As we look ahead toward this coming Sunday, at which time Christians from across the theological and geographical spectrum will celebrate the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper, it is worth giving attention to the meaning of this sacrament of the church and to its practice. If you do a search through this blog for the word Eucharist, you’ll find much to ponder. Being Disciple, a tradition that celebrates the service of the Table each week that may not be that surprising. I’m going to try to add in other materials as time allows to further the conversation.
Being that I’m using the John 6:41-51 passage as the basis of my sermon this coming Sunday, using the title “Bread of Life,” I began looking at what I had written or thought about over the years. One of the major issues that emerges in any conversation about the Eucharist is the matter of Presence. This is especially true of any reflection on John 6, where Jesus speaks rather boldly about being the “Bread of Life” and that salvation comes as one eats his body and drinks his blood. The question that has long been pondered concerns what all this means – how realistic should we take this? There have been, historically a number of directions this conversation has taken. So, to begin I’m sharing just a few words about this conversation as it developed in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, starting in the early second century.
The idea of a realistic presence in the elements comes as early as Ignatius. In his conflict with the docetists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh, Ignatius insists that the bread and wine are in reality Christ's body and blood. He accused the Gnostics of avoiding the Eucharist because they refused "to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised" (Smyrnaeans 7:1). Justin Martyr spoke of the bread and wine in similar terms:
For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. (1st Apology, 66). [i]
The sense of presence becomes even clearer in Irenaeus:
For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that the flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life, since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him? (Against Heresies, 5:3).[ii]
By the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem has developed a more mature view of the real presence. He urges the readers to partake of Christ's body and blood in the figures of the bread and wine. In that action, Cyril believed that the participant became one body with Christ.
For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His body and blood are diffused through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature. (Catechesis, 4:3).[iii]
Still a question remains as to the means of transformation. Cyril advised his readers on this issue.
Contemplate therefore the Bread and Wine not as bare elements, for they are, according the Lord's declaration the Body and Blood of Christ; for though sense suggests this to thee, let faith stablish thee. Judge not the matter from taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that though hast been vouchsafed the Body and Blood of Christ. (Catechesis, 4:5).
While the Fathers definitely had an idea of change they did not specify the nature of the change. They did not hold a doctrine of Transubstantiation. That doctrine would wait for several centuries and the discovery of Aristotelian and Platonic categories.
Western and Eastern Fathers disagreed, however, about the timing of the change. Whereas the West connected the change with the words of institution, the East connected the change with the prayer of Invocation of the Spirit. In the second century, however, the Fathers believed that the Prayer of Thanksgiving as a whole consecrated the elements.