17 December 2013

Tripartite Eucharist and the Real Meaning of Communion

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” – Abbie Hoffman

While lay people and even most clergy in the Church use the terms Eucharist and Communion as if they were virtually interchangeable, this is not the case.  The word Eucharist derives from ancient Greek for “Thanksgiving” and refers most accurately to the central prayers of the service at which attendees partake of Communion, the actual wine and bread. 

I stress “wine” because despite the pretensions and self-delusions of a wide section of American Protestant fundamentalism, when it says “wine” in the Bible, it means WINE, and, in fact, wine that was usually two to three or even more times stronger than most wine these days.  So strong that those drinking it almost always diluted it with water before doing so. 

The anti-alcohol theme only arose as part of the American temperance movement of the 19th century, and among Christians is unique to the fundamentalist sect and its offshoots.  The proposition of Jesus and his disciples drinking nonalcoholic wine, or even its very existence, in the times in which the events in the gospels are set is a ludicrous myth.  Only someone with complete ignorance of the meteorological climate of Palestine, of science, of the process of fermentation, and of the practices of Judaism could believe that.

Theologians and liturgists refer to the central prayer, or set of prayers, of consecration as the Anaphora, and its parts have been more or less standardized since the 4th century, though there is some slight variation on the order and in the West prayers vary in wording according to the season.  In general, the order of an anaphora is this: Sursum corda, Preface, Sanctus, Benedictus, Post-Sanctus, Words of Institution, Anamnesis, Oblation, Epiclesis, Intercessions, Doxology.

The Sursum corda is a series of versicles and responses between celebrant and congregation at the opening of the anaphora.  The Sanctus and Benedictus are canticles.  The Anamnesis is the statement of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.  The Epiclesis is the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine.

Before the 4th century, things were a bit less regular.

Holy Communion has been part of Church practice since the beginning, its significance altered, corrupted, twisted, and contorted out of all recognition the further away in time from the events which it is supposed to commemorate and the further away in culture from that in which the Church was born and incubated.  Its meaning has been given as anything from ritual symbolic cannibalism, to merely a memorial meal, to a magic ceremony which supernaturally transforms bread and wine into actual human flesh and actual human blood to make the cannibalism actual rather than merely symbolic, to a ritual in which communicants are able to have their god-cake and eat him/it too.

Out of the context in which the practice arose, the ritual and symbolism lost all real meaning, becoming inscrutable and seemingly magical.

When I first started thinking about this, I realized that perhaps one of the best ways to glimpse that lost past was to find the earliest liturgy possible.  One of the first suggestions for that which I came across was the Liturgy of St. James the Just.  He was the brother of Jesus who was bishop of Jerusalem and main ideological antagonist of Paul of Tarsus.  However, it was immediately apparent when I found a copy of the rite that the claims about it were seriously mistaken.

A better candidate, also from the East (the St. James liturgy is used by the Syriac churches), was the Liturgy of Addai and Mari, which lacks several of the key parts of modern anaphoras, such as there being no Anamnesis, no Words of Institution, and no Epiclesis.  This rite is also used by Syriac churches, both their Oriental Orthodox and Uniate versions.  Rome requires its Uniate churches to insert the Words of Institution into the anaphora of the liturgy so that the magical ritual will not be incomplete.

There is another, even better, candidate, from probably the early 3rd century of the Common Era (C.E.), that has nearly all parts of modern anaphoras, but before I get to that, I want to discuss what is perhaps the earliest set of Eucharistic prayers known.

One of the earliest works of the Christian Church is a catechistic tract titled The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Heathen, but more commonly known as the Didache.  Probably written around 50 CE (some scholars date it later, to around the late first or early second century), it is older than most of the books of the New Testament, at least in the forms in which we have those.

Primarily an instructional treatise on Christian living and rites and some aspects of church government, it is organized into sixteen chapters.  For this essay, the most relevant chapters are 9 and 10, which begin with the phrase, “Concerning the Eucharist”.

First concerning the Cup, We give thanks to you, Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through your servant Jesus; to you be glory forever.

And concerning the broken Bread: We give you thanks, Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through your son Jesus. To you be glory forever.  
As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains but was brought together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom, for yours are the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

But after you are satisfied with food, thus give thanks: We give thanks to you, holy Father, for making your holy name dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have given us through Jesus your son. To you be glory forever. 
You, Lord Almighty, created all things for your name's sake, and gave all humanity food and drink for our enjoyment, that we might give thanks to you, but you have blessed us with spiritual food and drink and eternal light through your son. Above all we give thanks that you are mighty. To you be glory forever.
Remember, Lord, to deliver your church from all evil and to make it perfect in your love, and gather it together in holiness from the four winds to the kingdom which you have prepared for it. For yours are the power and the glory forever.
Let grace come and let this world pass away. Hosannah to the God of David. If anyone be holy, let them come! If anyone be not, let them repent: Maranatha, Amen.

No Words of Institution, no Anamnesis, nothing much that even remotely resembles any modern anaphora, other than the lack of the same in the Liturgy of Addai and Mari.  Most scholars studying the Didache have found themselves puzzled by the apparent reversal of the order of the blessing of bread and wine.  This is largely because they are looking at it out of its proper context, despite the fact that they have an explanation staring them in the face.

It was not until I attended services for a year at the local Conservative synagogue (Bnai Zion in Chattanooga) that I got it, and even then only after attending a First Shabbat dinner.

The ceremony began with the Sanctification of the meal over a cup of wine, with the rabbi saying the following, in Hebrew, of course:

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who create the fruit of the vineAmen.

The rabbi’s sanctification of his own cup sanctified those of all the attendees.

Next came the Benediction, pronounced over a loaf of bread, by which all the food to be eaten at the meal was blessed (though modern Jewish prayers exist for other foods):

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bring forth bread from the earth.  Amen.

After the meal came the Thanksgiving, pronounced once again over a cup of wine:

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sustain the entire universe with your goodness, grace, and mercy.  Blessed are you, O Lord, who sustain all.  Amen.

We give thanks  to  you, O Lord our God,  that you prepared for our fathers a good land and brought us out of Egypt, and gave to us the Covenant, Torah, and all the food we could want. 

Blessed are you, O Lord, for the land, and for the food.  Amen.

O Lord our God, have mercy upon Israel your people, upon Jerusalem your city, and upon that house that is called by your Name.  May you restore the kingdom of the house of David your Messiah to its rightful place.  Blessed are you O Lord our God, who build Jerusalem.  Amen.

May he who makes peace in the celestial heights create peace for us and for all Israel, and let us say, Amen.  Amen.

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who create the fruit of the vine.  Amen.

These prayers have existed and been used for more than two millennia, dating from well before the turn of the era.  That these were the prayers said by Jesus at the Last Supper before his pronouncements recorded in the gospels (and in the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians) was taken for granted by those of that time.

When the Eucharistic prayers of the Didache are viewed in their proper context, the solution to the seemingly odd reversal of the blessing of the bread and wine becomes obvious.  The text clearly states that the third prayer comes after the meal, which Jewish Christians and Gentiles familiar with Jewish practice knew was supposed to be pronounced over a cup of wine.

If one goes by the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospel of Matthew and/or in the Gospel of Mark, both of which have only a blessing of bread then a blessing of wine, even this might not bring clarity.  However, read the account from the Gospel of Luke (22:17-20), which is what I mentioned earlier as the example staring scholars in the face:

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among you: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God be come

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body, which is given for you: do this in the remembrance of me.

Likewise also after supper he took the cup, saying, This cup is that new Testament in my blood, which is shed for you.

Here in one of the Synoptic Gospels is the answer that could have explained for theologians what to them was the incomprehensible tripartite Eucharist in the Didache.

The text is from the 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible.  The “Authorized Version” published in 1611 is not, as many assume, the first complete translation of the Bible into English; that place belongs to the 1560 Geneva Bible translated by John Knox.  The only significant difference between that edition and the one in 1599, also by Knox, was the addition of footnotes throughout the whole book, well before the advent of the 20th century’s Scofield Reference Bible. 

Being of Calvinist origin, which favored congregational or presbyterian polity, Knox’s translation was deemed insufficiently supportive of the Episcopal government favored by the Court of James I of England.  Thus, despite its predecessor’s superior clarity and excellence, we got the “King James Version”, largely plagiarized from the Geneva Bible, but with select passages rewritten to show more support for Episcopal government and others rendered opaque by use of words and language archaic even then.

When fundamentalists and evangelicals vehemently condemn all other versions of the Christian Bible and uphold the KJV as the only true translation, they are in effect affirming the polity of the Anglican Communion and its branches.  As an Episcopalian, I have to say, “Thank you for your endorsement.”

The “Authorized Version”, by the way, along with the older Geneva Bible, included translations of the works recognized as sacred by the Roman and Eastern churches yet rejected as such (though still held to be inspired) by Protestant and Reformed leaders.  Therefore, those Bibles that lack the Apocrypha which nearly all the preachers from the Church’s fundamentalist and evangelical wings thump should be titled “King James Bible, Abridged Version”.

Getting back on topic, it is apparent from the Didache that early Christians partook of Communion during a meal, following the form inherited from its Jewish precedent, with a tripartite eucharist, or thanksgiving.  The predecessor of this kind of meal among Jews was called a chavurah (fraternal) meal; among Christians it came to be called an agape (unconditional divine love) meal.  That such was the case is also evident from Paul’s discussion of the “Lord’s supper” in the eleventh chapter of his First Epistle to the Cornithians (11:17-33).

One reason the concept of a tripartite eucharist may elude most theologians is that the Words of Institution in most modern anaphoras is based on this passage in 1 Cor. 11:23-26, again from the 1599 Geneva Bible:

 For I have received of the Lord that which I also have delivered unto you, to wit, That the Lord Jesus in the night when he was betrayed, took bread.  And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do ye in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the New Testament in my blood: this do as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye show the Lord’s death till he come.

Here, the Eucharist is only two-fold.  This, in spite of being in the middle of a discussion of “the Lord’s supper” in the context of a communal meal, possibly already being referred to as an agape meal, for which we have an account from the Didache of a threefold eucharist.  This part of the passage about “the Lord’s supper” may be a much later interpolation. 

Many textual analysts opine that the two letters of Paul of Tarsus to the church at Corinth in their present form have been mashed together from four originals, with possibly a fragment of a fifth added to the mix.  The earliest form in which we have these two letters comes from Marcion of Sinope, who brought to Rome in 140 CE the seven agreed-upon as genuine letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) along with an early version of what is now called the Gospel of Luke which he named the Gospel of the Lord.

Losing the initial cup of wine was Christians’ first step away from the foundation of Holy Communion in its journey from its original design of a shared communal meal eaten in homes inherited from a Jewish antecedent to what became for all intents and purposes magical rite of transformation of common elements into the body of a god at a sacrificial altar presided over by a priest to whom was ascribed the keys to the gates of heaven.

Now, these mystery aspects of Communion are not without antecedent themselves, not in Judaism but rather in the pagan Mystery Cults, many of which had stories of a dying and rising god similar to the later doctrines of Christianity.  The oldest of these was the cult of Osiris in Egypt.  His communion used beer and barley bread rather than wheat bread and wine.  After the conquests by Alexander and subsequently by Ptolemy, a new cult arose based on Osiris but in the form of a new syncretic god named Serapis.

Serapis derived from the merging of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Apis, but in Greek form, and was later further endowed with the healing aspects of the Greek god Asclepius.  There was a Serapeum, a shrine to Serapis, just outside of the walls of Jerusalem next to the Fortress Antonia in the time of Jesus; the Gospel of John places one of his miracles there.  Another Serapeum stood in the city of Samaria.

Other popular Mystery Cults of the last two centuries BCE and the first three centuries CE were of Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, and Mithras, but the list is hardly exhaustive.  And don’t just take my word for the similarity between Christianity and the Mystery Cults; the 2nd centuries Christian theologians Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria both discussed it in their writings.  Justin Martyr condemned the similarities as a trick of Satan.  Clement of Alexandria offered those same similarities as proof of the validity of Christianity in debate with pagan philosophers.

The anaphora in the late 2nd century/early 3rd century Apostolic Tradition, a work that has been often mistakenly ascribed to Hippolytus of Rome but more likely originated in the East of the empire, represents a midway point in the transition:

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is meet and right.

We give thanks to you God, through your beloved son Jesus Christ, whom you sent to us in former times as Savior, Redeemer, and Messenger of your Will, who is your inseparable Word,
through whom you made all, and in whom you were well-pleased, whom you sent from heaven into the womb of a virgin, who, being conceived within her, was made flesh, and appeared as your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and the virgin. It is he who, fulfilling your will and acquiring for you a holy people,extended his hands in suffering, in order to liberate from sufferings those who believe in you.

Who, when he was delivered to voluntary suffering, in order to dissolve death, and break the chains of the devil, and tread down hell, and bring the just to the light, and set the limit, and manifest the resurrection, taking the bread, and giving thanks to you, said, "Take, eat, for this is my body which is broken for you."  Likewise the chalice, saying, This is my blood which is shed for you. Whenever you do this, do this memory of me.

Therefore, remembering his death and resurrection, we offer to you the bread and the chalice, giving thanks to you, who made us worthy to stand before you and to serve as your priests.

And we pray that you would send your Holy Spirit to the oblation of your Holy Church. In their gathering together, give to all those who partake of your holy mysteries the fullness of the Holy Spirit, toward the strengthening of the faith in truth, that we may praise you and glorify you, through your son Jesus Christ, through whom to you be glory and honor, Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit, in your Holy Church, now and always, Amen.

In this we have nearly all the elements of the later anaphora that we have today, the notable exception being the lack of the Sanctus.  However, the text still contains elements that connect Communion to a meal, providing additional prayers for the sanctification of oil (presumably to dip bread in), of cheese, and of olives:

Sanctify this oil, O God, with which you anointed kings, priests and prophets, so as to grant health to them who use it and partake of it, that it may bestow comfort on all who taste it
and health on all who use it.  Glory to you, with Holy Spirit, in the holy church, both now and always and world without end.   Amen.

Sanctify this milk that has been united into one mass, and unite us to your love. Let your loving kindness ever rest upon this fruit of the olive, which is a type of your bounty, which you caused to flow from the tree unto life for them who hope in you.  Glory to you, with Holy Spirit, in the holy church, both now and always and world without end.   Amen.

Cheese and olives plus bread do not make a hearty meal, but who doesn’t enjoy a good wine and cheese party?  As for the oil, ancient Christians must’ve thought Jesus tasted better that way.

In addition, though the prayers are not included, the Apostolic Tradition prescribes that after receiving the bread the newly baptized be given water, then milk with honey, then the wine, which preserves the idea of a meal in smaller form.

Sometime between this and the 4th century, the meal aspects of the service disappeared entirely, leaving a rite that was only a shadow of its former self, hollowed out of any connection to its original meaning and intent.  From this we got silly practices such as parading around with a staff enshrining a piece of bread as if Christians worship food. 

Holy Communion is not about worshipping food.  The Real Presence has never been in there, but in the “two or more gathered in my name”, sharing a meal in love and fellowship, even if that meal is usually limited now to bread as a tasteless wafer and a tiny sip of wine.

APPENDIX:  The anaphora of Addai and Mari

In the Liturgy of Addai and Mari still used by Assyrian and Chaldean and some Thomasine Christians, the anaphora of dates back to 3rd century CE Edessa.  In its original form, presented here in English translation, it lacks the Words of Institution.  It is the oldest anaphora in use in all of Christendom.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the fellowship of
the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and at all times and forever and ever.  Amen.

V.  Let your hearts be on high.
R.  To thee, God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Israel, glorious King.
V.  The offering is being offered to God, the Lord of all.
R.  It is meet and right.

Worthy of glory from every mouth and thanksgiving from every tongue is the adorable and glorious Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who created the world in his grace and its inhabitants in his compassion, has redeemed mankind in his mercy, and has affected great grace towards mortals.

Your majesty, O Lord, a thousand  heavenly beings worship and myriad myriads of angels, hosts of spiritual beings, ministers of fire and spirit with cherubim and holy seraphim, glorify your name, crying out and glorifying, shouting and praising without ceasing and crying one to another and saying:

Holy holy holy Lord God of hosts heaven and earth are full of his praises.

And with these heavenly hosts we give thanks to you, o my Lord, even we your servants weak and frail and miserable, for that thou hast given us great grace past recompense in that thou didst put on our manhood that thou mightiest quicken it by thy godhead, and hast exalted our low estate and restored our fall and raised our mortality and forgiven our trespasses and justified our sinfulness and enlightened our knowledge and, o our Lord and our God, hast condemned our enemies and granted victory to the weakness of our frail nature in the overflowing mercies of thy grace.

Do thou, O my Lord, in thy many and unspeakable mercies make a good and acceptable memorial for all the just and righteous fathers who have been well-pleasing in thy sight, in the commemoration of the body and blood of thy Christ which we offer unto thee on thy pure and holy altar as thou hast taught us, and grant us thy tranquillity and thy peace all the days of the world.

Yea, O our Lord and our God, grant us thy tranquillity and thy peace all the days of the world that all the inhabitants of the earth may know thee that thou art the only true God the Father and that thou hast sent our Lord Jesus Christ thy Son and thy beloved. And he our Lord and our God came and in his life giving gospel taught us all the purity and holiness of the prophets and the apostles and the martyrs and the confessors and the bishops and the doctors and the presbyters and the deacons and all the children of the holy catholic church, even them that have been signed with the living sign of holy baptism.

And we also, O my Lord, thy weak and frail and miserable servants who are gathered together in thy name, both stand before thee at this time and have received the example which is from thee delivered unto us, rejoicing and praising and exalting and commemorating and celebrating this great and fearful and holy and life giving and divine mystery of the passion and the death and the burial and the resurrection of our Lord our Saviour Jesus Christ.

And may there come, o my Lord, thine Holy Spirit and rest upon this offering of thy servants and bless it and hallow it that it be to us, o my Lord, for the pardon of offences and the remission of sins and for the great hope of resurrection from the dead and for new life in the kingdom of heaven with all those who have been well pleasing in thy sight.

And for all this great and marvellous dispensation towards us we will give thee thanks and praise thee without ceasing in thy Church redeemed by the precious blood of thy Christ, with unclosed mouths and open faces lifting up praise and honour and confession and worship to thy living and holy and life giving name now and ever and world without end.  AMEN.

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