EUCHARIST #1 BEGINNINGS Sunday, October 9, 2011
With the opening of our liturgical year, that is, at the beginning of Advent, we will introduce minor changes in the wording of the Eucharist. This offers occasion to renew acquaintance with the development of the Mass. Profitably, we can recall the inaugural Eucharist, and then we can recall changes in the Eucharistic ways until we come to our present mode of celebrating Mass. Over the next three weeks, we will speak to these changes.
When Columbus sailed to America, he left us ample writings. That voyage and the shock of founding a new world thrilled Europe. So to trace our national origins, we need only inspect a good number of writings. However, to trace the origin of the Mass, we must inspect what few documents remain with us. The initial documents are found in the New Testament.
The Last Supper is the final meal that Jesus shares with His twelve Apostles before His crucifixion. The four gospels recount this supper. Let us quote Matthew.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28) Luke recounts that on resurrection day, the risen Lord joins two disciples as they walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they travel the dusty road from Jerusalem, Jesus—not recognized by the pair—explains scripture passages until at evening these men stop at a roadside inn.
When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed
and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and
they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (Luke
24:39-31) This short notice recounts the Eucharist on the day of our Lord’s resurrection.
Where did the first Christians relive the Eucharist?
After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples continued to gather in believers’ homes or apartment houses as well as in borrowed rooms of public buildings. Jesus celebrated his last ritual meal with the disciples in a borrowed room, and Jesus appeared to them in that place after His resurrection. Borrowed rooms continued to serve the community through the first century. Possibly, they gathered in caves, for example, in Bethlehem or Gethsemane. Here the good news was announced, teaching was imparted, and reconciliation was offered. In these diverse places, the members of the early community gathered for the breaking of the bread.
The spacious homes or villas of wealthy believer served the community as it expanded into the urban centers of the first-century Roman Empire. A large dining room in such a structure would be suited for Eucharist, and a pool in the atrium would be adaptable for baptism. A recently excavated Roman house in Corinth, dating from St. Paul’s time, measured eighteen by twenty-four feet. The Corinthian community of Christians—forty or fifty people—would spill over into the open-air atrium. St. Paul rebukes his Corinthian people for dividing the rich from the poor. The meals, and the Eucharist initially was a part of a larger meal, ought to embrace all people.
In this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells his people, and tells us, that earlier on he had told the Corinthians of a tradition which he, Paul, had learned.
For I received from the Lord what I have also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was handed over, took bread, and having given thanks, broke it and said, “this is my body that is for your sake. Do this in reminiscence of me.” Similarly, he took the cup after the meal saying, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood. As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you announce the death of the Lord until he comes. (I Cor. 11:23-26)
Paul here states that he is rehearsing a Christian tradition which he has “received” and which he here “hands on.” From the Lord Jesus Himself comes this essential ritual. Received teaching is being faithfully and authoritatively passed along to others, a living tradition firmly rooted in the memory of the past and fully applicable to the lives of those to whom it is being transmitted.
When did music enter our liturgy? Music has become important in our celebrations. Did the early church involve music? In our Western European tradition, we distinguish speaking from singing. In ancient Judaism, such a distinction was not as clear-cut. While publicly reading a sacred text for other worshipers, rhythm and melody might approach song. Chanting in cadence would at times occur. Religions did have singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.
Liturgical leadership was not separate from musical leadership; every leader of public prayer in Israel would have rendered that prayer in a “musical” manner. Christian liturgy and its leadership emerged in a heightened auditory environment (cf. E. Foley, Age to Age, 10-11).
I am reminded of sermons preached by Dr. Martin King, Jr. He employed poetic images and heightened style. Then again, I think that fundamentalist, often Black Christian, preachers approach a chant that expects an audience to shout a cadenced “Amen.”
The musician King David appointed Levites as musicians. “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals” (I Chronicles 25:1).
The minor changes coming to our Eucharistic liturgy, serve to remind us of our beginnings, and we can note that our service today has an ancient lineage. Amen.