n archdeacon named Berengar of Tours began to wonder whether the Eucharistic change was merely spiritual or even metaphorical.

Berengar’s theories were recognised as contrary to the historical teaching of the Church, and were condemned, but further speculation continued and so the Church gradually embraced the idea that “transubstantiation” was the best way of explaining the Eucharistic change.

The language of transubstantiation may have been a medieval innovation, but the idea behind it – that the bread and wine literally change to the body and blood of Christ – stretched back to the foundation of the Church.

If it is true that only a quarter of Irish Catholics really believe that this happens at the Mass, it would seem that the International Eucharistic Congress isn’t happening a moment too soon.

We need to be reminded of what unites us with our fellow Christians throughout the world and throughout time.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 14 June 2012.

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