From the Assistant Pastor’s Desk:
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This Sunday we return to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John—to the Bread of Life discourse. In it, Jesus tells His disciples unequivocally: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” As we continue to read from this discourse, we will find that Christ’s words only become stronger: He tells us that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we will not have life within us. And when His words cause many to leave, He calmly asks the apostles if they too intend to leave over this teaching. What Jesus has to say here is obviously of incredible importance for us—we can’t pass it over.
As Catholics, we recognize very clearly that Jesus is beginning to teach His apostles about the Eucharist: the Sacrament of His Body and Blood under the appearance of bread and wine. But why do we say that with such certainty? How do we know that the Eucharist, as we understand it, is what Jesus was describing in this discourse? How do we know that the Mass is the continuation of what Jesus began to explain in today’s Gospel? After all, there are tens of thousands of Christian groups which have other ideas about what this passage is saying and how it’s meant to be lived out by Jesus’ followers. It’s important to know the foundation of our faith and our practices, so that we can stand firm on that foundation.
We can certainly look to the Bible itself to clarify this question for us. Brant Pitre does this beautifully and thoroughly in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, for example. It is easy to read and well worth having on the shelf, and I am happy to give away copies to anybody who asks for one. But we might also look to the practices of the early Church—the Christian communities that still held the teaching of the apostles in living memory. What did these communities do? How did they understand this idea of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood, and how did they carry out Jesus’ command from the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me”? If we could get a sense of how the apostles themselves passed on this memorial, it should give us an answer to our question.
We have hints here and there in the New Testament letters, and of course we have the details of the Last Supper itself, but the very earliest Christian community did not write down a detailed account of their Sunday worship. In fact, we have very few writings at all from the earliest community—in part because of misunderstandings and persecutions which they experienced, but mostly because the teachings and the practices of the faith were primarily passed on by word of mouth and by simply living them out in community. Committing these things to writing was secondary. Something like the practice of the Eucharist seemed especially unnecessary to put into writing, since the weekly practice of it meant it was already intimately familiar to all Christians. This is why, for example, St. John does not include the actual institution of the Eucharist in his Gospel, even though we might easily argue that this Gospel is the most Eucharistic of them all.
Having said that, there are many early witnesses to the belief in and practice of the Eucharist in the early Christian community. Among them figure, for example, the great St. Ignatius of Antioch, who had been taught by St. John the apostle himself, and who gave his life for the faith in the Roman arena. He writes quite clearly: “the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised.”
Another critical witness is St. Justin Martyr. Although not as early, his witness is especially worth looking at. Justin lived in Rome in the early second century, and he wrote the first detailed description we have of how the early Christians worshiped. He keeps this description simple, because he is trying to explain the practices of the Christian community to non-Christians. Here is a sample of what he says:
“On the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country assemble in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has ceased, the one who presides instructs with his word and admonishes and exhorts us to imitate these good things. Then we all rise together and pray; and, as we said before, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought…”
And here is from his detailed description of what follows the receiving of these gifts:
“…taking them [the bread and the wine with water], he gives praise and glory at great length to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, because He has considered us worthy of these things. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgiving, all the people present cry out saying Amen. This word Amen in the Hebrew means “Let it be.” And when the one who is presiding has given thanks, and all the people have cried out, those whom we call deacons give the eucharisted bread and wine and water to be received by each of those present, and then they carry it to those who are absent.”
Wanting to explain what this “eucharisted bread and wine and water” is, he goes on to say:
“This food we call Eucharist, which no one is allowed to share except the one who believes that our teaching is true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and so lives as Christ has handed down. For we do not receive these as common bread and common drink; but just as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we learned that the food over which thanks has been given by the prayer of the word which comes from Him, and by which our blood and flesh are nourished through a change, is the Flesh and Blood of the same incarnate Jesus.”
St. Justin’s description should sound incredibly familiar to us: it is the Mass, with the same essential structure then as it has now. And his explanation of what the Eucharist meant to the early Christian community could not be much clearer: after the words of Christ are said over the bread and the wine with water, they become the Real Presence of the living Christ—His Body and Blood.
There is a popular notion now that any way in which people come together to praise God can rightly be called “worship”, and any of these ways is just as good as any another. That was not the teaching of Christ or of His apostles, nor was it the practice of the early Christians. For them as for us, true worship means one thing: the offering of Christ to the Father on our behalf, which we are invited to participate in by our communion with Christ in the Eucharist. May this ever remain the firm foundation of our community’s life.
Yours in Christ,