A Brief History of Communion (Part I)
Christians of all sorts partake of some form of communion. Known by different names—the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, Mass—and taken at different frequencies—daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly—this practice involving bread and wine stands as a testament to both Christian unity as well as divisions. What do contemporary Christians believe about the Lord’s Supper? To begin answering this question, we must first look at the history of communion, beginning today with what the early Church said about the practice and meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
New Testament Evidence
The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recorded in Matthew (26:26-29), Mark (14:22-25), and Luke (22:14-20), with some intriguing parallels found in John’s Gospel (6:51-58, 13:1-20). Luke’s version reads,
“And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”1
After the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Christ, the first records we have of Communion come in Acts (2:42), 1 Corinthians (11:23-34), and the Catholic Epistles (likely in James 2:1-4 and Jude 12). Some scholars have argued there were two distinct kinds of meal celebrations in the Early Church: the “Love (Agape) Feast” and weekly Eucharist. While this may have been true among the earliest followers of Jesus, by the end of the first century there seems to have been only one regular meal celebrated by Christians: Communion.
The Apostolic Fathers
The earliest non-canonical references to Communion come in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, namely Ignatius of Antioch (c. 108 CE) and the Didache (c. 110 CE). Ignatius, much like Paul in 1 Corinthians, indicates that he is very concerned with proper Christian order at Communion, writing, “Give heed to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup unto union with His blood. There is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow servants; that whatsoever you do, you may do according unto God.”2
Also worth noting is Ignatius’s famous passage about how the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality. Here he tells the Ephesian church to, “Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you together, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who after the flesh was of David’s race, who is Son of Man and Son of God, to the end that you may obey the bishop and presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live forever in Jesus Christ.”3
In another early Christian writing, the Didache, we see that the administration of Communion was beginning to be explained more precisely, and that the Supper was only for the baptized. The writer of the Didache exhorts his readers, “Let none eat or drink of your Eucharist but such as have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for of a truth the Lord hath said concerning this, ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs.’”4 Although not the precise Eucharistic theologies that would come later, early second century Christians were beginning to more clearly define what Communion was and how it should be enacted in the Christian life.
Justin Martyr, writing around 150 CE in Rome, provides a unique perspective into the weekly practice of Communion among second century Christians. Toward the end of his First Apology he outlines the liturgy of the Roman Church: Scripture readings followed by a sermon, prayers of intercession and kiss of peace, a flexible Eucharistic prayer with congregational “Amen,” the distribution of the elements via deacons to those present and absent, and finally a collection for the poor.5 Particularly interesting is Justin’s description of Communion (the Eucharist) in some detail:
“And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body;’ and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is my blood;’ and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”6
Second to Fifth Centuries
After Justin, we see a proliferation of Christian writers, many of whom speak about Communion, some with great regularity. These Christians come from all corners of the Roman Empire and beyond: Gaul (Irenaeus), Egypt (Clement of Alexandria and Origen), Carthage (Tertullian and Cyprian), Rome (Hippolytus), Jerusalem (Cyril), Syria (Aphraahat and Ephrem), Italy (Ambrose), North Africa (Augustine), and Asia Minor (Theodore and the Cappadocians).
In terms of the development of eucharistic doctrine, several things are worth noting. First, there is a universal affirmation of a real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements among orthodox Christians. On this, Irenaeus of Lyons writes, “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?”7 No matter your perspective on what Communion is, it is not possible to escape the language of the realness of “body and blood” in the early Church. In part, this reflects ancient understandings of reality, namely, that a symbol always participates in the reality it reflects. This understanding of the cosmos and Communion were part and parcel of the Christological claims and debates of the early Church, where the practice of Communion served as a regular reminder of the incarnation of the Son of God.
Second, restrictions upon who could receive Communion changed in two important ways: concerning confirmation and confession. While it does not seem that “non-Christians” were ever invited to partake of the sacred meal, by the third and fourth centuries one had to undergo a fairly rigorous process of confirmation into the faith in order to become a fully-communing member of the Church. A good example of this comes from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, which outline various preparations for Baptism, Communion, and doctrine. Additionally, once you became a member of the Church, you had to remain in good standing in order to continually participate in the Lord’s Supper. The biggest concern here involved those who had “lapsed” or denied the faith during times of persecution. Cyprian of Carthage’s On the Lapsed outlines some of the measures that those who had denied Christ would need to undergo in order to be brought back into communion.
A third development stems from persecution, that is, the doctrine of ex opere operato, which means roughly, “from the work worked.” This doctrine indicates that the sacraments were efficacious in themselves, not because of the worthiness of the one giving the sacraments. This issue arose primarily in North Africa, where a number of bishops and presbyters had “lapsed” and then returned to the Church and administered communion. The Church (through several local councils, in both Africa and Europe) affirmed that the faithful who had received communion from these (formerly) lapsed clergy had in fact received the Eucharist, because it is the Eucharist itself that bestows God’s gifts and not the one administering it.
Fourth, statements about communion began to find their way into the canons (official statements) of synods and councils, including the first ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 CE. Statements regarding the proper administration of the Eucharist eventually became quite common, leading to the solidification of how communion was to be administered and understood. For example, Canon 18 of Nicaea reads: “It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it].” Here we see some of the practical matters at the heart of early Christian thinking about communion.
Finally, with the toleration and (eventually) official status granted to Christianity post-Constantine, daily and weekly services were held in churches and cathedrals created specifically as sacred spaces for Christian worship. Worship was increasingly undertaken in formal spaces and no longer in the homes and public meeting places where it had been previously. This furthered the formalization of communion practice and understanding. For it is one thing to share a meal in someone’s home under the threat of persecution and quite another to participate in the pageantry of a sacred ceremony being held in a magnificent church.
In my next post, we will turn to consideration of Communion from the medieval period forward.