The Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 8
The “Shape” No. 2
We have moved on now from the consideration of the elements to be used in the Lord’s Supper to the way in which the Supper is to be observed, practiced, celebrated. We considered last Lord’s Day evening what can be learned from the data provided in the New Testament itself. From that material we can derive a general, simple order: prayer, the words of institution, the breaking of bread, the distribution of the bread and wine, and the communion of the congregation. We also said that it was a regular part of NT worship, every Sunday by all accounts; that there was an emphasis on the single loaf from which all ate and the common cup from which all drank; and that we are right to assume that the ancient practice of ministerial supervision and administration of the church’s sacred meal continued into the new epoch.
The Practice of the Lord’s Supper in early Christianity
We turn now to the practice of the Lord’s Supper in early Christianity. This is important for several reasons. Obviously, given the fact that the NT gives us very little detail about how the Lord’s Supper was practiced in apostolic Christianity, this early Christian practice is the closest we can get to the Lord’s Supper as it may have been celebrated in the days of the Apostles. We cannot know this for sure, of course, but it is a powerful point that Justin Martyr, for example, may be writing about the Lord’s Supper only some 50 years after the death of John. The author of the Didache earlier still. What is more, there is no doubt that the early Christian Lord’s Supper had a special elan. There was a love of the sacrament and a sense of its power and blessing that we would do well to recover.
However, that does not mean that we must slavishly follow the early materials. It is obvious enough from early Christian writings how quickly false principles began to infect Christian thinking and practice. For example, in the church order of Hippolytus, which dates from the early 200s, there were three cups to be drunk at the Lord’s Supper, one with water, one with milk, and one with wine, and each cup had to be drunk from three times, in turn the minister saying “In God the Father Almighty”, “And in the Lord Jesus Christ” and “In the Holy Spirit,” and the Christian man or woman would say Amen each time. [xxiii. 5ff.] Well, we know that isn’t something we want to do! Yet that church order is quite early among the materials we have.
Moreover, recent liturgical scholarship has urged a greater modesty in the use of early Christian materials. There has been the tendency to suppose that we know a great deal more about early Christian worship than we actually do. The fact that worship was conducted a certain way in one place was taken to mean that it was practiced that way everywhere. There is good reason to doubt that this was the case. And, the fact is, there is a great deal we do not know.
There is far too much material to survey. But it will be worth our looking at two snapshots of an early Christian Lord’s Supper. The first is the famous account given by Justin Martyr in his Apology [65-67].
“…on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. And…when we have finished the prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen; the distribution, and reception of the consecrated [elements] by each one, takes place and they are sent to the absent by the deacons. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to….”
Now, that is not a complete description by any means. Surely, they sang, already Christians sang in worship and yet Justin says nothing about that. Interestingly, in regard to the Supper, nothing is said about the words of institution being repeated. What seems to have been widely practiced in the early church is that the bread and wine were not put on the table until that moment in the service when it was time for the Supper. There is a good bit of evidence also to the effect that the bread and wine that was used was brought for the purpose from home by the people of the congregation. In that sense, some early Christian Lord’s Suppers were potluck. It does seem, taking the evidence together, that the elements were generally distributed to the congregation by the minister or the deacons assisting him and that the people came forward to receive them. They, of course, did not have pews in their meeting places, even after they began building sanctuaries for the purpose of worship.
Our second snapshot confirms this picture. This is taken from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures [xxiii. 21-22] which reflect practice in the middle of the 300s.
“In approaching…come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed the palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion of it; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all care, being on your guard against losing any of them… Will you not then much more carefully keep watch so that not a crumb falls from you of what is more precious than gold and [gem] stones.
Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His blood; not stretching forth you hands, but bending [that is toward the cup to drink from it], and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen, hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. [He seems to be referring to touch with your finger now wet with moisture from the wine on your lips your eyelids and your brow.] Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of such great mysteries.”
Now, you can hear in Cyril – one of the champions of the orthodox doctrine of Christ during the Arian crisis, a man who was deposed and exiled several times during that tumultuous 4th century – already a way of speaking about the Lord’s Supper that anticipate the developments that would eventually come to characterize the superstitious mass of medieval Christianity. We are not reading him for his theory of the Lord’s Supper, but simply as a witness to the way in which the Lord’s Supper was practiced in early Christianity.
For a more elaborate summary of early Christian practice – that is the practice of the 200s and early 300s, listen to this from the great scholar of early Christian worship, Dom Gregory Dix. He is describing the scene as he thinks it can be reconstructed in a large city church. Things would be necessarily different in a number of respects in smaller churches.
“The bishop is…seated on his throne behind the altar, across which he faces the people. His presbyters [think minister not ruling elder] are seated in a semi-circle around him. All present have brought with them, each for himself or herself, a little loaf of bread and probably a little wine in a flask. … These [offerings] of the people…the deacons now bring up to the front of the altar, and arrange upon it from the people’s side of it. The bishop rises and moves forward a few paces from the throne to stand behind the altar, where he faces the people with a deacon on either hand and his presbyters grouped around and behind him. He adds his own [offering] of bread and wine to those of the people…and so (presumably) do the presbyters. …There followed the brief dialogue of invitation, followed by the bishop’s eucharistic prayer, which always ended with a solemn doxology, to which the people answered ‘Amen.’
The bishop then broke some of the bread and made his own communion, while the deacons broke the remainder of the bread upon the table, and the…presbyters around him broke Bread which had been held before them on little glass dishes or linen cloths by deacons during the…prayer of the bishop.
There followed the communion, first of the clergy … then of all the people before [the altar]. Nobody knelt to receive communion, and to the words of administration each replied ‘Amen.’ After the communion followed the cleansing of the vessels, and then a deacon dismissed the ecclesia with a brief formula indicating that the assembly was closed, — ‘Depart in peace’ … or some such phrase.” [The Shape of the Liturgy, 104-105]
The ceremony, Dix guesses, would probably not have taken more than 15 or 20 minutes, even with quite a large number of communicants. [p. 140] Brief and not marked by much pomp or elaborate ritual, yet during this time the Lord’s Supper lay at the heart of Christian devotion and of the church’s life and, to be sure, was throughout this period “the perpetual object of hysterical pagan suspicion” – giving force to the rumors that all manner of terrible things were happening behind the closed doors of Christian services.
We hear this material and we sense, immediately, that there has been a development even this early. This was probably not precisely how the Lord’s Supper was practiced in the days of the Apostles, though exactly how it was different is difficult to say. In one case, certainly, it seems the emphasis on the common loaf from which all partake seems to have dissipated.
One thing is clear and it is a point that Dix emphasizes in his study of the early Christian Lord’s Supper. It was something that was done rather than something that was said or prayed. It was an action. Quite a simple action. And that is, after all, what Jesus told us the Lord’s Supper was. “Do this in remembrance of me.” We must ask ourselves whether our way of practicing the Lord’s Supper lays stress on that action and makes our participation a doing primarily, or whether our evangelical Protestant mode of the Supper – particularly the receiving of the elements in the pew – has subtly contributed to an understanding of the Supper on our part that makes of it more reflection and prayer than action, makes it more an occasion for meditation than the act of eating and drinking. That the pagans should suspect cannibalism of the early Christians is at least evidence of how completely the Lord’s Supper was conceived and spoken about as eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
In any case, that is broadly how the Lord’s Supper was practiced in the early centuries. People received the elements at the front of the church from the hand of the minister or his assistants and communicated there. We will carry the story forward next time.