|Abstrakt: ||The object of this paper is to present the reflections on the Eucharist in the writings
of the early Greek fathers: from the Apostolic Fathers to Origen. The writings of
the Apostolic Fathers are a direct continuation of the New Testament records, thus a
brief revue of the NT passages referring the Eucharist has been included at the beginning
of each chapter. The works of Origen, though written in the first half of the third
century, culminate and complete the development of pre-Nicene theology. Undoubtedly,
this also refers to his eucharistic teaching.
The paper does not aim to study the rites and forms of celebrating the Eucharist,
neither does it deal with the evolution of the eucharistic prayers. The aim of the paper,
therefore, is not to demonstrate how the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist, but
how they understood it. What was the Eucharist for them? What importance did it have
in their spiritual lives? How did they combine it with the other elements of their faith?
How did that understanding evolve during the first two centuries? Thus, the paper deals
with the Fathers’ reflections on the Eucharist. The author has deliberately avoided using
the word “theology”: in the period concerned there was hardly any systematically constructed
theology of the Eucharist. Yet, in order to answer the questions mentioned
above, it was necessary to present the texts of the Fathers dealing with the Eucharist, including
the wording of the prayers and the information on the ways of celebrating the
Eucharist. Sometimes it was necessary to try and reconstruct the forms of performing
the Eucharist on the basis of the quoted passages. The forms of celebrating the Eucharist
and its understanding are always closely interconnected.
To answer the questions listed above, the author studied the relations which the
Fathers perceived between the Eucharist and certain elements of contemporary traditions.
An attempt was made to examine how the Fathers related the basic elements of
two religious and cultural traditions: Hellenic and Old Testamental, or, speaking more
broadly, Jewish traditions, to the Eucharist. It can be said that the two traditions
provided the Fathers with a theological background for their reflections. Meditating on
the Eucharist, they inevitably linked it with the elements of those traditions. In the
presentation of the Fathers’ reflections on the Eucharist, it was also necessary to introduce
its basic elements, i.e. the development of the eucharistic vocabulary and the
eucharistic interpretations of the New Testament.
To set the numerous possible references in order, the paper was divided into two
parts: the Eucharist as nourishment and the Eucharist as sacrifice. One must be aware,
however, that the two areas cannot be totally separated, they overlap, and obviously, none
of the Fathers developed his thought systematically, in line with the specified points. Thus,
the paper contains a number of inevitable repetitions and artificial divisions.
The first part of the paper deals with the Eucharist as nourishment. Obviously, there
are links between the Eucharist and actual meals. Attention is drawn to the relevance of
the eucharistic meal to the early Christians, to its meaning and its expected fruits. That is
why this part also includes the reflections on the Eucharist as the Body and the Blood of
Christ. Jesus described His Body and Blood as both nourishment and sacrifice offered up
“for us”, however, in the beginning the emphasis was placed on the first aspect.
The second part is devoted to the Eucharist as sacrifice. It was divided into two
sections: the Eucharist and Jewish sacrifices, and the Eucharist and pagan sacrifices.
The division results from the fact that both the practice and the theory of the Eucharist
grew within the context of religious and cultural heritage brought in by Jews and other
citizens of the Empire who had converted to Christianity. Jews contributed the traditions
of the Old Testament: in relation to the Eucharist, these are mainly the traditions
of Old Testamental feasts and sacrifices, in the first place those related to the Passover,
and the liturgical traditions linked to ceremonial meals. Ethno-Christians came from a
Hellenic background, with its culture, religions, and above all, various religious practices:
sacrifices, mysteries and other rites, including magic. Even if inadvertantly, those
people often contributed some elements of that world to the lives of Christian communities.
The Fathers observed this phenomenon, they also saw a number of similarities
between the Eucharist and certain pagan rites. That is why the issue of the Eucharist
and pagan sacrifices is often present in their works.
Apart from a general presentation of the connections between the Eucharist and
Old Testamental traditions, the section on Jewish sacrifices contains particular subjects
which are essential to the issue of sacrifice: the relationship between the Eucharist and
the Passover, the Last Supper and the Passion, and the Eucharist as “remembrance”.
As a supplement related to the issue of sacrifice, the final part of the paper outlines
the role of the head of a eucharistic gathering.
Insofar as possible, each of the subjects has been presented from a historical perspective,
as the practice of and the reflection on the Eucharist developed together with
the intensive growth of Christian communities. Thus, every chapter deals with the development
of a particular aspect of understanding the Eucharist. However, it should be
borne in mind that it is a way of analyzing the whole process, not a description of separate
After an analysis of the texts written by the early Greek Fathers, the following
outline of their eucharistic reflection emerges:
The Eucharist is both nourishment and sacrifice. However, the Eucharist received as
nourishment was the original way of understanding and interpreting the words and the actions
of Jesus during the Last Supper. It was reflected in both the form of celebrating the
Eucharist, during which a meal was originally taken, and eucharistic thought. The Eucharist
as a meal originates not only in the Last Supper, but also in all the meals Jesus had together
with His disciples, including the period after his resurrection.
Celebrating the Eucharist as a meal emerged from the Jewish tradition of common
meals, in opposition to the contemporary Hellenic tradition of sacrificial feasts. However,
in a relatively short time, an evolution takes place: the Eucharist moves toward increasing
“spiritualisation”, its connection with real meals disappears, and the interpretations
of the significance of the eucharistic nourishment attach growing importance to its
spiritual dimension. The term “sacramentalisation” can be used if we adopt the definition
of a sacrament as a visible sign of invisible reality. Thus, in discussing the relevance
of the eucharistic nourishment, a greater emphasis was placed on the aspect of invisible
reality. The process developed most fully in Alexandria. Talking of the Euchar-
ist as nourishment, Clement, and later on Origen, always stressed that the matter is only
a cover for the real, spiritual reality.
The eucharistic nourishment is received as a gift left by Jesus to His believers. It
is perceived as a manifestation of constant work of the nourishing Logos.
The Eucharist as a meal and nourishment, in accordance with the symbolism of a
meal, also expresses community and, at the same time, the actual presence of Jesus
among His believers.
While both the Body and the Blood of Christ are referred to as food, in the beginning
the Blood of Jesus is only occasionally called drink, usually in quotations or direct
paraphrases of biblical passages.
As for the fruits of the Eucharist, from the very beginning the Eucharist was understood
as the food of immortal life. The eucharistic bread was received as nourishment
offered by Christ himself, food providing immortality, or in other words, feeding
the immortal life in man.
Though the Eucharist is sometimes referred to as nourishment for the soul, for
some of the Fathers, especially Irenaeus, it is precisely its corporeality, materiality that
guarantees the resurrection of the human body.
The words of Jesus: “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” are commonly accepted
as binding. It was considered obvious that the bread and wine taken during the
Eucharist were indeed the flesh and blood of Jesus. There is no dispute undermining
this truth, and probably that is why there are no apologetic trends, supporting the reality
of the eucharistic transformation. Receiving the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of
Christ, was also understood as entering into very close, almost physical community
with God. The theme of the Eucharist as receiving God’s gift is linked with that of eating
the consecrated sacrificial offerings.
The theme of the Blood of Christ which cleanses man from sin is discussed in the
context of sacrifice rather than in that of the Blood as drink.
The perception of the Eucharist as, above all, a meal and nourishment defined both
the role of community and the individual character of the Eucharist. All ceremonial meals
were always taken in community. In the first centuries of Christianity, the Eucharist was
never celebrated in other ways but in community. The Eucharist was in itself a rite of the
community of the Church. Thus the Eucharist was supposed to be presided over, or at
least accepted by a bishop. However, in the writings of the Fathers, most attention is given
to the individual dimension of the Eucharist. What happens in the soul of a believer during
the Eucharist was essential to them. Every individual is nourished with the eucharistic
Bread, everyone takes part in the ceremony, bringing a sacrifice to God.
Although the Eucharist was, in fact, understood as sacrifice from the very beginning,
such perception is secondary to its understanding as a meal (with some exceptions,
e.g. Clement of Rome). It is also secondary to the theology of sacrifice, which
was present in the Christian Church from the very beginning. The New Testamental
period developed the concepts of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for humankind, the
life of a Christian as a sacrifice offered up to God, and the Church as a sanctuary where
sacrifices are made. Those concepts of sacrifice were clearly expressed by Saint Paul.
They were based on the Old Testament, however, similar concepts were common
within Hellenic society, among which Christians lived.
The general concept of the life of an individual Christian and that of the Church as
a sacrifice and a sanctuary gradually penetrates eucharistic thought and practice, and
has an increasing impact on the understanding of the Eucharist. On the other hand, even
though the presentation of the Eucharist as remembrance of the Passion is occasionally
present, the texts concerned do not contain the thought on the Eucharist being the repetition
of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
The understanding of the Eucharist evolved, above all, as a result of a dialogue with
the tradition of the Old Testament. Though the religious traditions of the Hellenic world
had an important influence on early Christians’ mentality, the reaction to this influence
was predominantly negative, as far as eucharistic thought is concerned. From the beginning
there was a radical rejection of any analogy between the Eucharist and Hellenic sacrifices.
The writings of the Apologists point to the senselessness of Hellenic cults involving
material sacrifices made to gods: since God is perfect, there is nothing we can offer to
Him, He needs nothing from us, least of all material sacrifices. Thus the Apologists emphasize
that Christians do not offer sacrifices to God. As they perceive certain similarity in
rites, they make a great effort to stress that there is no analogy between the Eucharist and
sacrificial cults: the Eucharist has nothing to do with pagan sacrifices. On the other hand,
the Apologists, as well as Greek intellectuals, often talk about an immaterial sacrifice
which one should offer up to God with one’s life and mind.
Because of that tendency, Clement hardly ever talks about the Eucharist as a sacrifice,
Origen, on the other hand, does not hesitate to present such an interpretation of
the Eucharist in his dispute with Celsus.
Thus, Old Testamental traditions positively shaped the understanding of the
Eucharist as sacrifice. Yet, the whole complexity of the relationship between Christianity
and the legacy of the Old Testament is also present in eucharistic thought. In the beginning,
eucharistic rites in the early Judeo-Christian communities were shaped by Jewish
ceremonies, especially the blessing at ceremonial meals which were celebrated in
Jewish houses. Christians acknowledge the Old Testament as their heritage, thus Old
Testamental sacrifices are an important point of reference in our attempt to understand
the Eucharist. The Eucharist is presented as the fulfillment of what Old Testamental
sacrifices only promised, or even as the continuation of those sacrifices. However, there
is an anti-Judaic tendency in the texts of the Fathers, and it has a certain impact on the
understanding of the Eucharist: gradually it starts to be contrasted with the sacrifices of
the Old Testament as the only true sacrifice. Thus the stress is placed on differences
rather than continuation. However, though Hellenic material offerings posed serious
problems to the Fathers, the materiality of Old Testamental sacrifices is only criticised
in The Epistle to Diognetus. Otherwise, the criticism points to their imperfection and
the fact that they lost their importance with the advent of the New Covenant.
From among Old Testamental traditions of sacrifice, food offerings and sacrifices
of thanksgiving are most frequently recalled as the prototype of the Eucharist. There are
hardly any references to bloody offerings. Only seldom is the Eucharist presented as a
purifying sacrifice. On the contrary, it should be presented with a purified heart.
Surprisingly, there are no paschal references in the works of the early Greek Fathers,
though they were so obvious at the moment of institution of the Eucharist. The
Paschal background of the Eucharist disappeared already in the first communities, and
for the next two hundred years no important texts were written on the relationship
between the Passover and the Eucharist.
It is true that the theology of Christian Passover has been present in the Church
from the very beginning, and it referred to the real liberation accomplished by Christ
through His death and resurrection. However, that theology developed separately from
eucharistic thought. The Eucharist was not understood as a celebration of the Passover.
In the texts discussed in the paper, there are no important paschal themes within the
eucharistic reflection, neither are eucharistic themes integrated into the theology of
Since the beginning, Christians have considered Jesus’ blood shed for us as
cleansing and purifying. The symbolism, taken over from the theology of the Old Testament,
is an important element of the theology of Christian Passover. However, as for
the whole paschal theology, its relation to the Eucharist is only secondary.
It is highly probable that, in the quartodeciman community led by Melito of Sardis, the
Passover was celebrated separately from the later Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.
The words of Jesus, “do this in remembrance of me”, were understood as relating to
His whole earthly life. The Eucharist was celebrated in remembrance of Jesus, his incarnation
and his earthly life, and remembrance signified experiencing His real presence. However,
the theme of remembrance does not receive much attention, more emphasis is placed
on the eschatological aspect of the Eucharist as a way of preparation for immortal life. Talking
about the Eucharist, the Fathers look to the future rather than to the past.
Within the first two centuries, the idea of the Eucharist as remembrance of the
Passion and death of Jesus appears only occasionally. Similarly, the Eucharistic Body
and Blood are, above all, considered as the continuation of His incarnation. The references
to the Passion and death of Christ are less frequent and less prominent, though, of
course, one can also find this kind of testimony, the most significant being that of St Ignatius.
In his letters, he combines the Eucharist and the Passion in the context of martyrdom
which he is expecting.
The concept of the person presiding over the Eucharist as a priest giving up offerings
on behalf of the whole community appears independently in two different contexts:
in the works of Clement, relating to the Old Testamental concept of the High Priest offering
sacrifices; in the letters of Ignatius, who presents his expected martyrdom as prolongation
of the Eucharistic sacrifice which he performed as a bishop.
That concept, however, is not predominant in the first two centuries. More frequently,
the Eucharist is interpreted as an offering made by every person individually.
In their reflections, the Fathers did not devote much attention to the person presiding
over the Eucharist, though, obviously, the importance of his role was never denied. He
was considered as the one who brings prayers to God on behalf of the whole community
and guarantees the ecclesiastical nature of the eucharistic gathering.
Such an account of the Eucharistic life in the first centuries suggests that the absence
of disputes, so typical for the period, had clearly nothing to do with unanimity, as
both the practice and the understanding of the Eucharist differed considerably among
individual Christian communities. The differences, however, did not give rise to anxiety
or a need for uniformity. Despite a great variety of ideas and practices, there was an essential
sense of unity in experiencing the Eucharist. Undoubtedly, it was deeper than the
existing differences. It probably resulted from a certain obviousness of the experience,
from the fact that, regardless of the differences in theory and practice, the Eucharist was
sensed as the real presence of Christ in His Church.|