Most of us are aware that all Christian Communion practices have their beginnings in the Last Supper of Jesus and His apostles. That Last Supper was actually a Seder meal, and many contemporary Jews would recognize many of the elements—the sharing of the cup, the blessing, the breaking of bread, the sop that was handed to Judas—as part of their Passover celebrations.
The New Testament’s book of Acts 2:42 records that early Christians would gather together to worship, pray, and teach. In the years after the church was empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there were two different but similar customs or early sacraments that are closely related to the more contemporary practice of Communion. These two sacraments could also be called meals, as one was the Lord’s Supper and the other was the Agape feast.
In 1 Corinthians 11:20–22, the apostle Paul was critical of the church because they were getting too rowdy and even drunk at what others would later call the Agape love feast: Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper ahead of others. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on the church of God and embarrass those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you for this! (HCSB)
Many scholars believe the early church would gather weekly for a common meal, often shared in the homes or house churches. Each meal would include a blessing, the breaking of bread, and a distribution of Communion. Over time this Communion (a Greek word for “fellowship”) became the Eucharist (another Greek word, meaning “grateful” or “thanksgiving”) and the central focus of the weekly gathering.
Piecing various historical records together indicates that this weekly common meal, sometimes called the Agape feast, included the distribution of Communion. However, independent of the Agape feast, a separate liturgy developed for Communion that did not include a meal. The Agape feast was truly a feast (think potluck with wine), and, probably because of the abuses similar to those mentioned by Paul hundreds of years earlier, it disappeared completely by the fourth century.
The apostle Jude also mentioned these Agape (meaning “love”) feasts and some problematic individuals. He wrote that some people were “spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves” (Jude 1:12, NKJV). Weekly celebrations, services, and the beginnings of what Roman Catholics now know as the Mass were anything but uniform throughout the early church. Cultural differences, location, language, and distance all had impacts on the way these early Christians would relate to each other, gather, and worship.
History records that the head of some of the local churches were called presidents, though in some locations, and over time, the heads of the church were referred to by the Greek words presbuteros and episkopos, typically translated as “elders” and “bishops.” Typically the duty of breaking bread and distributing Communion was the duty of these leaders of the church. Both history and the Bible give us indications that the early Christian community would utilize primarily Jewish prayers of thanksgiving on the Sabbath in connection with the breaking of bread and the distribution of Communion, which was their Last Supper memorial. As the believers in Jesus were removed from the Jewish houses of worship, they began to meet officially on Sundays, which was called the Lord’s Day. The apostle John, writing in Revelation 1:10, said, “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.”
By the end of the first century, Christians began to identify their weekly gatherings as pure sacrifice as opposed to the public sacrifices to the gods, which they referred to as offerings to demons. As the apostolic community was no longer on the scene, the church would use, read, and reflect on the writings of the first-generation leaders, including the writings of Paul and the sacred writings that would become the New Testament. Various patterned prayers, singing, invocations, and remembrances were added that ultimately developed into the beginnings of what is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as the liturgy of the word.
The concept of the bread and wine being the body and blood of Jesus was acknowledged sufficiently in the second and third centuries that the Romans accused the Christians of being cannibals. There has been much controversy in the church surrounding the actual presence of Christ in the memorial service that we know as the Eucharist or Communion. We will not try to settle this controversy, but we can look at some history and some practical comments related to the development of the doctrine. History records that over time, theologians identified the Eucharist as both a memorial ritual as well as a sacrificial ritual. The Eucharist was said to be both the reenactment of the Last Supper along with a strong identification of the bread and wine with the body and blood of Jesus.
The question that arises is whether the bread and wine were symbolic and a memorial or whether there was a sacrifice and a transubstantiation— the Catholic Church term indicating the bread and wine become literally the body and blood of Jesus. By the fourth century, some of the modern teachings of the Roman Catholic Church had evolved, but not with the clarity that many would suppose. For example, we have writings by both St. Augustine (bishop in Hippo, Africa) as well as Cyril (archbishop of Jerusalem) related to the Eucharist. Augustine said Jesus is present in the Eucharist “per modum symboli,” or symbolically. (35) However, Cyril declared that in the Eucharist, Christians “offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins.” (36) Obviously there was nothing symbolic about the way Cyril viewed the Eucharist.
From my perspective the issue is not about the presence of Christ but the ability of a man, a Roman Catholic priest, to be able to transform supernaturally, call down, or have the power to change bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. This is a role or a power that other ordained clergy or pastors of various other churches do not claim to have or believe is appropriate. The issue of symbolic versus actual is an argument that may not need to be voiced. Symbols are often actual representations. For example, the national seal of a country on an embassy in a foreign land indicates not symbolically but in actuality that the embassy is a part of that nation, even though it may be thousands of miles from the homeland. The American flag is not a mere symbol but represents the country. That is why patriots will come to the rescue of the flag that is burning or being dishonored in some way. Are a married couple’s wedding rings merely symbols? If they were, why would they be one of the central elements in a wedding ceremony and thought to be literally priceless if lost or stolen?
Misplace your wedding ring someday, and see if your spouse thinks it was just symbolic.
Both the traditions as well as the teachings of the church changed considerably over the first few centuries. By the fourth century, the first Christian emperor, Constantine, eliminated the persecution of the Christians, which led to the rapid expansion of Christianity in the empire. Around that time the local pastors of the church were first being called priests, a term that would never have been used for the leaders of the church at the time of the apostles. Priests were nonexistent in the church for the first few hundred years, but priest became the popular term for the clergy that were ordained and commissioned. As the priests took on this specialized role, the laity took an increasingly diminished role in spiritual affairs.
Soon the clergy started dressing differently from the rest of the church, and Latin became the official language of the church. Soon those who didn’t speak Latin (including nearly all of Europe after the fall of Rome in the fifth century) couldn’t read the Bible or understand the prayers and liturgy of the Mass.
There was a great amount of diversity in traditions and practices in the church. However, by the seventh century, Pope Gregory declared that the Latin Mass used in Rome was the standard, and it became the basis for what Roman Catholics knew as the Roman rite up until the time of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
In the Middle Ages, the sacraments were fully defined, the power of the church became absolute, and the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist grew in importance while the Last Supper and meal symbolism diminished. The spiritual divide between the clergy and laity widened. The power of the priesthood was thought to be essential in the celebration and the sacrifice of the Mass. For the most part, the general public became merely spectators to an intentionally mysterious drama that the priest performed while wearing special robes and standing before an altar.
The Eucharistic prayers, consecration, and Communion became the central part of the worship service. However, the people rarely participated, as they were reminded frequently of their sins and shortcomings. The importance of receiving Communion became less important for the laity than their witness at the Mass of the consecration of the bread and wine. This led to the practice of worshipping and adoring the Eucharistic Lord (the specialized round wafer, called a host, from the Latin hostia, meaning “an offering, usually an animal”). Because so few people were receiving Holy Communion, the Fourth Lateran Council (AD 1215) required that Catholics must receive Communion at least once a year.
The sixteenth century brought about the Protestant Reformation. The pope convened the Council of Trent (1545–1563) to correct some of the abuses that had crept into the church. It also defended some Catholic beliefs that the reformers attacked. In the area of the Eucharist, the church fathers reaffirmed the real presence of Jesus. They also defended the sacrificial nature of the Mass against the reformers. In addition the Roman Missal was published, which brought uniformity to the official ritual of the Mass. The Roman Catholic Church used it for the next four hundred years.
Most Catholics continued to avoid going to Communion, believing they were unworthy, until 1910, when Pope Pius X permitted children who attained the age of reason to receive Holy Communion and encouraged frequent Communion by all the faithful. More than anything else, it was Pius X’s reforms of the Eucharist that had the greatest impact on the daily lives of Catholics. With his decree, “Sacra Tridentina Synodus” (1905), Pius emphasized that Holy Communion was not a reward for good behavior but, as the Council of Trent noted, “the antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and be preserved from mortal sins.” In another decree, “Quam Singulari” (1910), the pope laid out guidelines on the age of children who are to be admitted to Holy Communion. In the past, children—or better, adolescents—received their first Communions when they were between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Since Pius X’s edict, they were more likely around seven years of age, often in the second grade, as I was at St. Joseph’s School.
The text above from pages 110-118 in Communion and the Mass- Chapter 20 of "Roaming Catholics"
Was Peter the first Pope? Should Christians pray the Rosary? Should priests be married? These are among the provocative topics addressed in Roaming Catholics: Ending the wandering to embrace the wonder"
This thoroughly researched book presents the development of the Catholic Church in an engaging way to help Christians understand their common history shared by all. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the "Body of Christ," not the "Body of Christians." Rather than Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female he proclaimed we are to be one in Christ.
Pastor and theologian Kenneth Behr shares his own religious evolution from a Catholic altar boy to an evangelical pastor and engages readers with a parallel story of the evolution of Catholicism.
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