Academic journal article Theological Studies

Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Eucharistic Origins: From the New Testament to the Liturgies of the Golden Age

Article excerpt

MANY A LITURGICAL THEOLOGIAN has inwardly groaned on Holy Thursday upon hearing the assembly sing "At that first Eucharist ..." or upon hearing the homilist proclaim that we are "doing what the Lord did at the Last Supper." It is, of course, a theological commonplace that the Eucharist, in the full sense of the word, is the high point of both the expression of and the inchoative realization of the Church's marital covenant relationship with God. The center of this Eucharist is the Church's ritual action and prayer in which the assembly, led by its duly appointed minister, addresses God the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, praising and thanking God for the salvation-historical gifts of creation, covenant, and redemption, especially redemption in Jesus Christ, and asking God to send the Holy Spirit in order to continue, by means of the transformation of the eucharistic gifts, the transformation of the community and its individuals toward their eschatological destiny as the true Body of Christ. The ritual celebration culminates in the assembly coining forward to receive, as Augustine put it, "what you are," the Body of Christ. But this, of course, is still just the beginning. The full realization of the ritual celebration continues beyond what takes place in church. It continues as the assembly is sent forth to live out this eucharistic mystery in the world of everyday life. And it will finally be completed only at the eschaton when the universalistic hope expressed in the prophetic proclamation has been fulfilled: "Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9).

Is this what Christ did at the Last Supper? Was the Last Supper a Eucharist in this full sense of the word? Obviously not. This does not deny that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. What Jesus did at the Last Supper is obviously at least the generative moment of the institution of the Eucharist. But Eucharist in the full sense we have just described? No, that was still to come. The Holy Spirit had not yet been given to the Church, nor had the trinitarian theology yet been developed that is at the heart of the classical Eucharistic Prayers. Thus the Church, the assembly of those who address the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, was not yet constituted at the Last Supper. The Eucharist that Christians now celebrate is what the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit of the risen Jesus, and over the course of generations and centuries, learned to do as it celebrated table fellowship with its risen Lord.

John Meier helps bring precision to this issue when he asks two questions: "Is it historically true that Jesus held a last Supper with his disciples?" "Is it historically true that, during that supper, Jesus did and said certain things regarding bread and wine that form the basis of the later Christian celebration of the eucharist?" (1) To both of these historical questions, Meier answers with an unequivocal "yes." But one needs to note that there is considerable nuance contained in the way he phrases these questions. For he adds something with which most students of eucharistic origins will agree: "We must appreciate that the Last Supper and eucharist are not the same thing pure and simple." (2)

If that is the case, how does one move from the dominical instituting moment with Jesus at the Last Supper to the full-fledged eucharistic celebration that one can find, for example, in the anaphoras associated with the names of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great that were developing by the end of the fourth century in the "golden age" of patristic theology? That story has not been fully told, nor is it within the purpose and competence of my article to try to tell it. Actually, unless a lot more data from the first Christian centuries can be recovered than is presently available, that full story may never be told. (3) The available evidence indicates that it is a misconception,

although a common one, to assume that there is one story, one relatively unified line of development from the Last Supper to the fully developed Eucharist. …

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