The Eucharist Project: 5. The Early Days
Last post we covered what exactly went down in the upper room during the last supper. This time we're going to look at how that tradition continued into the early church. to do this we're going to look at two main aspects of communion. The practical part and the theological part.
THE PRACTICAL PART
What did the Lord's supper look like in the early days of the church? Were those gathered drinking out of tiny plastic cups or one big cup? Unleavened bite sized crackers or pieces of ripped bread? A priest blessing the elements or congregational encouragement to one another? Actually none of the above. The practical side of communion during the early church was a meal. The Christians in the city would gather together and share a meal. They would then say prayers and and recite large passages of scripture afterwards in remembrance of Jesus.
"The most remarkable characteristic of those early communion services was that they were celebrations. The tone was one of joy and gratitude, rather than sorrow and repentance. In the beginning, communion was part of an entire meal. Believers brought what they could, and after the common meal there were special prayers over the bread and the wine." (Gonzalez)
This communion meal was also the most important aspect of christian worship. Compare this to todays protestant churches that have elevated a lecture type preaching to the center. The early church would share scripture reading and teaching before hand, ( sometimes for hours, this was the the only way most of them would hear scripture) but this was not the central focus of the gathering.
"From that time, and throughout most of its history, the Christian church has seen in communion its highest act of worship. Only at a relatively recent date has it become common practice in many Protestant churches to focus their worship on preaching rather than on communion." (Gonzalez)
There were two main ideas that early Christians focused on during communion. The first being victory that God won on the cross through Jesus that ushered in the new age of the Kingdom of God. And second, the unity of Christians because of this victory. This is severely different from what is widely experienced today. Today we experienceconstant division of the church, even primarily over the idea of communion itself. As well as the focus on personal sins and "examining one's self" before eating and drinking at the table rather than the victory which would lead to the renewing of the earth under Gods authority. ( this is more prevalent within the protestant circles.)
"Those early communion services did not center on the Lord's passion but rather on his victory for which the new age had dawned. It was much later - centuries later - that the focus of christian worship shifted towards the death of Jesus. In the earliest Christian community, the breaking of the bread took place with "glad and generous hearts" (acts 2:46)" (Gonzalez)
"The unity of the body of Christ was so important that it seemed that something was lost when in a single city there were several congregations. In order to preserve and symbolize the bond of unity, the custom arose in some places to send a piece of bread from the communion service in the bishop's church - the "fragmentum" - to be added to the bread to be used in other churches in the same city." (Gonzalez)
In today's practice of communion, Collosians 1:15-20 seems irrelevant.
"15He is the image of God, the invisible one, The firstborn of all creation. 16For in him all things were created, In the heavens and here on the earth. Things we can see and things we cannot— Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers— All things were created both through him and for him. 17And he is ahead, prior to all else, And in him all things hold together; 18And he himself is supreme, the head over the body, the church. He is the start of it all, Firstborn from realms of the dead; So in all things he might be the chief. 19For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell 20And through him to reconcile all to himself, Making peace through the blood of his cross, Through him— yes, things on the earth, And also the things in the heavens." Collosians 1:15-20
So we've seen that early communion looked much different than it does today. Why is that? That is what we will be delving into with the next post.
The majority of the reading and foundation for this post is Justo Gnonzalez's The Story of Christianity.