ΕΥΧΑΡΙΣΤΟΜΕΝ ΣOI - A Lecture given as part of a Lent Program
All SS Church Rehoboth, 2010
It has become a truism to point to the significant increase in emphasis on the individual since the age of the Enlightenment. A symptom of this is clearly seen in the literature on prayer in the 18th-19th centuries: many books were written to be used in ‘private’ prayer, centering on methods for Meditation, or were guides dealing with topics like “Problems in Prayer”. Even in the context of the Mass, in continental Europe at least, one has a picture of a congregation busily engaged in saying the rosary while the liturgical action wends its separate clerical way, often behind a massive stone choir screen.
I would like to remind us that, on the contrary, the prayer of the gathered community is the earliest form of Christian prayer of which we know; furthermore, in spite of periods when, what we call the Liturgy, has lost its central position (for example the 18th century C of E), the Eucharist has constantly reminded Christians that the central elements of prayer are worship and thanksgiving. To day, I want to focus primarily on this Eucharistic worship of the church; the next lecture will consider the many other forms of liturgical prayer, known as the Offices, that have developed down the ages.
The Liturgy & the Daily Offices
First a brief note on two technical terms, Liturgy and Office: in Hellenistic Greek the word leiturgia meant an act of public service. In the NT it was used of the saints serving one another, but also of the community serving God, and since the main, perhaps, only service humans can give to God is to say “Thank you” (which in Greek is eucharistõ soi) the word was soon applied to the Eucharist. The word ‘Office’ comes from the Latin officium, originally the duty of a civic leader. Its use broadened into any ‘official’ responsibility, and, in the 4th and 5th centuries, it came to be applied to the round of weekly or daily prayer to which Christians,, particularly those in the emerging religious communities were duty bound. St Benedict called the Offices, the opus Dei, the work of God.
The New Testament
Where to begin? Perhaps some passages we find in the early chapters of Luke’s companion book to his Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles are as good a starting place as any. In 2.46 we hear of the earliest disciples, still, apparently, living in Jerusalem, “day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes”. In some ways, this is a ‘blue-print’ for the way the Christian Liturgy developed its distinctively two-part format. As Luke’s narrative continues, charting the movement of the church from Jerusalem into the wider Hellenistic world, we hear of Christians going to the synagogue, but celebrating the Lord’s Supper, (or, perhaps, Agapé meal?) in the developing “house churches”.
By around 70 C.E., it seems that a final separation between church and Synagogue was happening: Christians no longer thought of themselves (or were thought of by others), as a sect of Judaism. Nevertheless, the early influence of the Synagogue remained, as it does to this day, on the structure of the central act of Christian prayer: and not on its structure only, but in the fact that this central prayer was (as had been the case of synagogue worship) essentially a corporate act, not individual.
Development of the Eucharist
Having laid out some introductory material, I want to outline the development of the Eucharist from the earliest times of which we have evidence, and, as we proceed, to consider what the community has understood the meaning of its gathering to be in celebrating this central act of worship.
We do not find descriptions, let alone texts, of the services of the earliest communities. We do, however, have some hints in the NT itself, and, by the middle of the second century, evidence of how the church was worshipping. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (known often by the first word of its Greek title – the Didaché), which may be as early as 110 C.E., records the words to be said at the blessing of the bread and wine.
In the NT itself, the first reference to a solemn blessing of the bread and wine is found in Paul’s first letter to Corinth (11.23ff). Written c. 52 C.E., the letter is very much a pastoral guide, full of advice and not a few admonitions about irregular behavior and departures from the teaching that Paul had delivered to them. The immensely important information about the early memorial meal comes in a context that suggests that at this stage, the celebration was still a proper meal followed by a narrative of the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples, set in a telling of the happenings surrounding that meal itself. Paul repeats the words of Jesus at that final Passover, and adds a significant comment of his own: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (26). This may well be one of the first (and, perhaps, definitive) theological musings on the life, death and resurrection pf Jesus, the Christos, and on the significance of the community meal for the ongoing life of the church.
Other N.T. References
It is not, however, the only passage in the NT that reflects the centrality of the Eucharist. In the Synoptic Gospels, the stories of the feeding of the crowds abound in eucharistic allusions, and all the Evangelists give a central place to a Passion Narrative which gives prominence to the Last Supper, and as the great Liturgiologist R.C.D. Jasper writes, “[NT] books such as Hebrews and Revelation clearly indicate a knowledge of the eucharist”. (Dict. Liturgy & Worship, SCM Press 2nd Ed. p. 315).
So clearly from the very earliest times, the disciples met to share a common meal. Why did they do this, and what did it imply? I will try to outline the consensus views of biblical and liturgical scholars. Perhaps the single most important factor was the growing faith that death had not ended the life and mission of Jesus: a faith, that is, that Jesus’ presence continued with them. It is worth noting just how many of the resurrection stories in Luke and Matthew (Mark has no Resurrection Narrative) take place in the context of a meal. This is even more striking in the Fourth Gospel.
What Does it Mean?
The first theological reflections on the life and death of Jesus center on the primacy of the Rule of God, and on the conflict between it and the power, or rule of evil. In the light of the resurrection faith, the death was seen not as a defeat, but as the triumph of God’s love, a love on which Jesus had staked his whole being. The belief the Jesus continued to be present in the church very soon came to be focused on the sharing of the common meal and reciting Jesus’ own words. Of course, those words themselves are full of new interpretations and carry a strikingly new message: the disciples are under a new covenant, with the implication that they are a new People of God; Jesus’ willing submission to the powers of evil is seen as the way in which God is saving the people. It is a new way, not by animal sacrifice (though the metaphor is powerfully used), but by willing obedience to the rule of God. St Paul, with his customary theological acuity, gets the point precisely in his letter to Rome, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”. (5.19).
Center Point of Prayer
Thus, Christian prayer revolves round this center point: God’s will to rescue humankind, entangled in its own folly, by the work of the chosen Messiah, Jesus. Again Paul hits the nail right on the head. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation…everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ… that is, in Christ, god was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us”. (II Cor. 5.17ff).
Believing this with all their hearts, is it any wonder that when we come to earliest texts of a service we hear the central act beginning with:
“Lift up your hearts; lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God; it is very proper and our bounden duty (note here: “our Office”) to do so.”? Is it any wonder, either, that they called this act of worship the Eucharist, the Thanks-to-God-giving?
Liturgy of the Word
While the primary focus of the celebration was the final days of Jesus ministry, it was by no means the only thing that mattered to the disciples. The wider context of Jesus’ teaching, healing and welcoming ministry was essential for Paul’s conclusion noted above. The centrality of the Rule of God is only apparent if we listen to Jesus’ words in those incomparable stories, the Parables, and take note of the shorter sayings, found throughout the synoptic record.
It is here that the influence of the Synagogue is most clearly seen. E.J. Grisbrooke writes, “The synagogue service was composed basically of three elements – readings from the [Hebrew] scriptures, psalmody, and prayer, and these three are from the beginning the constant basic elements of the Christian [service]” (in Dict. Liturgy & Worship SCM Press, p.501).
We know that the three readings usually came one each from the three divisions of the Hebrew bible: from the Torah (Pentateuch), the Prophetic writings, which included what we call the ‘historical’ books like Joshua, Judges and Kings, in the division of the Prophets, and from the “Writings”, what we call the Wisdom literature, containing books like Job and Proverbs.
There was also a homily that commented on the readings and was usually delivered in Aramaic, since classical Hebrew was not longer the living language of the Jews. A written collection of such homilies is called a Targum (plur. Targumim), and they are an important source for our understanding of first century Judaism and sometimes reflect a different text in use. The custom of giving a homily is clearly seen in Luke’s account of Jesus, in the Synagogue of Nazareth: “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was his custom”. Clearly, he is already regarded as a Rabbi (through popular acclaim), and he gives a homily on the reading from Isaiah that they had just heard. (Lk. 4.16f). The custom is even more clear in Luke’s report of Paul in Pisidian Antioch: “On the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the officials sent to them a message, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it’”. (Acts 13. 15f.)
It seems that very early forms of the Christian service used an OT lesson and two NT lessons, one from the gospels and one from the Epistles, but by the 5th century, the OT lesson dropped out and remained out until the liturgical revisions of the 20th century restored them.
Before the Written Records
But what happened before gospels had assumed a written form? It seems most probable that in the years around 32 – 65 C.E. that after the OT reading the worship leader (Peter, Paul and other close followers of Jesus) would recount the remembered parables and saying of Jesus. Biblical scholars see this as one of the major formative influences on the emerging written accounts of Jesus’ acts and words because these clearly were interpreted and applied to the current needs of the community. On cannot imagine a house church gathering in Corinth, say, around 55 C.E. when the Leader having heard the OT lesson then said, “I’m afraid, brothers and sisters, that brother Mark has not yet finished his book so I have nothing to tell you about Jesus this morning”.
Understanding the Eucharist
I want to close by summing up some of the salient points about the Eucharist.
1) The church understands prayer to be primarily the function of the gathered community. This is not to say that prayer on one’s own is not also part of an individual Christian’s spiritual sustenance: we have, after all, the striking example of Jesus whom the Evangelists record drawing apart to a quiet place to pay. This is a time for introspection and examination.
2) From the very beginning, the central act of worship has been the Eucharist. This primacy strongly emphasizes that the centre of prayer is Thanksgiving and Adoration of a God who can be addressed as a parent and who holds all things together, bringing light out of darkness, order out of chaos and life out of death. It is light years away from a pagan (and unhappily, all too often contemporary) understanding of prayer as presenting a wish list to the ultimate entrepreneur. It is not only a thanksgiving for what God has done in Jesus, but for the wider understanding of all things being ultimately in the hand of God. (See Eucharistic Prayer D, BCP)
3) The structure of the Liturgy has from the beginning has been two services: (a) a recital of the saving acts of God in word, inherited, in part, from the Synagogue, and (b), the recital of the saving acts of God in symbol and sacrament: essentially a re-presentation, and emphatically not a representation. In broad terms, the first part of the service looks to the Hebrew context in which Jesus moved and presents to the community the narratives of his life and the essence of his teaching.
The second part centers on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper , set in a Thanksgiving Prayer that places Jesus as the central actor in God’s saving actions. Eucharistic Prayer B in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is an excellent example, incorporating much ancient material.
4) The words of Jesus at the Last Supper pose innumerable question since Mark, Matthew and Luke have significant differences between one another, and Paul, certainly our earliest witness, is different again. However the overall meaning is the same: Jesus is instituting a new Passover, for a new, universal people of God - the faithful followers of the Messiah, united as one with him, sharing in the obedience to the Rule of God. This involves sacrifice and that is what lies behind the strong symbolism of the sacrificial lamb; in this context, God also provides a New Covenant for the New Israel.
Remembrance of Me
It was in this common meal that the early disciples experienced the presence of the risen Lord. The excruciating conflicts about how Jesus is present were far in the future, and, perhaps, if the vital faith of the early years had not faded and been overlain with philosophical musings, need never have occurred.
The most striking element in the words of Jesus is the command to “remember”, for it encapsulates how the community understood what was happening. In Paul’ account, after both the blessing of the bread and the blessing of the wine, we hear, “do this for my remembrance”. In the English this sounds straightforward: we are to recall the events of the last Supper. This, however, is to ignore the evidence of the OT use of the idea where it is God who is asked to remember. Jeremias writes, “God’s remembrance, however, has always a quite definite meaning in Holy Scripture: it never means a mere recollection on the part of God; but when God remembers somebody, He acts, He does something, He sits in judgment, and grants his grace, He fulfills His promise”. (Eucharistic Words of Jesus p. 162).
Thus at each celebration we not only remember that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, but we also call on god to fulfill his promises, and to be present with the Messiah and the gathered people who are his body.
One of the earliest Liturgies we know has this in its Eucharistic Prayer:
“Remember, Lord your church to rescue it from all evil, and perfect it in your love, and gather it from the four winds; make it holy to be part of your Kingdom (Rule) which you have made ready for it”. (Didaché 10.5, my translation).