The Early Eucharist

The Eucharist began at the Last Supper. I'm saving that for Easter blogging, so won't use the beautiful mosaic of it from S. Apollinare in Ravenna, which shows the Apostles reclining Roman-style on couches. Instead I thought it more apposite to use as an illustration of the early Eucharist this less well-known Byzantine dish in Dumbarton Oaks known as the "Riha" Paten (produced AD 565-578). Whilst depictions of Last Suppers have become familiar to us, and we all know what Christ said ... it is far more unusual to see the actual first communion ever, where the Apostles received the Eucharist, depicted in art.

Our earliest 'how-to' guide to the Eucharist is preserved in Didache chapter 9, composed in the first century:

Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way.

First, concerning the cup:
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever...
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."

Last week I was concerned that one was getting less and less Eucharist as the centuries progressed - first the Agape meal was cut, then the wine ....

Actually things are less clear-cut than that. I've been reading an essay by Andrew McGowan, that argues that wine was not particularly popular, and sometimes even optional, amongst the early Christians in North Africa. Tertullian later became a Montanist so is perhaps to be treated with some suspicion, and the section of Perpetua quoted is from a dream-allegory so equally arguable.
Saint Cyprian feeling he had to attack people who used water rather than wine for communion does however suggest that the practice might well have been current. As he wrote in Epistle 62.2 to Caecilius:
Know then that I have been admonished that, in offering the cup, the tradition of the Lord must be observed, and that nothing must be done by us but what the Lord first did on our behalf, as that the cup which is offered in remembrance of Him should be offered mingled with wine. For when Christ says, I am the true vine. The blood of Christ is assuredly not water, but wine; neither can His blood by which we are redeemed and quickened appear to be in the cup, when in the cup there is no wine whereby the blood of Christ is shown forth, which is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures.
Prof. J. Patout Burns of Vanderbilt has gathered together several more essays on The Eucharist and other Ritual Meals in North Africa.

If wine was 'optional' for some, what about the Agape meals? Although in some ways the practise remains in the tradition of Sunday lunch, they became rather controversial quite early on. When Pliny wrote to Trajan (97.66), he assured the emperor that the Christians "eat in common a harmless meal" - which rather suggests that there had been contrary allegations. Lollianus mentions Christian ritual murder in the Phoinikika. Several Christian replies and defences of Christianity quote - to refute them - ancient claims of Thyestean banquets with babies and children being killed and eaten, or Oedipal orgies with unnatural acts between mothers and sons. Minucius Felix, quoting Cornelius Fronto, repeats most of these claims in Octavius 10.

Other Christians made similar claims against Christian groups they considered heretical - Justin Martyr (1 Apol. 26.7). Clement of Alexandria accuses the Carpocratians of having intercourse (Strom. 3.2.10):
These then are the doctrines of the excellent Carpocratians. These, so they say, and certain other enthusiasts for the same wickednesses, gather together for feasts (I would not call their meeting an Agape), men and women together. After they have sated their appetites ("on repletion Cypris, the goddess of love, enters," as it is said), then they overturn the lamps and so extinguish the light that the shame of their adulterous "righteousness" is hidden, and they have intercourse where they will and with whom they will. After they have practiced community of use in this love-feast, they demand by daylight of whatever women they wish that they will be obedient to the law of Carpocrates-it would not be right to say the law of God. Such, I think, is the law that Carpocrates must have given for the copulations of dogs and pigs and goats. He seems to me to have misunderstood the saying of Plato in the Republic that the women of all are to be common. Plato means that the unmarried are common for those who wish to ask them, as also the theatre is open to the public for all who wish to see, but that when each one has chosen his wife, then the married woman is no longer common to all.
[I can't even bring myself to copy and paste from the claims made by Epiphanius of Salamis in the Panarion about the Phibionites (26.4-5).]
So the Agape Feast, although pure in origin, seems to have been perverted by some, and was scrapped. Oh well.

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