At the Last Supper on the night before he was crucified Jesus told his disciples, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in memory of me.” With these few words he transformed the ancient Jewish Passover feast into a celebration of the new covenant and a new relationship with the Father.
After Jesus rose and ascended into heaven, the apostles and early Christians gathered for the meal as Jesus told them to. Repeating Jesus’ words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” they became aware of his presence among them. Jesus had not abandoned them! Though seated in heaven he still remained close, invisible but there in a mysterious but real way as their Lord and brother.
Yet the early Christians knew that this gift was not just for their own enjoyment. It was to be shared with others in the “breaking of the bread,” in the unity of their love of God and love of neighbor. According to John, even the Last Supper began with an extraordinary lesson of humble service: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and told them, “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
The Earliest Traditions. Although the Christian celebration of Jesus’ gift of himself was sometimes called the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20), it was more commonly referred to in these early days as the “breaking of the bread.” Why? Meals in ancient Jewish homes always began with a blessing of bread by the head of the household who would then break it with his hands and give a piece to every person at the table. It was a way of thanking God for the food and of uniting the members around the table. The Last Supper would have begun the same way, and the first Christians simply referred to it by this initial rite, the “breaking of the bread.” It wasn’t until early in the second century that it came to be known as the “Eucharist,” a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.”
It’s not clear how frequently the early Christians celebrated this special meal, but they probably did so at least once a week. In Semitic culture, the day began the evening before, so Sunday, or the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2), actually began on Saturday evening. Luke, in describing the life of the early Christians, says that they “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). By listing the breaking of the bread with apostolic teaching, and prayer, Luke shows that it was a special meal. And, by including fellowship in the list, he adds the important dimension of believers sharing their lives with one another.
A few verses later Luke again remarks, “Day by day, with one heart, they regularly went to the temple but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously” (Acts 2:46). Once more he mentions a frequent ritual (“day by day”) involving a meal in someone’s home and an openness in sharing it generously with others.
We get still another glimpse of an early communion celebration later in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke explains how he and Paul had stayed a week at Troas in Asia Minor and that Paul was about to depart. He writes:
On the first day of the week we met to break bread. Paul was due to leave the next day, and he preached a sermon that went on till the middle of the night. A number of lamps were lit in the upstairs room where we were assembled, and as Paul went on and on, a young man called Eutychus who was sitting on the windowsill grew drowsy and was overcome by sleep and fell to the ground three floors below. He was picked up dead. Paul went down and stooped to clasp the boy to him. “There’s no need to worry,” he said, “there’s still life in him.” Then he went back upstairs where he broke the bread and ate and carried on talking till he left at day-break. They took the boy away alive, and were greatly encouraged. (Acts 20:7-12)
Apparently, Paul presided over the “breaking of the bread,” which began in the evening and included a very long talk. Luke shows that it was a liturgy and not just a plain meal when he speaks about the lighting of “many lamps.” Even the story of Eutychus reveals an essential aspect of this celebration: Union with one another around the table of the Lord necessarily included concern for the physical well-being of one another.
Eucharist in the Morning. By the first half of the second century A.D., Christian Eucharistic services were held on Sunday morning and were no longer part of communal meals. Perhaps the crowds were simply getting too large, or perhaps abuses had crept back into community dinners. At times the people prayed throughout the night and ended their vigil with a Eucharistic celebration in the morning. Our knowledge of these practices is limited, but we do have a text from about 150 A.D., St. Justin’s First Apology, which describes a Christian Eucharistic celebration on Sunday morning with a liturgy modeled on the Jewish synagogue service. He writes:
We greet one another with a kiss. Then bread and a cup containing wine mixed with water are brought to the one who presides over the brethren; he takes them and offers prayers, glorifying the Father of all things through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . . When the prayer of thanksgiving is ended, all the people present give their assent with an “Amen!” . . . Deacons dis- tribute the bread and the wine and water. . . . This food we call “Eucharist,”. . . for we do not receive these things as though they were ordinary food and drink. . . . For the food over which the thanksgiving has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus, in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood. (ch. 65-67)
Justin also includes the words of consecration and notes that the “memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” were read and proclaimed by the president, “admonishing and exhorting us to imitate the splendid things we have heard.” An offertory collection was taken up for those in need: widows, orphans, the sick, visiting strangers, and others. They even prayed the Our Father together. In so many ways, this description mirrors the structure of the Mass as it still exists today.
Prayers and Exhortations from the Fathers. The earliest complete text of a Eucharistic liturgy that we have was written down by St. Hippolytus of Rome around 215 A.D. Modeled on Jewish prayers after meals, it includes the words of consecration and a remembrance of Jesus’ redemptive work. Now, with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, this ancient prayer has been reclaimed and is in use today as Eucharistic Prayer II!
In addition to specific prayers, Jesus’ gift of the Eucharist inspired many early Christian writers to express their joyous praise and thanks, and to remind believers of the need for unity and charity.
St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested by the Roman authorities about 107 A.D. and sentenced to be thrown to wild beasts for his faith. On his way to Rome he wrote seven letters, some of which included descriptions of the Eucharist: “Be careful then to participate in only the one Eucharist, for there is only one flesh of our Lord Jesus and one cup to unite us in his blood, one altar, just as there is one bishop” (Philadelphians, 4). “My desire is for the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, and for drink I desire his blood, which is incorruptible love” (Ephesians, 7,2- 3). In these letters Ignatius reminds the people of the twofold commandment of love and adds: “Those who profess themselves to be Christ’s are known not only by what they say, but by what they practice” (Ephesians, 14).
St. Leo the Great, the bishop of Rome who faced down Attila the Hun in 452 A.D., gave many sermons on caring for those in need. He also emphasized the reality of Jesus’ Eucharistic presence and our intimate union with him: “Even the tongues of infants do not keep silence upon the truth of Christ’s body and blood at the rite of Holy Communion. For in that mystic distribution of spiritual nourishment, what is given and taken is of such a kind that receiving the power of the heavenly food we pass into the flesh of him who became our flesh” (Letter 59).
These lessons for the early Christians apply to us as well. They call us to receive Jesus with humble joy and gratitude into our hearts, but also to open our hearts in generous love for those around us. Jesus is present in so many ways, gloriously at the right hand of the Father, on the altar at Mass, in our hearts, and even in the “distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor” (Mother Teresa).