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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