Franciscan Spirit Blog

A Short History of the Eucharist

The Eucharist is a complex mystery. None of us—no matter how learned, no matter how holy—can fully grasp it. The Holy Spirit helps us to hand on to the next generation what we have received from the generations before us so that “the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth” (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, #8).

But this constant move forward happens in a human way: It happens in time, over centuries, with periods of rapid progress and periods of hesitancy and retreat. God works “incarnationally.” God has placed the divine mysteries, even the great mystery of the Eucharist, in human hands.

“Your son has entrusted to us this pledge of his love” (Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation II).

The Incarnation of Jesus can help us understand the mystery of the Eucharist. We believe that the eternal Word of the Father took flesh and became truly human. In his divine nature Jesus existed before all time with the Father and the Spirit. In his human nature Jesus of Nazareth was a man of his time: He dressed like other first-century Jews, spoke their language, ate their food and shared their culture.

Similarly, the Eucharist has both divine and human elements. While the Eucharist is, was and always will be the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, this divine mystery is “incarnated” into human culture. The eucharistic celebration employs the language, clothing, postures and rhythms appropriate to the culture in which it is celebrated. And, as cultures differ from place to place and from age to age, we can expect corresponding differences in the celebration of the Eucharist.


Original Diversity

One of the most important things I have learned about the history of the Eucharist is that there was no one, uniform, original way of celebrating the Mass. There were as many ways of celebrating the Eucharist as there were Christian communities. It was only gradually that the ceremonies became more fixed and uniform.

Around the fourth century these various rituals and customs began to coalesce into local traditions around the major cities; these traditions developed into what we now call liturgical rites. For example, from Alexandria in Egypt we have the Coptic Rite; from Antioch, the Syrian Rite; from Constantinople, the Byzantine Rite, and from Rome, the Roman Rite (the liturgical rite we have been discussing in this series).

The Eucharist was “incarnated” or “in-fleshed” into these various cultural settings. The language spoken by the people who lived in a place became the liturgical language used in the Eucharist: Coptic, Syrian, Greek and Latin. The clothing, gestures, food, vessels, music, etc., of the region were incorporated into the liturgy. These are the human or cultural aspects of the eucharistic celebration.

But it was none of these things that upset Saint Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians. He was not concerned about the vestments they wore, the language they used or the type of cups or bread employed for the Eucharist. He was concerned about the “divine element”—the way in which the Eucharist embodies the divine mystery.


Mystery of Faith

One way to enter the mystery of the Eucharist is through the three foundational events of the Paschal Mystery: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

1) Holy Thursday: The Mass is a sacred meal at which we eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Lord and become that Body by the action of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist embodies the mystery of our divinization, our incorporation into the very life of the Trinity.

2) Good Friday: Through the biblical understanding of anamnesis (memorial), the Eucharist enables us to become present to the once-and-for-all redeeming sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. The Eucharist embodies the mystery of our salvation and redemption in Christ.

3) Easter Sunday: At the Eucharist we encounter the presence of the risen Christ. The risen Lord so identifies with his disciples that what we do to one another we do to Christ himself. “…[W]hatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). This presence of the Body of Christ was at the heart of Saint Paul’s initial transforming experience of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). The Eucharist embodies the real, substantial presence of the risen Christ.

The primary difficulty in handing on the mystery of faith from generation to generation often lies in preserving the balance and the integrity of these three foundational meanings.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, his complaint seems to have been that they were eating and drinking their sacred meal in memory of the risen Lord but were identifying the eucharistic presence with the head of the Body to the exclusion of the members of Christ’s Body here on earth, especially the poor and the marginalized.

Paul criticizes them because when they gather “it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.” He asks: “Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the Church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed?” (see 1 Cor 11:17-22). At issue is the manner in which the presence of the risen Lord is manifested and experienced in the sacrificial meal and the moral implications of that presence.


A Need for Balance

As the Church hands on the eucharistic mystery from generation to generation, there is a constant struggle to pass on the tradition accurately. Looking back over the centuries, we find periods of history when the Holy Thursday (meal) dimension of the Eucharist seemed underemphasized and people went to Mass without sharing in the sacred meal, without receiving Holy Communion.

There were times when we forgot the community dimension of the Lord’s Banquet and priests said Masses privately with only a server in attendance. There were times when the Good Friday (sacrifice) dimension of the Eucharist seemed to be emphasized so much that it obscured the once-and-for-all nature of the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. This caused a reaction on the part of some that minimized the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist and emphasized the Lord’s Supper.


The Liturgical Movement

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Holy Spirit inspired scholars in various countries to a renewed interest in the history, rituals and meaning of the Eucharist. Manuscripts and records that had been neglected or lost for centuries were rediscovered and studied. Many new facts were discovered. This new information opened the door for the liturgical renewal embodied in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first document of the Second Vatican Council.

Since then, we have seen many changes in the way we celebrate the Eucharist. Some of us are happy with these changes; some are not. But in any case, many Catholics wonder why the Eucharist—the sign and source of our unity—has become the source of so much division and controversy.


The Dynamics of Change

Many years ago I saw a graph that mapped the dynamics of change. The vertical and horizontal lines were “how long it takes” and “how difficult it is.” Along the diagonal line were 1) facts, 2) attitudes, 3) behavior and 4) group behavior. The graph illustrated that it is a lot easier and quicker to accept new facts than it is to change attitudes or behavior. And to change group behavior is harder yet and takes even more time.

For example, years ago I used to smoke cigarettes. When the government began to require warning labels on cigarette packages and programs on the dangers of smoking appeared on TV, I began to learn new facts about smoking. Little by little I became convinced of the truth of these facts, but I continued to smoke.

Even after my attitude changed and I didn’t like smoking anymore, I continued to smoke. It was only after much effort and many failed attempts that I changed my behavior and quit for good. And now, 40 years later, I can see how group behavior has changed in restaurants, airports and public buildings.

But some people continue to smoke. Perhaps they don’t have the facts? Perhaps they know the facts but interpret them differently? Perhaps they just like smoking? Perhaps they have always smoked and can’t or don’t want to change a behavior they have enjoyed for years?

How might this apply to the Eucharist? In the past 40 years I have acquired a lot of new facts about the Eucharist. I hear the Eucharistic Prayer in my own language. I have learned how the meal is the sacramental sign of the sacrifice. I understand the importance of eating and drinking. I see that the point of the Eucharist is not only the transformation of the bread and wine, but also the transformation of the people, the Church, into the Body and Blood of Christ.

These new facts have begun to influence my attitudes and my piety. Little by little they affect my behavior and my devotion—for the better, I trust. And I believe that in another 20 or 50 years we will begin to see changes in our group behavior. Then the Eucharist will become such a powerful source of strength and grace in our lives that people will say of us as they said of the first Christians, “See how they love one another! There is no one poor among them!”

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