Food with dignity - The origins of the Eucharist

Jesus with the Eucharist at the Last Supper  by Juan de Juanes, mid-late 16th century

Jesus with the Eucharist at the Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, mid-late 16th century

In the month of June at St Bride's, we are celebrating a Communion service every Sunday and hearing reflections on the meaning of this ritual of hospitality which is central to our faith. In our first reflection, Jonathan Clatworthy reflects on how this tradition came to be as we now know it:

I was brought up in a vicarage and from an early age was familiar with the traditional story of the Communion service, as expressed in standard eucharistic prayers.

It goes like this. On the day before he died, Jesus gathered with the twelve apostles for the kind of meal groups of Jewish men often shared at the Passover festival, with bread and wine. Jesus said of the bread: ‘This is my body’, and of the wine: ‘This is my blood’. He also said: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. 150 years after the death of Jesus, and from then on, the standard account of the Communion service was that it was doing what Jesus had told them to do at the Last Supper.

In the 1970s I was taught it again in theological college, together with the subsequent history.

In the Middle Ages the idea of saying a few words over bread and wine and turning them into the body and blood of Christ fitted the common belief in casting spells and doing magic. For a priest to be able to do this meant real power. What they needed was lots of priests doing lots of masses. Medieval churches and cathedrals often had small chapels big enough for one priest to say one mass after another.

At the Reformation, Protestants rightly argued that this wasn’t how the Bible understood it. They disagreed with each other about what Communion meant. What did it mean for the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Jesus?

Early Protestantism was a very individualist movement. The dominant concern was for each individual to seek salvation in the afterlife. From this individualism we got the campaign for one man, one vote. We also got the idea that Communion was a very individualist activity, between each person and God. So you kneel at the altar rail receiving the bread and wine, and you don’t want anyone looking - as though you were in the toilet.

In the 19th century there was a revival of Catholicism, and in the Church of England the Anglo-Catholic movement. It looked back to the Middle Ages, but with differences. Communion gave the receiver a real, objective grace from the Holy Spirit, provided the Prayer of Consecration was recited correctly by a priest validly ordained by a validly consecrated bishop. This idea was popular for about a century, but has declined over the last 50 years.

This is what I was taught at theological college in the 1970s. Being made to write essays about it made me think: this is boring.

Have millions of people been doing this for almost 2,000 years just because Jesus once said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’? Jesus also said ‘Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor’. Why aren’t we all doing that as well? Okay, he only said that to one person, but he only said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ to 12 people, and they are now all dead. Yet the Communion service was the central act from the beginning of Christianity and millions of people are still doing it nearly 2,000 years later. There must have been more to it.

Then I discovered New Testament scholars with a completely different explanation.

Fish included as part of Communion - Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

Fish included as part of Communion - Priscilla Catacomb, Rome

From all the evidence we’ve got, it took 150 years before anybody associated the Communion service with the Last Supper or the death of Jesus. During that time no texts make the connection, not even the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper. The Christian art of that period, mainly in the catacombs, show people celebrating the Eucharist, but there are never 13 of them, which would have been right for the Last Supper, and they never have wine. They are eating bread and fish. Sometimes, five loaves and two fishes. There was an earlier reason for Communion, which has largely been forgotten. What was it?

I’ll give you two clues. The first is that term ‘Last Supper’. There must have been previous suppers. The second is the word they used. They didn’t say ‘Communion service’. They said they were doing a Eucharist, which is a Greek word meaning ‘thank you’. They were thanking God for their suppers. Why is that such a big deal?

Jesus started his movement in an area called Galilee. The Jewish tradition believed the world has been created by one good god, who has provided enough food for everybody to eat. When some people go hungry, that’s because other people are taking more than their share. So the Jewish tradition had a lot of laws to protect the poor. Laws to forbid interest on loans and cancel debts.

However, in Jesus’ day Galilee was part of the Roman Empire. The Romans didn’t bother with that. They didn’t mind how many Galileans starved to death, provided there were enough left to grow the food and pay the taxes.

In the Roman Empire somewhere between five and ten percent of the population were destitute. They had no regular income at all. They would survive as beggars, burglars or bandits until they failed and starved to death. In Galilee, the percentage of destitute people was even higher, more like 15%. Galilee was fertile land, good for growing food. The reason for the starvation was basically taxes.

Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God. What he meant by that was how we would live if we did things God’s way. If we did things God’s way everybody would have enough to eat. People are starving because of the Roman taxes. On the other hand, despite the Roman taxes, between us we still have some food. Why don’t we pool our resources, come together bringing what we’ve got, and share it out equally? It was a kind of food insurance policy. One day you get a job as a day labourer, you are paid a bit of money, you spend it on food, and share it with the others. The next day somebody else gets a paid job and they share it, so you still eat.

On a practical level it made sense to those people. What gave it wider appeal was the conviction that went with it. God has designed the world so that when we care for each other, we all get what we need. God makes the crops grow, so instead of lamenting how little we’ve got, we thank God for what we have got, and express our thanks by sharing what we’ve got with people in need. That was living God’s kingdom despite the Romans.

To me, this is a far better explanation of the Communion service. It explains why it was the central act for the early Christians. They didn’t begin it after the Last Supper; they just carried on doing what Jesus had started up. It was absolutely important because it meant real food for the starving.

It was also important because it gave those starving people dignity. They were not receiving hand-outs from benevolent charities. They were eating what God had given for them to eat. For them to eat was God’s justice, God’s kingdom.

In the Roman Empire, Galilee was a backwater. The ruling classes didn’t care what went on in Galilee. Yet 300 years after Jesus, Christianity became the official cult of the Empire. Historians still argue about how that happened. The pious say it was the Holy Spirit, busier than usual, converting people. Sceptics say it was just a succession of accidents. To me, the most convincing explanation is the Communion service. Food with dignity. For everyone to have enough to eat is the way God intends: the Kingdom of God.

As the idea spread, these meals got adapted to fit local customs. I’m going to finish with two quotations showing what they meant in different places. The first is from the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, on how the New Testament describes the Last Supper. Jesus did four things. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it. Crossan writes:

The first two verbs, took and blessed… are the actions of the master; the last two, broke and gave… are the actions of the servant. Jesus, as master and host, performs instead the role of servant, and all share the same food as equals. There is, however, one further step to be taken. Most of Jesus’ first followers would know about but seldom have experienced being served at table by slaves. The male followers would think… of females as preparers and servers of the family food… Far from reclining and being served, Jesus himself serves the meal, serves, like any housewife, the same meal to all including himself… long before Jesus was host, he was hostess.

Finally, a passage from Paul, in one of his moods, writing to the church at Corinth.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (1 Cor 11:20-22)

25 years after the death of Jesus, Christians at Corinth had inherited the thanksgiving meal in the name of God’s kingdom, but adapted it to the normal practice of Greek dinner parties. Paul complains that they miss the whole point, because they are eating separately, eating different amounts of food, and taking positions of rank and status.

Yet, the Corinthians had to adapt it somehow. After all, some of them had homes where they could eat.

And so do we. We too have to adapt it somehow. Yet we also want to retain Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. So how should we adapt it? We’ll be exploring this over the next few weeks.