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A Short History of the Eucharist
Did you ever play that game where everyone sits around in a circle and the
first person whispers a sentence into the ear of the next person, and that person whispers
it to the next person and so on until the sentence has been passed to everyone in the group?
Then the last person says the sentence out loud, and a sentence that started out as, for
example, “My horse is afraid to go upstairs!”
has become “My house has learned to say its prayers!”
While this game can be a lot of fun, it also illustrates how hard it can
be to hand on information accurately from one person to another. And if it is difficult
to hand on one sentence, think of the difficulty in handing on from one generation to the
next something as complex, wonderful and mysterious as the Holy Eucharist!
We find this difficulty with “handing on”
present in the earliest written account of the Eucharist. To the Church at Corinth, St.
Paul writes: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord
Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread...”
(1 Cor 11:23). Paul goes on to say that the Corinthians have not accurately received what
he handed on. He sharply criticizes the way they are celebrating the Eucharist: “Your
meetings are doing more harm than good”
(1 Cor 11:17). What didn’t get handed on? What was it that they didn’t get
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
“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.
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
But it was none of these things that upset St. 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 St. 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
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!”
We have examined the Mass from various angles—sacrament, sacrifice,
meal, Real Presence. But Catholics also honor the Eucharist apart from Mass, and that is
the topic of our next, and final, article in this series.
Next: Beyond the Mass
When have you participated in a Mass that reflected a culture
other than your own? What benefit do you see from local ethnic groups appropriately
expressing some of their own culture within the Mass?
What difference does it make to you to learn that there was
no single original way of celebrating the Mass? How might it help you accept future
developments and changes in the eucharistic liturgy?
What moral implications do you experience as a result of Christ’s
presence in the Eucharist? How does it touch your daily life?
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