Chris Hall, in Worshiping With the Church Fathers
, examines in his second chp the central focus of the early Christian’s sense of worship: eucharist. (I didn’t say the “central focus of the NT’s sense of worship” though some will say I quibble.)
Eucharist … a story. Not all that long ago, I was sitting around a late night fire with some friends (it was a male bonding time too) and we were sipping a glass of wine and not a few were smoking cigars and the question was raised:
“Do you think we should celebrate the eucharist every week?”
(I’d be interested in how you’d answer that question.) The question, so it seems to me, is being asked by many low church types today (while many high church types are thinking of moving over to low churches to get more sermon!).
Chris Hall begins by observing that among many evangelicals today the question is “Why even celebrate communion? What’s it for?” (Our high church friends are now rolling their eyes.) The suggestion is that this question emerges from a gnostic perception of the faith — the material and the spiritual are not intimately connected. What matters is the spiritual; the material doesn’t matter. Hall shows how the early fathers reacted strongly against the gnostic ideas, including docetism. Hall examines what he calls sacramental realism.
“God loves matter — stuff — and the potential that matter possesses for divine creativity” (54). Incarnation says it all. So as God was present in the flesh/body of Christ, so God is present in the bread and wine — so Gregory of Nyssa. Note this: “… also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is transmuted into the body of God the Word” (55; from Gregory of Nyssa). Eating the bread and drinking the wine joins our bodies with Christ’s. So there is here a pattern of two-in-oneness of word and matter (56).
But there’s more there; the fathers had a sacramental worldview, beginning with the eucharist. There is a real presence taught in the fathers (Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose). John 6:51-54 then was important to the fathers’ perception of a sacramental worldview.
Hall knows evangelicals worry that “ritual can replace relationship” (59). He knows many from the sacramental tradition become evangelicals because of the lack of the personal in the sacramental traditions. But he asks if participation isn’t supposed to be by faith (the personal) in the God who communicates with us in the matter. Augustine affirmed this: the rite doesn’t do the job; faith is required. Chris Hall says there’s a false either-or with many today: it’s not faith vs. sacramental view of Lord’s supper. It’s a both-and.
Hall discusses that the fathers saw the meal as thanksgiving (eucharistic) and a gift and a memorial (anamnesis). One element not known to most low churchers is that the eucharist was accompanied by the famous “epiklesis”: the invocation of the Spirit to descend upon the elements.
Eucharist creates unity — or should. As the Father and Son and Spirit are one, so those who commune with the Son through the Spirit and at the gift of the Father can become one with God and with one another (Cyprian, Hilary of Poitiers).
The eucharist creates a fruitful union with Christ that transforms ethically (so John Chrysostom). So, too, Augustine’s warnings about living hellishly while thinking such persons can feast on the Body of Christ.
Some interpret the eucharist more spiritually — Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius.
How often? Hall cites evidence to show that they took of the eucharist often, some daily (Jerome) and some several times a week (Basil) and others weekly. They cupped their left hand in the right, received the bread, touched their eyes and then ingested. When their lips were still moist with the wine, they touched their lips and applied the wine to other parts of their body (Hall: “organs of sense”) to sanctify those parts.
He closes with a beautiful story about his Uncle Bob.