The Medicine Of Immortality
A prominent Canadian politician was alleged to have received a Communion wafer at a Roman Catholic Mass, put it into his pocket, and returned to his pew, to the horror of parishioners and media alike. Presumably he was a Calvinist, because the liturgical churches (Eastern Orthodox, Armenians, Ethiopians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics) hold the bread and wine of the Eucharist in great reverence and maintain strict regulations as to how Communion elements are to be treated and to whom they may be distributed, if only to prevent disrespectful handling. These regulations are not modern inventions nor did they originate with superstitious monks in the Dark Ages. The present article looks at Christian regard for the Eucharist before A.D. 250 to show how the earliest believers shared the same practices as liturgical denominations today. The ancient writings are the common heritage of all Christians because they date from before the division into present-day denominations, even before the division separating Armenians and Ethiopians from the rest of Christendom in A.D. 451.
In the earliest Christian centuries, extremely respectful treatment was shown toward the bread and wine, which many denominations regard as the body and blood of Christ. The reason for this reverence appears in Justin, a Christian writer in the mid-second century who was later martyred for the Faith: "not as common bread and common drink do we receive these… we have been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh."
Half a century earlier another martyr, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, described the Eucharist as "the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying but which causes that we should live forever in Jesus Christ." This was not the better-known Ignatius Loyola but his namesake fifteen centuries earlier, who legend has it was the little child whom Jesus said we must be like in order to see the kingdom of heaven.
In A.D. 217 Bishop Hippolytus in central Italy set out existing church practice as to how clergy were to continue to conduct worship services. He also intended it as a guide for laity to detect and complain when clergy departed from the liturgical heritage passed down from the time of the apostles. He wrote that the consecrated elements are not to be allowed to fall to the floor or be lost or treated carelessly; this is corroborated in the same era in Tunisia by the church father Tertullian. Nor were church mice and other animals permitted to consume them. The bread and wine were to be consecrated only according to a prescribed rite, which must be in an orderly manner, without unnecessary talking or arguing, and such that Christians preserve their good reputation and their worship practices not be ridiculed by non-Christians. Shortly afterwards, Origen wrote that people are not to receive them "in haphazard fashion". These, of course, are echoes of the Apostle Paul that church services must be conducted "decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14.40).
This same Origen illustrated better than anyone else the great reverence Christians in the A.D. 240s held the sacramental elements. Unlike Ignatius or Hippolytus, he was not urging his hearers to show respect but was using one existing church practice as the grounds or analogy for other spiritual exercises. Origen was taking the example of the treatment of the Eucharist as an entrenched standard practice on which to build his argument for adopting an additional soul-building activity. Both he and his congregations took high respect for the sacramental elements for granted and as well-established:
You who are accustomed to take part in divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost. For you believe, and correctly, that you are answerable if anything falls from there by neglect.
Because he traveled much throughout the eastern Mediterranean at the request of local bishops, and once to Rome, his statements probably described universal practice.
Partly because outsiders might not know how to demonstrate proper respect, it was forbidden to give Holy Communion to them—as witness the allegations about the Canadian politician. From the earliest times, it was considered sinful to consume the sacrament in any unworthy manner. According to the Apostle Paul, "whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" and "he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." (1 Corinthians 11. 27, 29). This thought was repeated almost two centuries later by the church father Origen when he warned that Christians who partake unworthily will receive the Lord's judgment, again as a proposition accepted as a given by all his hearers.
The Didache was a church manual and guide to the Christian life written in the late first century, when some apostles were still living. It limited participation in the Eucharist to people who had been baptized, citing Jesus' command that we must not give what is holy to the dogs. Half a century or more later, Justin similarly confined Communion to people who believe Christian doctrine, had been baptized, and live as Christ had taught. Another sixty years later Hippolytus' church manual would also admit to the Eucharist only people that had received Christian baptism. One of his charges against the leadership of a rival denomination within Christianity was that they accepted into membership people rejected by other sects and indiscriminately gave Communion to everybody.
To further safeguard against disrespect of the sacrament and prevent people from eating and drinking unworthily, there were restrictions even on the baptized. In the first century Saint Paul required searching one's conscience prior to receiving (1 Corinthians 11.28) while the Didache not long afterwards mandated confession of sins. It also required resolution of disputes with other people before participating.
Liturgical denominations have always provided further protection by requiring communicants to go to the front of the church and to receive the sacrament only from the hand of a duly authorized minister commissioned for this purpose. In A.D. 212 Tertullian referred to this procedure as already ancient and universally accepted. The sacrament is not put into trays as among Calvinists and passed along the pews like a collection plate where anyone can serve themselves, even an unbaptized visitor who has never been in church before.
Considering the veneration some churches accord the Eucharistic elements—as witness the protections surrounding them—Christians of all denominations should show great respect for the sacrament and due consideration for the sensitivities and consciences of their hosts when at a Communion service in a church other than their own.
Further reading: Gospel of John 6.48-58 and 1 Corinthians 11.20-36.
The quotation of Origen is from pages 380 and 381 of Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus translated by Ronald E. Heine (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1982) Copyright © Catholic University of America Press, Inc.