Fresh from the shock of the Cross event Saint Peter made up his mind that he was going back to fishing, going back to his old life. But God had other plans for him. So the apostles, and then the disciples, fanned out to take the message to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire. In the early Church, Christians had done all they could do to survive and keep their heads on their shoulders, literally. This adversity made for a close knit community which struggled together to employ anything necessary to celebrate the “Lord’s Supper” and keep the faith. But then a “hero” entered the picture in the form of the Emperor Constantine and the church moved from being a “community affair” to an “imperial ritual”.
The declaration of the Church of the Risen Lord as the church of the Emperor meant that it was safe for Christians to proclaim and practice their religion in the public forum. There was no longer a need for the secret “house churches”. This also led to a proliferation of the church with a community of believers in every town or village. The leadership of the house churches emerged the leaders of the new communities. These episcopoi became bishops, the highest clerical authority in each community. Often these men preached and taught with great zeal and many of them rightly claimed that they had learned about Jesus at the knee of the person who knew the person who actually learned from an apostle or original disciple. Some of these men are still read and referred to today as our Church Fathers.
Their contributions laid the groundwork for the survival of the church and they were instrumental in making sure that the ship of God did not capsize or sink! People like Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine defended the church nobly against the Nestorian and Arian controversies and the heated arguments revolving around the divinity of the Son as well as the issue of the “true presence” in both species of the Holy Eucharist! Part of their living legacy is with us to this very day each time we say the Nicean creed particularly the filoque clause: “God from God”.
For Christians of the early church, Eucharist was Christianity and Christianity was Eucharist. Separation of the two was simply unthinkable. Many of the major controversies of the early church pivoted around living a life worthy to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Just as remarkable were people like Irenaeus who make a strong and powerful case for the celebration of bread and wine being so pleasing of an act to God, that when the Holy Spirit changes the substances into the body and blood of Christ it is a clear act that reflects the doctrine of Creation. This doctrine is played out by Jesus incarnation reenacted every time the Lord’s Supper transpires. So the Eucharist has been lynchpin of the early Church and it is no different today as our modern theologians, exegetes and hermeneutical experts still fervently discuss the point of on going sacrifice, offering and memorial transpiring during our celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
But with the good dividend from Constantine, we must also be aware of the bad. As the faith moved out of the “house church” and into the open public forum, things began to change. Congregations became larger and the intimate communities that were so instrumental in keeping the church alive now evolved into groups that could no longer be contained within the former intimate settings. Huge buildings called Basilicas (Hall of the King) were now the places where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. As the Christian community grew, for many the “church” eventually came to be known as the building, not the community and that ritual objects and procedures seem to have become of much greater import than people.
As Church, we personally need to take upon ourselves the evangelizing task of letting it be known to others that we ourselves form the Body of Christ. We need to remember that the "real church" is us in exactly the same way that the disciples and apostles lived and understood. Through the Sacrament of Baptism we enter the Church, and through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist we are ever more intimately united to the Mystical Body of Christ. Eucharist is the only food that we ever consume in which we become part of the food rather than the food becoming part of us. The magnificence of our Churches is a visible sign of the majesty of Christ the King and how civilization has labored to honor Him. However, it is the Eucharist that is the real source source of our spiritual life because it is the actual body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Savior. Like the manna in the dessert is it meant to sustain us, feed us and preserve us for "the next life in the promised land" in ways that we don't even understand.
Copyright 2009, Kathryn M. Cunningham, all rights reserved
Learn more about Kathryn and her perspectives on "the journey" at: www.atravelersview.org
On the Net:
Eat My Flesh & Drink My Blood: Literal of Symbolic?
Learn about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.
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