Friday, April 08, 2011

From New Testament Meal to Medieval Mass

It was the fourth of our Lent Studies on Wednesday.  This week, we were looking at the transformation of the Lord's Supper from a Real Meal in the New Testament to a liturgical celebration focused on the elements of the bread and the wine as it has become.

It was perhaps inevitable, given the behaviour of some at the Church's meals, that the Church would find it necessary to regulate how the Lord's Supper took place as Paul had had to do at Corinth.  In the Didache, written at the end of the first century, or at least at the start of the second, there is the beginning of guidance for a service rather than instructions for a meal.  It is clear that formal prayers to be said over the bread and wine are beginning to take shape.

It is still, of course, fairly basic at this stage, but by AD150 we see in Justin Martyr (103-165) a clear structure emerging to the service.  The President still, Justin tells us, prays freely over the bread and wine, but there is a definite liturgical pattern to what happens.  In another work, the Apostolic Tradition, there is an example of what we would call now a Eucharistic prayer. Traditionally, the Apostolic Tradition has been seen by scholars as having been written in Rome by Hippolytus at the beginning of the third century.  It is believed by some recent scholars to be a composite work of material from between the middle of the second and beginning of the fourth centuries.  Whichever view is right, this is the earliest surviving example of a formal Eucharist prayer. This prayer has served as the basis for one of the Eucharistic prayers in the modern Roman Catholic Mass and the Church of England Eucharist.  It is this Eucharistic prayer we use here at Christ Church.

What is also interesting in the Apostolic Tradition is that provision is made both for a Eucharist with a prayer over the bread and wine and also for a Real Meal without the bread and the wine in a eucharistic sense.  This probably illustrates the point we have been making about how the Eucharist as a liturgical service separated itself from the Lord's Supper as a meal with the Eucharist becoming the main service and focus of the Church's worship.

For good or ill, the Meal eventually did die.  This was no doubt helped by the the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in AD315.  The Church was now able openly to aquire buildings in which to meet.  This led to a more formal celebration of the Eucharist with the liturgy for it becoming both more elaborate and fixed with additional prayers being added to it.  Some of these prayers we still use today.  Although it is important to note that there was not one liturgy everywhere, but rather different families of liturgies.  These had much in common, but there were also significant differences.  In the West, not surprisingly, the Roman liturgy would eventually become the predominant one for the celebration of the Mass.

Over what we call the medieval period other developments took place:

1.  The Mass was seen as a sacrifice being offered by the priest for the benefit of those present or even dead and absent.  Perhaps 'seen' is the wrong word as the offering took place away from the worshippers often behind a screen.

2.  The Mass thus became as much about performance as it did participation.  The benefit was there irrespective of whether the congregation ate the bread or drank the wine.

3.  In this performance of the Mass, the bread and the wine were believed to become the body and blood of Christ in a real way.  While there were occasional arguments about how this happened, there was no argument that it did happen.  The view, of course, that became most accepted was that of 'transubstantiation' most notably as was expressed in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  It is worth stressing that the doctrine of transubstantiation is not so much an argument that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood, but how they do so.

4.  This emphasis on the Mass as the performance of a sacrifice in which the bread and the wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ meant that not only did people not have to eat and drink the converted bread and wine to gain benefit, but that it was desirable for them not to as these were by their very nature holy and not to be taken lightly.  The consecrated elements became primarily not something to be eaten and drunk, but worshipped and reserved.  Ordinary believers would only take communion once or twice a year and even then only in one kind, the bread.  It was not worth the risk of spilling the wine.

Such then was the situation in 1500 at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  However, over the next 100 years or so the Church was to divide over its understanding of the Eucharist not just between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but between Protestants themselves.  The Protestants were agreed in rejecting the sacrifice of the Mass, the worship of the elements, and that it was wrong to deny the cup to lay people.  They could not, however, agree on what was happening in the Eucharist, if anything, and in what way, if any, Christ could be said to be present.

The extremely virulent dispute between Luther and Zwingli over this probably ensured that protestantism could not be a united movement.  Criticism of the Mass by Protestants in turn led to a hardening of attitudes within the Roman Catholic Church which at the Council of Trent reaffirmed traditional Roman church teaching.

This brings us then to our last study next Wednesday when I will ask what it is we think is happening and what it is we are doing when we celebrate the Eucharist each week.  To help us answer this I intend to look at the main approaches as they were developed in the sixteenth century and to study John 6.

I will post the talks from Wednesday in audio form here in a day or two!

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