A secret proclaimed for 2000 years

February 28, 2006

A murderous albino monk, evil power-hungry apostles, millennia-old conspiracies— the blockbuster novel and soon-to-be movie “The Da Vinci Code” seems to have it all. But its strange claims about Christ are based on writings from the Gnostics of the second century, a group who tended to see the material world as evil and thus denied that Christ truly became human. It’s wild and crazy stuff. But in my sacraments class this semester, we have been studying the writings of the early Christians —the ones that taught the true faith and fought heresies like Gnosticism —and there one can find a mystery described that is a thousand times more mysterious and astonishing than anything Dan Brown can give us!

Our first witness: St. Ignatius of Antioch, who learned at the feet of the Apostle John! Sometime around the turn of the first century he was taken to Rome to be martyred for the faith. We have seven of his letters, and in one of them he warns his flock to beware of those who have departed from the true faith and deny Christ’s Incarnation. He makes a very interesting remark: these unbelievers also “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised up again.” This is a mystery that is proclaimed throughout the writings of the early Christians: the Eucharist that they receive during worship is not simply bread and wine, but Jesus! Indeed, as Ignatius articulates here, it is the body born of Mary’s womb, nailed to the Cross, and raised from the dead by the Father! (Whoa! Pretty heavy stuff!! Yet we find this theme repeated over and over again in the early Christian writings.)

We find another fascinating testimony in that of Justin Martyr, who lived in the second century and who, like Ignatius, ultimately gave his life for his love of the Lord (hence the last name!) He got fed up with the Roman emperor persecuting Christians, so he wrote a long treatise explaining Christianity in order to dispel their misconceptions. In it one can find a section in which he describes the Sunday worship of Christians in his day, and it is amazingly identical to our worship 1800 years later: opening prayer, greeting, readings from the apostles, a sermon, prayer over bread and wine, reception of communion… even a collection for the poor! He emphasizes that not just anyone can receive this Eucharist, but only those who are baptized, live virtuous lives, and who share their beliefs. This is because when the bread and the wine have been prayed over, they are no longer “common bread and common drink” but “the flesh and blood of the same incarnate Jesus.” (See the link below to read the whole description!)

And wouldn’t it be amazing if we could go back in time and hear the Christians teach the faith to the pagans who were entering the Church? That’s exactly what we can do by reading the sermons of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, given in the late 300s to teach the faith to those who were newly baptized. He greatly stresses Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, urging them at one point to have “complete certitude that the visible bread is not bread, even if it is such to the taste, but the Body of Christ; and the visible wine is not wine, even if taste thinks it such, but the Blood of Christ.” Even though the elements retain the taste and appearance of ordinary bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit they are changed into the true Body and Blood of Christ. This is what Jesus himself taught at the Last Supper, emphasizes Cyril, so how could anyone dare deny it? Likewise, Cyril asks: if “once by his own will, Jesus changed water into wine at Cana, is he not worthy of belief when he changes wine into blood?”

This mystery is also described by the great bishop St. Augustine, who lived at the same time as Cyril. He had a very deep love of the Eucharist and encouraged the faithful to receive it every day. In his own sermon to the newly baptized, he explains, “The bread that you see on the altar and that has been sanctified by the word of God is the Body of Christ. That chalice —rather, that which the chalice contains —has been sanctified by the word of God and is the Blood of Christ… If you receive them well, you are that which you receive.” That is why Jesus gave us his Body and Blood in the Eucharist: so that in receiving this gift worthily with faith and pure hearts, we can become like the One we receive.

As final food for prayer, consider these beautiful words of St. Cyril to those who were about to receive the Eucharist for the first time. Even after all these centuries, they still apply to us today: “When you come to receive, do not approach with hands extended and fingers open wide. Rather, make of your left hand a throne for your right as it is about to receive the King, and receive the Body of Christ in the fold of your hand, responding, ‘Amen.’ … Take care that you lose not even one piece of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones.”

For more information:

The 3 paragraphs from Justin Martyr describing Sunday Worship in his time:

* A previous reflection of mine on the Eucharist: “And two become one flesh”

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