The Eucharist: Four Ancient Sources

In his The Meaning of Ritual, Lionel Mitchell discusses four extra-canonical ancient sources which in the last century or so (I hope to write more about the “liturgical renewal movement” soon) have served greatly to enhance our understanding of the Eucharist (especially the Eucharist Prayer), especially in terms of its meaning and its historical origins.

1. The Didache (dating from 100 – 125) is important because it shows us just how Jewish the earliest Christian meal “liturgies” (ie, prayers / blessings) were. Some Jewish scholars have calle these rites “adaptations of Jewish prayers.” It is also striking just how Trinitarian the prayers are. If these texts clearly have the Christian understanding of the Trinity in mind, then it would be most unsurprising for the New Testaments documents themselves to have it in mind as well.

2. The letter of Pliny the Younger to the Roman Emperor Trajan strongly suggests that the early Christians would have one gathering (characterized by spoken words) in the morning hours on Saturday, and then meet again for a celebratory meal in the evening. Here we see the beginning of the development of the Christian practice of celebrating together on the first day of the week (Sunday), the Lord’s Day, the day Christ rose from the dead.

3. Justin Martyr’s descriptions of the Eucharist, in a letter written (3rd cent.) to Emperor Antoninus Pius. There is so much we learn from this that I cannot summarize it here. Suffice to say that we learn three main things. First, by this time the blessings & prayers over the bread and wine are separated from the actual meal. Second, deacons are the ones who distribute the bread and wine. Third, we have a form of the “service” which closely resembles what is familiar to many Christians today:

  1. Readings from Scripture, including the Gospel
  2. Homily or Sermon
  3. Common Prayers
  4. Kiss of Peace
  5. Offertory
  6. Eucharistic prayer concluding with common “Amen” (a Hebrew term as Justin says)
  7. Distribution of Communion

4. The Apostolic Tradition of Hyppolitus (c. 210) contains an even fuller format, which includes many important features of the Eucharistic prayer knows to us today:

  1. Thanksgiving to God
  2. Institution Narrative
  3. Anamnesis
  4. Epiclesis
  5. Doxology
  6. Sanctus (Hebrew Qedusha)
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Derrida, Nihilism, and the (Post)Modern

Derrida leads to nihilism only if modern philosophy, that is the modern epistemological turn, is the only alternative.

But, alas, there is another alternative, the likes of Scotus and Descartes notwithstanding: premodern participation.

This is why John Milbanks says that modern philosophy is a detour which radical orthodoxy is trying to navigate out of. And this is also why he says that Christian theology — like Derrida — is a hair’s breadth away from nihilism.

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Transparency, Liturgy, & Contemplation

In the context of writing about the Rule of St. Benedict, James Finley writes, “In this … loving awareness, all that is opaque becomes translucent, and then utterly transparent” (Christian Meditation p. 139).

This is the connection between liturgy and contemplation, between liturgical theology and contemplative prayer.

A tree, writes Catherine Pickstock in her After Writing: on the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, is unintelligible if seen in utter disconnect from God. Without God, Rene Descartes and Duns Scotus nothwithstanding, a tree is unintelligible.

Alexander Schmemann makes similar points in his For the Life of the World.

Bathed in God’s light, however, the tree hints of God, and begins to display God. This is precisely what (the) liturgy, chiefly the Eucharist (and chiefly within the Eucharist the logic of the anaphora), celebrates.

What the Eucharist celebrates, then, contemplative prayer fosters and develops, training the disciple in this sacramental awareness, that all of creation shines with divine light which  is — ultimately and paradoxically — uncreated. When we (by “we” I mean Christians, children of God, although non-Christians can participate in true contemplation to various degrees) radically slow down and practice the disciplines of ascesis we can begin to glimpse God with the eyes of the heart.

“You made all of creation with wisdom / May the glory of Jah endure forever.” – Sinead O’Connor, “The Glory of Jah”

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Breathing is Sacramental
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Participation & the Reformed Tradition

Todd Billings argues in Calvin, Participation, and the Gift that there is a strong theology of participation in Calvin’s theology, and surely he is correct. The question then becomes: “How is it that the subsequent Reformed tradition, for example the Westminster Divines, lost this emphasis?”  Surely the answer is that, in losing the historic episcopate, whose job it is to preserve the liturgical tradition of the church, they lost the fullness of sacramental worship and practice.

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