The Eucharist in Apostolic Times
Prompted by the New Testament writings, I have often wondered what the early Christian communities might have been like, and in particular what their Eucharistic celebrations might have been like.
I imagine myself as witnessing what I think would have been normal Sunday Eucharists during the first decades after the resurrection of Jesus and write the following report.
The first impression was the friendship and sense of peace and joy in the gatherings. There was laughter and banter as people greeted each other, while those experiencing difficulty with sad news to share were listened to attentively. It was obvious they would be helped and supported in their time of trial. Sometimes a whole community was under threat or pressure from hostile neighbours or the civic authorities.
Gradually the gathering settled and a mysterious sense of presence seemed to become more evident. Those present obviously knew/believed/felt that the transformed Jesus was in fact there with them, bringing them into the realm of God by sharing with them his Spirit. The people expressed their faith conviction in prayer and song. At times a deep, prayerful silence enveloped the whole group.
The mood of the gathering then changed a bit when people sat down for the sharing of stories. The dominant stories were those about Jesus and his teaching. Because many of the people in the group had a Jewish background they also shared accounts from their history and prophets and wisdom literature which threw further light on God’s action in the world and on the significance of the life and death of Jesus.
In a way different from the Jewish synagogue meetings of the time, the women and children joined in the discussions. The meetings were not dependent on having ten men for a quorum, as was the Jewish custom. Jesus had told them that even when two or three (men or women) gathered in his name he would validate their gathering with his presence. These were the gatherings in which the followers of Jesus learnt about their faith and their new way of living, with the Spirit of Jesus.
In the discussion the people also contributed their own stories: their experience of the Spirit in their lives; their sorrows and their joys; their struggles and their hopes; their work and action in the world. They spoke about their successes and their failings, about their families and their friends. They spoke about their hope for the future when the glory of God would be fully revealed and the presence of Jesus would be manifested for all to see. Of course not all these topics were covered at every gathering, but they seemed to come up consistently at all the places where there were Christian communities. Incidentally, the gatherings were remarkable in the links they had with each other over whole regions and beyond.
By this time of the evening – the gatherings usually happened in the early evening because many of the participants were at work during the day – those present were feeling rather hungry and were thinking about the food, usually basic and simple food, they had brought to share.
So the food was brought out. First of all a large loaf of bread and a flask of wine were selected for a special blessing – the same kind of thanksgiving blessing that Jesus had used at his last supper with his first disciples. This was a powerful moment of memory. The bread of blessing was broken and shared. The wine of blessing was poured from the flask into cups for the people to drink.
The breaking and the pouring seemed to carry special significance for the people before they ate and drank. It was as if a person was dying. Often the group fell into a time of profound silence at this time. They knew they were in communion with their Lord Jesus and the eating drinking seemed to confirm that. But it was also a life-giving shared experience: new life came from the death of Jesus and they could now almost feel it in their bodies and minds and hearts. They were confirmed in their conviction that Jesus was transformed through death and now fully alive. Together they were sharing in that transformation process.
Everyone ate and drank at this time, including the children. Some of the parents also allowed their children to sip from their cup of blest wine. Usually the group joined in a song or communal prayer. In many gatherings singing had also occurred at other times during the meeting.
Just before the other plates of food were brought forward for the shared meal, some practical, day-to-day issues were sorted out, as well as making sure to have food to take home to the sick and to those in special need. The group was interested in how to live as light and leaven and salt (images that Jesus had used) in an often hostile world. They wanted to reflect their joy and peace and freedom and health so that others would be drawn to enter into communion and enjoy the benefits of living life in this way with faith in Jesus who offers the fullness of life to everyone.
The people finished their meal, cleaned up, made arrangements for the gathering next week, chatted and planned, as friends do, and made their way home with a sense of joy and reassurance and purpose.
Please don’t get the impression that the communities that gathered were perfect. While all participants accepted the basic understanding that, with the Spirit of God, they were to love each other as Jesus loved them, in practice it took time to learn skills of good listening, good discussion and good discernment. Some (mainly men) were inclined to be domineering, others (mainly women) gossipy. At times they needed to recall the teaching of Jesus about how leadership should function and about the processing of conflict.