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History of the Eucharistic celebration IV: The Eucharist of the Church

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In his letter to the Christians of Corinth, St. Paul gives the first written testimony of the celebration of the Eucharist. The Corinthians were a novel community, a social challenge to a world where bringing together people of different social levels was unusual, and not favorably received. In Corinth, there were Gentile and Jewish Christians, rich and poor, masters and slaves, men and women building a new and provocative assembly of believers. Upon learning this, the apostle realizes that the Lord's Supper can turn into a celebration far removed from the criteria of Christ.

In this letter, written around the year 55, the apostle emphasizes the fundamentals, which is the community itself, the real presence of the Risen One, and asks them not to lose sight of the most poor, in this case the dockworkers who cannot arrive at the Lord's Supper until they have finished their work, because they were slaves. He reminds them that the eucharistic bread is the surrendered body of the Lord and the cup offers his spilled blood. Participating in the sacred Supper of the Lord implies allowing oneself to become infused with Christ’s surrender, to be fed on it, to live, to think and act in the manner of the One who has convoked the great feast of Faith.

The author of the Book of Acts speaks of the “breaking of the bread,” a gesture that the disciples of Emmaus never forgot. Beginning in the fourth century, it became the longest moment of the celebration, when, along with the bishop, all the participating priests and deacons came to the altar to break the eucharistic bread into small pieces. St. Ignatius of Antioch will coin a new term: “Eucharist,” that is, the ultimate thanksgiving.

In the Jewish world, the first Christians continued going to the temple and participating in worship at synagogues until they were forbidden access to them. They slowly built their own meeting places and continued reading texts from the Old Testament, given that, one way or another, all spoke prophetically to them of Jesus. That is why they did not exclude the reading of the Law, especially Deuteronomy, the favorite book of the early community. They also read the prophets and sang the psalms, the Odes of Solomon and some hymns which were later collected in the book of Revelation; and little by little they added the stories of the Passion and of the miracles and teachings of the Lord, which eventually led to the writing of the Gospels.

The meal that opens the Sabbath gave way to another in the early hours of Sunday, this time  a gathering not of the family, but of the community. The Gospels collected different traditions, but each one retained the same structure inherited from Jesus. Apparently, at first, the Jewish custom prevailed of having a fellowship meal between the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup. Later, and perhaps from a deeper understanding of the eucharistic mystery, both gestures — the breaking of the bread and the blessing of the cup — were done together, which united the communion of the Body of Christ with that of his Precious Blood. Over time and with the growth and expansion of the Church in the Greco-Roman world, the Lord’s Supper was separated from the fellowship meal; the banquet would precede the sacred Supper to give greater emphasis to the Eucharist.

The growth of the Church away from Jewish traditions, now with new communities originating from paganism, led to uniting the reading of the Word with the Eucharistic Prayer. The Greco-Roman communities preferred to read the Word, not in a separate assembly, but linked to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. These communities had a strong charismatic style that Paul will try to regulate. St. Paul will ask that the sign of Christian charity not be lacking and that all contribute their savings to help the brothers and sisters in greatest need.

The Book of Acts preserves the memory of a Eucharist celebrated in Troas, on a Sunday night, in an upperroom lit by many candles, where Paul himself gave a lengthy speech and where the apostle resurrected a young man who, asleep from fatigue — or the long sermon — fell out a window.

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