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Sacred Actions of Worship Sample Resource

The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church

The early church established the patterns for the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper that have largely been recovered in the modern era. Many of the recent developments in the renewal of worship can be understood by examining the early history of the Lord’s Supper. 

Although Christian eucharistic practice was clearly well established during the first three centuries, written documentation is sparse since liturgical patterns were taught orally and were written down only when circumstances required. The Christian Eucharist developed from the Jewish prayer of blessing (berakah). As the love feast (agape fellowship meal) became separated from the Eucharist of bread and wine, elements of the Last Supper tradition were absorbed into the eucharistic prayer.

A wider variety of written sources survive from the period after the persecution which ended early in the fourth century. In West Syria (Antioch), Egypt, and East Syria (Edessa), the eucharistic liturgy was embellished as standardized forms emerged in the great central cities replacing a wide variety of local liturgies. In the Latin West, several regional liturgies survived until the Roman practice was made standard in the Carolingian empire (ninth century).

The central concern of eucharistic theology during this era was not the question of when and how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ (a ninth-century controversy) or whether the Eucharist repeated Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary (a controversy of the eleventh century onward). Instead, the theology of the eucharistic action was employed to argue for the goodness of physical creation; the role of that creation in redemption through Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection; and the possibility for Christians to participate in the new life initiated by God in the covenant sacrifice of Christ.

As Christianity penetrated the elite circles of the late Roman Empire, the setting for the Eucharist also changed. Yet, although grand basilicas replaced the house churches of the period of persecution, the most striking characteristic of the first five centuries is precisely the degree of continuity preserved amid accommodation to changing circumstances.

The Ancient Church

No study of the Lord’s Supper in the ancient church can fail to note how central the Eucharist is in the surviving evidence of the earliest stages of the Christian movement. Even where not explicitly stated, Christian communities understood that their life as a new people of God was confirmed and affected in the meals held on the Lord’s Day. At these meals, the “taking, blessing, breaking, and giving” of bread and wine was a memorial action by which those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ were sustained by their weekly eucharistic participation in his body and blood through the action of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 11:17ff.; 12:12ff.). Here one clearly sees the inheritance from Israel, whose Passover and Sabbath meals, with the synagogue meetings, sustained the life of the people and told the story of Israel’s origin and purpose. In the case of the Christians, however, membership in the ekklesia, the community of those “called forth,” was not by blood, but by faith in the God whose new covenant in the death of the Messiah, Jesus, was memorialized in the eucharistic action.

By the early fourth century, the essential shape of the Christian Eucharist had already been established with remarkable consistency. The actual meal, the original setting for the “taking, blessing, breaking, and giving” described in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and in the Didache (c. 100–150), survived in the non-eucharistic love feast (the agape meal). The evening love feast was no longer associated with the Eucharist in places where the Lord’s Day was assumed to begin at sunrise (Gentile practice), rather than at sunset of the day before (Jewish practice). Moreover, in circumstances of active persecution, elaborate meal preparations may have carried some risk.

With the separation of the evening love feast from the Eucharist, the prayers of blessing over the bread and wine were conflated into a single eucharistic prayer—now actually including the Last Supper tradition, the words of institution (“the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed …”), as found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 215). Moreover, after some disagreement about the relationship between the Jewish Passover and the Christian paschal feast (Easter), it became customary to celebrate a Lord’s Day as the Christian Passover after the date of the Jewish Passover and to make this the principal occasion on which catechumens were baptized and admitted to the eucharistic fellowship (as in Justin Martyr, First Apology [c. 160). This gave a striking definition to the Lord’s Day observance throughout the year. The normal Lord’s Day Eucharist was prefaced with a simple order of Scripture readings, preaching, and prayer adapted from the synagogue service. All of this was intended to reiterate and instill the history of salvation, for the church was called to be a part of that history.

The rite shaped in this way was still commonly called eucharistia, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew berakah (the blessing prayer). Latin Christians used this word in transliterated form, as they did in the case of other words with special Christian significance. However, they also referred to it in theological writings as the coena dominicalis (the Lord’s Supper), and later, more popularly, as missa (Mass), perhaps because it followed the formal dismissal of the catechumens. In the course of our period, Greek Christians came to call it leitourgia (work of the people) because it was the public work of the people of God.

It is tempting to think that the cessation of the persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century and the eventual recognition of Christianity as the official religion of the imperial Roman government by the successors of Constantine worked a wholesale change in the liturgical life of the churches. Certainly accommodation to the new circumstances of freedom, even popularity, is found in liturgical developments. Yet the effort to maintain continuity with what had gone before is even more striking. This article will address the complex phenomenon of accommodation to the new context and continuity with old patterns.

Fourth-Century Sources

To understand early Christian liturgy, one must remember that, like its Jewish and pagan counterparts, it was a formal oral phenomenon. The liturgy was not written down in prayer books, sacramentaries, or missals. But neither was it extemporaneous in the modern sense. Worshipers had to follow the established order, contents, and even the specific language of the liturgy (doubtless with local, even personal modifications) precisely because it was not written down. Like a play without a written script, the words and actions of the principal actors had to be learned well by the entire cast so that all could take their appropriate parts. The sources for our knowledge of these first three centuries (e.g., Justin Martyr, Hippolytus) were the occasional written descriptions of what was said and done.

The vastly enlarged bodies of sources from the fourth and following centuries are of this same sort. In the new circumstances of the time, it was increasingly important to set down what had been or ought to be said and done. These burgeoning sources record materials not hitherto committed to writing. They also suggest how that material could be adapted to the new situation.

Antioch and Egypt. Two such sources reflect the situation in the church of Antioch, the Syrian capital, and in the Egyptian churches as they struggled to find unity in relation to the church of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. At Antioch, in the latter decades of the fourth century, the Apostolic Constitutions set down practices common to that area (including a revision of earlier written sources such as the Didache, and Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition). They also describe the Eucharist of the Antiochene church itself. Here we find an enlarged service of Scripture reading, preaching, and prayer, as well as an elaborated eucharistic “taking, blessing, breaking, and giving” of the bread and wine. The latter includes a rich and lengthy eucharistic prayer (anaphora) drawn on the model of Hippolytus’ prayer with its unified order—the blessing for the work of redemption in Christ; the Last Supper tradition; and the invocation of the Spirit upon the bread and wine. From the enlarged role of deacons, who function as assistants to the bishop, one can conclude that an extensive congregation now gathered in space much more extensive than in the house churches of earlier centuries. Yet the simple structure of the rite shows great restraint in preserving the basic practices of the past.

While the Alexandrian Liturgy of St. Mark is known to us only in much later form, the early fourth-century Euchologion (prayer collection) of Bishop Serapion of Thmuis provides an invaluable link between that later rite and earlier Egyptian liturgical fragments. Serapion’s eucharistic prayer itself is of a different structure from that of Hippolytus, with various prayers of blessing from early Jewish models roughly united around separate invocations of the Spirit on the congregation and on the bread and wine before and after the recital of the Last Supper tradition. Other prayers in Serapion’s collection are designed for use in what seems to be an extensive prefatory service of Scripture reading, preaching, and prayer. This illustrates once again the dual concern for continuity and accommodation to new circumstances.

East Syria. Recent studies have given us access to the history of the eucharistic prayer of Mari and Addai, attributed as the traditional founders of the East Syrian Christian center of Edessa. In its reconstructed fourth-century form, the eucharistic prayer of Mari and Addai seems to have been used in a eucharistic rite not unlike that common at Antioch and elsewhere at this time. But its internal structure and language suggest very early Jewish Christian origins so that it stands with the Didache and the precursors of Serapion’s Euchologion as witnesses to the primitive character of eucharistic blessing prayers. In a process associated with the name of the Antiochene John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (398–407), the Antiochene rite was adopted by the church of the imperial capital, Constantinople. Thus the eucharistic prayer of Mari and Addai remained in use only in the churches east of Syria, many of which later became Nestorian.

The West. In contrast to the Eastern tendency to reorganize earlier eucharistic practices under the auspices of major Christian centers, in the West (Gaul and Spain, northwest Africa, Rome and other parts of Italy) one glimpses continued local diversity. From northwest Africa, indeed, there are no descriptive liturgical sources. One is dependent on allusions such as those found in the homilies of Augustine of Hippo to reconstruct these liturgies. They indicate that the Latin language rites of the area preserved the shape of those in use in the third century, with few embellishments. Our knowledge of the quite different Gallican and Mozarabic rites of Gaul and Spain comes from liturgical books of a much later date (e.g., the Missale Gothicum and the Bobbio Missal). They are marked by ceremonial embellishments, which may show contact with Eastern developments of the period, and by considerable seasonal variation in their rich, even florid, Latin prayer forms. These eucharistic rites are interesting because they reflect the practices of Western Europe before the promotion of the Roman rite by the emperor Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century.

The Eucharist of the church of Rome in this period presents a variety of puzzles. While the third-century Roman liturgical practices that are reflected in Hippolytus generally remain in evidence, the fourth-century replacement of Greek by Latin as the liturgical language of the Roman church apparently coincided with innovation in liturgical practice. The Roman books associated with the name of Gregory the Great (d. 604) that Charlemagne acquired still showed restraint and simplicity in comparison to the rites of Gaul and Spain. However, certain embellishments from Eastern sources are apparent: the singing of Kyrie eleison and Gloria in excelsis as an entrance rite; and the brief but elegant collecta (gathering prayers), attributed to Leo the Great (d. 461), to introduce the Scripture reading and preaching. But the novel feature of the Eucharist itself is the invariable eucharistic prayer (canon). Our earliest evidence for it may consist in allusions to it found in the De Sacramentis of Ambrose of Milan (d. 397). This prayer, or unified collection of prayers, has been thought to bear resemblance to that of Serapion, but has no explicit invocation of the Spirit on the bread and wine either before or after the recital of the Last Supper tradition. This unusual prayer, which came to be called the Gregorian Canon of the Mass (also known as the Roman Canon), supplanted the comparable Gallican prayers from the Carolingian era onward. This Gregorian Canon became the standard by which later medieval and Reformation theologians sought to interpret the meaning of the eucharistic action.

Catechetical and Homiletic Sources. Given the paucity of our evidence from actual liturgical descriptions, the wealth of homiletic and catechetical material from the fourth and later centuries is of particular importance for the study of eucharistic thought and practice. Especially worth notice are the mystagogical catecheses, in which those who had been baptized and had received Communion for the first time at the Paschal feast (Easter Vigil) were subsequently instructed in the Eucharist. Of these, those attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom are the most rewarding. But the whole body of this material is invaluable. It reflects the new circumstances in which public instruction was both possible and necessary.


Dispute regarding the Eucharist was a hallmark of the Reformation era, with all sides appealing to the ancient church on behalf of views for or against the sacrificial character of the rite, the status of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, and so on. It is thus important to notice that quite different considerations occupied the attention of the early Christians—even where their writings seem to address topics that later became controversial. Chief among the considerations at the time was a desire to explain the eucharistic action simply as the means of participation in the new life initiated by God in the covenant sacrifice of Christ. For instance, Justin Martyr and others, developing themes already suggested in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, argued, against Jewish exegetes, that the offering of the bread and wine was the true sacrifice prophesied in Malachi 1:10–12 and that this offering was sufficient because of the one sacrifice of Christ memorialized in the eucharistic action. Similarly, Irenaeus (fl. c. 180), arguing against Gnostic denials of the goodness of the physical creation, insisted that the prescribed use of bread and wine in the Eucharist (like that of water in baptism) proves the goodness and utility of the physical creation in the redemptive plan of God for the salvation of both body and soul. Even Origen (d. 253), for all his commitment to a Platonic concern for the spiritual character of the relation of the soul to Christ, develops his analysis of a spiritual eating and drinking as the inner meaning of the physical action which he assumes to be part of the Christian life.

The same way of eliciting the implications of the eucharistic action is evident in the theologians of the fourth and following centuries. In the East, where the Arian, or Trinitarian, controversy broke out, such theologians as Athanasius (d. 373) and Basil the Great (d. 379) emphasized the single operation of Father, Son, and Spirit in both the eucharistic and baptismal actions. This emphasis influenced the adjustment of the eucharistic anaphora to refer equally to the work of all three persons of the Godhead and led in particular to the stress laid on the invocation (epiklesis) of the Spirit as affecting the making of the bread and wine into vehicles of communion with Christ. In the West, Ambrose of Milan’s remarks to the newly baptized about the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ by the “word of prayer” (presumably referring to the repetition of the Last Supper tradition), were later contrasted with Augustine’s dramatic description, also for recently baptized, of the bread and wine now seen by them upon the holy Table for the first time as becoming spiritually, or symbolically, the body and blood of Christ. But even if—and it is highly improbable—Augustine thought he was saying something different from Ambrose, their fundamental interest is in the reality of participation in the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, rather than the transformation of the bread and wine.

Only later, beginning with the revival of theological interest in the Carolingian era (ninth century), did Western attention shift to questions about the transformation of the bread and wine. Later still, under the influence of the expiatory view of the sacrifice of Christ associated with the name of Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), controversy centered on whether the sacrifice of Calvary was repeated in the eucharistic action.

Physical Setting

Much can be learned about the eucharistic celebrations of the fourth and later centuries from the physical evidence of the surviving buildings and from pictorial representations of what went on in them. While domestic houses remodeled for liturgical use (the house churches) continued in use, Christians began to construct eucharistic aulae (halls)—later called basilicas by Renaissance scholars, who noted their similarity to law courts.

Often of considerable size and elegance themselves, these halls were commonly part of larger complexes, which included baptisteries and related structures. Approached through an atrium, or courtyard, and thus separated from surrounding streets, the entire complex retained something of the domestic character of the house churches and embodied the ekklesia’s sense of separation from the general society. Similarly, while the furnishings of these buildings could be grand, with raised podiums for the reading of the Scriptures and with columns with a canopy (ciborium) setting off the small tables (mensae) or altars, the officiants wore no distinctive vestments. Furthermore, the congregations continued to stand with them, holding up their hands in prayer (orantes) at the time of the eucharistic prayer. Pews and kneeling benches were unknown.

Once again, both accommodation and continuity are visible. While a new grandeur often attended the setting of the eucharistic action, the “taking, blessing, breaking, and giving” were done with deliberate simplicity, recalling the earlier centuries and distinguishing Christian rites from those of classical paganism. Yet, the striking feature of the period is the conscious and unconscious concern to continue setting forth the eucharistic memorial with integrity amid changed circumstances.