Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 4
Fr Nello Cipriani, O.S.A. 
Patristic Institute of the Augustinianum

The Holy Eucharist in the Fathers of the Church

  John Paul II's recent Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, certainly contains many patristic citations, although his references to conciliar and more recent ecclesial documents are even more plentiful. This is not surprising and is entirely understandable since, with regard to the Eucharist as with so many of her other doctrines, the faith of the Church has made great progress down the ages. Yet the patristic texts have kept intact their fascination and importance, since they help us grasp the continuity of the faith and feel in commu­nion with the early Church. Since it is impossible here to set forth fully the Fathers' thought on the Eucharist, we limit ourselves to picking out certain things. Let us start by drawing attention to an aspect to which not much thought as yet has been given.

The discipline of mystery

In a tomb inscription that dates back to the end of the second century, the author, recounting his life, alludes to participation in the Eucharist in figurative terms that are accessible only to Christians: "Faith guided me everywhere. Everywhere it procured for me as food a freshwater fish, very large, very pure, and caught by an immaculate virgin. Time and again she would give it to her friends to eat; she has a delicious wine which she offers with the bread" (Enchiridion fontium his. eccl. antiquae, C. Kirch, p. 93).

Albercio's words are a discernible echo of the so-called "disciplina dell'arcano" (discipline of mystery), the secrecy with which the ancient Church liked to shroud with religious reverence the most august mysteries of her faith, such as Baptism and the Eucharist, forbidding them to be spoken about to the uninitiated and even to catechumens. We find the clearest references to this in the Fathers of the fourth century. St Ambrose writes: "The mystery must remain sealed within you... in order that it not be divulged to those among whom it should not be, to prevent it from being spread by garrulous loquacity among the disbelieving" (Myst. 9, 55; CSEL 73, 113).

In his commentary on a psalm, St Augustine asserted that in the Church the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are reserved and not public: "In fact, the good works that we do are also seen by pagans, but the sacraments are hidden from them" (En Ps 103, dl, 14; NBA, XXVII, 664, Città Nuova). The most explicit mention is found in one of the recently discovered letters: "The mys­teries of being born to new life become known in a correct and orderly manner only to those who receive them" (Ep 2*, 4; NBA XXIII/A, 16).

Unfortunately, a secondary consequence of this rule of silence, a sign of great respect for the most august mysteries of the faith, was the fact that they were rarely discussed and only in the most fitting context of catechesis. This explains why we find in certain patristic works, in which we might expect a fuller or deeper treatment of the Eucharist, only rare and disappointing references to it.

The various contexts

  In fact, the Fathers never directly at­tempted a discourse on the Eucharist itself, but almost always approached it from the perspective required by the circumstances.

Ignatius of Antioch, for example, in the letters he wrote to the different Christian communities he met on his way to martyrdom, often mentions the Eucharist but always in few words and to remind the communities to preserve ecclesial unity. To the Ephesians he wrote: "Try, therefore, to gather more often for the celebration of the Eucharist and to praise the Lord. Indeed, when you gather together, Satan's power is dispelled and his scourges dissolve in the harmony that faith teaches you" (Eph 13; PG 5, 656).

He addressed an even more com­pelling invitation to unity to the community of Philadelphia: "Seek to participate in the one Eucharist: indeed, the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ is one and there is one cup that unites us in his blood; there is one altar, and one bishop with his priests and deacons, servants like me" (Philadelphia., 4; PG 5, 700).

In turn, in his first Apologia, Justin Martyr wanted to convince the slanderers of Christians of the integrity of their way of life and the holiness of their worship. He was the first to describe in detail the rites of regeneration and of the Eucharist, for he wanted pagans who considered Christians criminals to realize their error. Despite his evident apologetic intention, the description he has left us is of extraordinary historical importance. "And on the day known as Sunday all of us, from the town and the country, gather together in one place to form an assembly at which the accounts of the apostles and writings of the prophets are read out in the time available; then, when the reader has ended, the presider gives a sermon, making recommendations to us and urging us to imitate these good things. Then we all rise and pray together. As we have already said, when our prayer is over, bread, wine and water are brought; the presider... raises prayers and thanksgiving and the people applaud by saying the 'Amen'. This is followed by the breaking and the distribution to each person of the bread and wine for which thanks have been given; and it is taken by the deacons to those who are not present" (Apologia I, 67, 3-5); PG 6, 439).

At a later date, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, spoke of the Eucharist in an anti­Gnostic context. With the anti-corporeal prejudice of the Platonists, the Gnostics asserted that the flesh cannot share in eternal life, and Irenaeus argued against them: "If the flesh is not saved, then neither has the Lord redeemed us with his blood, nor is the Eucharistic cup the communion of his body.... Then how can some people say that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, that is, eternal life, when it is nourished by the Blood and Body of Christ to which it belongs as a part of his members?" (Adv. Haer 5, 2, 2-3; S.Ch 153, 30-34).

A quite different concern, on the other hand, spurred Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, to write a letter on this subject which is considered a real treatise. He wanted forcefully to stigmatize an abuse that risked completely distorting the sacramental meaning of the Eucharistic celebration. In some unspecified regions and for obscure reasons, water was consecrated instead of wine. The Bishop expressed surprise that on a matter of such great importance people would dare to oppose the evangelical and apostolic discipline, and he forcefully appealed that "in offering the cup the tradition of the Lord be observed, and that on our part we do nothing other than what the Lord did for us; that is, the cup, offered in remembrance of him, must be offered with wine".

In addition to his reference to Christ's Institution narrative, Cyprian gives further theological reasons for this rule: "Since Christ said: 'I am the true vine' (Jn 15:1), the blood of Christ is certainly not water but wine. Nor, if the cup con­tains no wine which shows the blood of Christ, can we see that there is his blood in the cup, with which we were redeemed and regenerated to new life", (Ep 63, 2; CSEL 3, II, 702). In short, "In the consecration of the cup of the Lord plain water cannot be offered, just as wine alone cannot be offered", for "when water is mixed with the wine in the cup, the people gather round Christ, and the crowd of believers are combined and united with all who believe; if only wine is offered, the blood of Christ begins to be without us; then, if there is only water, the people begin to be without Christ" (Ep 63, 13; CSEL 3, II, 711).

In his letter, although the disciplinary concern prevails, Cyprian also touches on other doctrinal aspects such as the real presence of Christ, the sacrificial and memorial character of the passion and death of the Lord, the bond of the sacrament with the life and unity of the Church. All these aspects and others, as salutary effects of the sacrament, are even more clearly explained in the catecheses the Bishop gives the neophytes. We can recall here only a few of them.

The Eucharist in catechesis

In his mystagogical catecheses, this is how Cyril of Jerusalem insisted on the real presence of Christ: "Since Jesus himself declared, saying of the bread: 'This is my body', who would dare to doubt it? Since he asserted and said: 'This is my blood', who could possibly want to dispute it and suggest that it is not his blood?" (Cat. Myst. 4, 1; S. Ch 126, 134). Cyril highlighted the real transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, which happens through the power of the Holy Spirit, invoked by the minister; he pointed out that, "when the spiritual sacrifice is made, the bloodless worship, over this propitiatory host", the Church invokes peace for the whole world and prays for the living and the dead (ibid. 5, 7-8; S. Ch 126, 154-156).

Finally, he exalts the effectiveness of the sacrament, saying the believer, in partaking of the body and blood of Christ, becomes "concorporeal and consanguineous with Christ", and is transformed "into a bearer of Christ", and the "sharer in his divine nature" (ibid., 4, 3; S. Ch 126, 136).

In his catecheses Ambrose of Milan also expresses very clearly his faith in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, the transformation of the bread and wine through the power of the consecration: "Before being consecrated it is bread; when Christ's words are spoken, it is the body of Christ. Listen to him further saying: 'Take and eat all of you, this is my body'. Before Christ's words, the cup is full of wine and water; when the words of Christ are spoken, the cup contains the blood that has redeemed the people; so look at all the ways in which Christ's words have the power to transform all things". Ambrose reminded the neophytes that, "while those who ate the manna died, those who eat this body will obtain forgive­ness of their sins and will never die" (De Sacramentis IV, 23-24; CSEL 73, 56).

There are seldom disagreements about the Eucharist. In the writings of some Fathers, however, we sometimes find explanations that seem reductive. Reacting to these explanations in one of his catechetical homilies, Theodore of Mopsuestia criticized the use of the word "figure" with regard to the Eu­charist: "It is very clear that in offering the bread he did not say: 'This is the "figure" of my body', but: 'This is my body'; likewise, in offering the cup he did not say 'This is the "figure" of my blood', but 'This is my blood'; because, since these (elements) had received the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit, he wanted us to look no longer at their nature but to take them as constituting the body and blood of our Lord" (Catechetical Homilies: XV, 10; Tonneau-Devreesse, Studi e Testi, 145, 475).

We do not know to whom this criticism was addressed. We do know, how­ever, that there were many in the East who, without denying the real presence, provided allegorical interpretations of the sacrament, such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria. In the West, too, authors such as Ambrose and Augustine sometimes used incorrect terms, such as "figure" or "likeness", which risked suggesting that the sacrament's value was purely symbolic. Nonetheless, the orthodoxy of their faith is unquestionable.

The Bishop of Hippo did not fail to teach the neophytes clearly about the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine: "You must know what it is that you have received, what you will receive and what you must receive every day. That bread which you see upon the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the words of God, is the blood of Christ. With these things, Christ Our Lord wanted to give us his body and his blood, which he poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins" (S 227, 1; 229, 1; NBA XXXII/1, 386).

In another discourse, after recalling the ancient sacrifices, he explained that "the sacrifice of our day is now the body and blood of the Priest himself.... Christ Our Lord, who in suffering gave for us what through being born he shared with us, having become the eter­nal High Priest, prescribes the offering of the sacrifice that you see, that is, his body and his blood". He therefore urged the neophytes to "recognize in the bread the very (body) that hung upon the cross, and in the cup, the very blood that flowed from his side" (S 228/B, 1-2; ibid., 398).

Among the effects of the sacrament, together with the forgiveness of sins, the Bishop of Hippo stressed the gift of eternal life, since in the sacrament, he explained, "You receive that flesh of which our Life himself said: the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:51); and, further: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53)". Living in Africa, that is, in a Church which had long been tormented by the Donatist schism, he especially liked to exalt the Eucharist as a sacrament and the bond of the Church's unity. Through Baptism, he explained to the newly baptized, you have begun to be united in Christ and to form one body in him; therefore, "in order not to become divided, you eat your bond; in order not to consider yourselves worthless, you drink the price of your redemption. So it is that when you eat and drink of it, it is transformed within you; thus, you too are transformed into the body of Christ, as long as you live in obedience and piety" (S 228/B, 3; ibid., 400).

Taking up and developing a thought already present in the Didache and in other earlier authors, St Augustine sees the bread and wine offered on the altar as an image he can use to exhort Christians to unity: "Just as you see that everything which has been done expresses unity, so may you too be one thing only, loving one another, keeping the one faith, the one hope and individual charity. When heretics receive this thing, they receive a witness against themselves, for they seek division, whereas this bread indicates unity" (S 229, 2; ibid., 404).

 
Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 August 2003, page 6

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