The Evolution of the Eucharist

These services will trace the evolution of the Eucharist from early days to the present in order to show that although details change there is an underlying pattern. Many people begin their meals with an expression of thanksgiving not only for the food before them but for the continuing loving presence of God which shelters them. This becomes particularly important when it is done in the context of the family. There is something very intimate at a family meal. It is the presence of God which makes family meals loving and intimate.

a. The Passover

An example of this kind of family solidarity is described for us in the Old Testament account of the Passover meal (Exodus 12.1-11). This is one of the earliest examples in the Bible of common or corporate worship. The Passover meal was a family occasion, something like a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner but with a much stronger religious emphasis. We have nothing quite like it. The Passover itself was celebrated only once a year but to some extent all meals and especially those on sabbaths and great festivals became 'little Passovers.'

b. Temple and Synagogue

As the Jews travelled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land they carried with them the Ark of the Covenant in which they kept the rolls or books of the Law. It was also an outward and visible reminder of the continuing presence of God. When they settled in the promised land they built an impressive temple at Jerusalem where daily sacrifices were offered by priests appointed for the purpose. Priesthood was an hereditary office.

It was expected that the people would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem at least for the great festivals. Most of them could only do this on very rare occasions. Some never got there at all but always they knew that prayers and sacrifices were being offered for them. In 586 BC the temple was destroyed by invading armies and many of the people were carried into captivity in Babylon (Psalm 137). The temple services could no longer be held. Families could and did celebrate the Passover each year but something else was needed. People needed to be reminded and the children taught about their heritage which they hoped would one day be restored. To meet this need they formed what came to be known as synagogues, assemblies or congregations. A minimum of ten men banded together and paid a tenth of their income for the support of a rabbi or teacher. This meant that the rabbi could live at approximately the same socio-economic level as they did. The synagogue became an important part of Jewish communal life. It met each sabbath for a service of readings, prayers, psalms and instruction.

c. The Chaburah

There was also another institution known as the chaburah. This was a group of male friends who met at regular intervals for conversation and a formal meal. Little is said about them in the Bible but scholars have been able to discover some things about them from other sources. The corporate meeting of a chaburah usually took the form of a supper, held at regular intervals. often on the eve of sabbaths or holy days. Each member of the society contributed towards the provision of this common meal.

The form of the supper was largely the same as the chief meal of the day in every pious Jewish household. Each kind of food was blessed when it was first brought to the table. At the end of the meal came the grace after meals - the Blessing or Benediction as it was called. This long prayer was said by the host or father of the family in the name of all who had eaten the meal. On important occasions, and at a chaburah supper, it was recited over a special cup of wine known quite naturally as "the cup of blessing." At the end of the Thanksgiving prayer this cup was sipped by the leader and then by each of those present. The chaburah supper was concluded by the singing of a psalm, after which the meeting broke up. Among the Jews our Lord and his disciples would have been seen as just such a chaburah and our Lord's last supper with his disciples is the best known example of such a supper in the New Testament.

d. New Testament Worship

The best known example of such a supper in the New Testament is, of course, our Lord's last meal with his disciples. No doubt they had met in this way many times previously but on this occasion, on the eve of the crucifixion, a new dimension was added and the Lord appointed it to be the means of communication, or communion, between himself and his disciples. This he did in the familiar words:

This is my body which is for you: do this in remembrance of me.

This cup is the new covenant in my blood:

Do this as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

The Greek word for remembrance is anamnesis and it means more than the English word remember. It is a stronger word with a much more vivid sense. It is best translated 'for the recalling of me.' As our Lord had taught them, the disciples were careful to meet together and the chaburah, which now became the eucharist, became the focal point of their worship. It is probable that when the disciples met together on the first Easter day (John 20.19) and on subsequent first days it was for the purpose of celebrating this common meal (Acts 2.42).

The Apostolic Age

At this point two things seem to have happened. The church grew too large to continue the chaburah-type supper and Christians were expelled from the synagogues by hostile Jews. The informality of the Lord's Supper was only possible when there were relatively few disciples. When congregations grew to 60, 70 or even a hundred people things became more difficult. There were also other difficulties. People do not always get on with each other and the congregation at Corinth seems to have been notoriously difficult. [See 1 Cor. 11.17-20] Because of these difficulties the preceding meal, known as the agapé or love feast, was dropped leaving only the eucharist as it is described in 1 Corinthians 11.23-2. About the same time the other Jews grew angry with the Christians and expelled them from the synagogues (Acts 13.13-15, 42-52: 14.1-4). In order to continue the synagogue worship the Christians held a service of their own as a prelude to the eucharist. The development of Christian worship seems to have been something like this.

i - The first stage At the last supper the Lord and his disciples shared in the chaburah meal which he transformed into the eucharist. This was continued after the resurrection as a common meal which included the agapé or love feast followed by the breaking of bread or eucharist.

ii - The intermediate stage For practical reasons the common meal was discontinued leaving the eucharist to stand by itself. This made a very short celebration and something else was needed.

iii - The developed Eucharist The synagogue service consisting of psalms, readings, prayers and instruction was used as an introduction to the eucharist. This continued to be the pattern of the Church.

By the 60s of the Christian era Christians themselves were being persecuted for their faith and it became necessary for them to meet in the early morning to avoid the risk of discovery. This much we know from Pliny the Younger who was Governor of Bythinia about 112 AD. When Christians were brought before him on charges of religio illicita he questioned them about their practices. Reporting to the Emperor on what he had discovered, he said:

They declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. At the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food ...

Evidently the Christians were very discreet when they were examined publicly about their faith. Nothing was said about the body and blood of Christ because this would not have been understood and was what caused the greatest fears of the pagans.

The subsequent development of the eucharist uncertain. It used to be thought that the account of the Lord's Supper was only pattern. Within the last two hundred years many patristic writings which had been lost for many centuries have been re-discovered. Among them are The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or the Didache, and the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, in the early second century, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, written about 200 AD. From them we are able to see what the Eucharist in the early Church was really like.

The Emperor Constantine ; Christianity as the State Religion

Early in the fourth century, in the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Consequently, the number of Christians increased greatly. It became socially acceptable, and even necessary, to become a Christian, greatly to the detriment of the spirituality of the Church. Church buildings were erected on the model of Roman forums or town halls. At first the altar stood, as it does now, at the entrance to the sanctuary and the celebrant fthe people. In the process of enhancing the liturgy civic ceremonial was adopted and particularly the use of incense. In the 8th or 9th century the altar was often moved to the east wall of the church requiring the celebrant to stand facing it with his back to the congregation. What had been an intimate domestic gathering became a large public performance.

The role of the worshipper was reduced to that of a spectator. Latin, which had ceased to be the language of the people, continued to be the liturgical language. The eucharist became surrounded with superstition and was seen by the uninformed as a magical charm. When the illiterate peasant heard the priest gabble, "Hoc est enim corpus meum," (This is my body) he heard it as 'hocus pocus,' which is where that phrase comes from, and understood it as a magic charm to 'make God.' During this period also non-communicating attendance at the mass became a serious problem and efforts were made to correct it.

At the same time there was, in theological circles, an unfortunate attempt to define the nature of the Lord's presence in the eucharist which led to transubstantiation, consubstantiation, receptionism and the like which served further to obscure the meaning of the Lord's Supper.

Movements towards Reform

By the thirteenth century the desire for reform was stirring and there were attempts to restore the sense of community, to give the Bible to the people in their own language, and to simplify the liturgy. The first significant reform was that of Cardinal Qunones in Spain who introduced a revised prayer book in 1535. At the same time some of the German Lutherans were producing service books in the vernacular.

The first step towards reform in the Church of England took place in 1543 when it was ordered that a chapter of the New Testament in English should be read every Sunday and holy-day at Matins and Vespers. This was followed in 1544 by the first English Litany.

The Order for Communion, generally known as the 'English Communion Order,' was introduced in March, 1548. No change was made in the Latin mass but certain devotions designed to involve the laity. These included the Invitation, the longer and shorter exhortations, the general confession and absolution, and the Comfortable Words and the prayer of humble access. In 1548 the cup was restored to the laity

The first Book of Common Prayer in English appeared in 1549. It was a very conservative revision and did not satisfy many of the extremists who wished for more far-reaching changes.

A second revision appeared in 1552 in which efforts were made to make the Lord's Supper as unlike the mass as possible. The Communion table was to be placed lengthwise in the nave or chancel. The celebrant would continue to stand at the long side, now the north side, of the table.

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 extremists on both sides became unpopular and the third English prayer book of 1559 was an attempt to provide a middle ground.

A significant variation among prayer books was the Scottish book of 1637 which restored 'something very similar to the classical eucharistic shape.' It became the basis of successive US prayer books and has become a basic principle of modern liturgical revision.

In 1662, following the restoration of King Charles II a revised prayer book was introduced which has remained the norm in the Church of England until fairly recently. It was also the basis of most overseas prayer books. Although a fairly conservative revision it was accompanied by the ceremonial reforms of Archbishop Laud. Laud believe in 'decency and order' in worship and did his best to recover a degree of decorum. The table was no longer to be brought out into the body of the Church but was to remain, altar-wise, at the east end and was to be 'decently fenced' by a communion rail.

The reform movements between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries were attempts to correct the imbalance between clerical leadership and lay participation but, for a variety of reasons, they were never very successful. Even at its best The Book of Common Prayer continues the idea of clerically dominated worship. It was only the recovery of some of the patristic writings which provided the resources for changes effected by the Liturgical Movement.

The Liturgical Movement

The twentieth century Liturgical Movement began among the Belgian Roman Catholic Benedictines in the late nineteenth century and since that it has infiltrated every major Christian denomination. The first emphasis has to recover the idea of the wholeness of the People of God as a reaction from the subjectivism which has tainted all Christian churches since the sixteenth century. The Christian faith is for all people and it is the responsibility of all the members to share their experience with others. As The Book of Alternative Services of Canada puts it:

Christians have discovered a new responsibility for the world, that loving their neighbours as themselves demands more than compliance with the civil law. As the Letter of James puts it, it is not enough to say to the poor, "'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body" (2.16). This finds expression in contemporary liturgy in consciousness of the ministry of Jesus to the distressed and in prayer for the extension of that justice which is God's own work. [p.10]


The Parish Church of St. Mark the Evangelist,

Ottawa, Ontario.