The Early Eucharist:
How Was It Experienced?
by Joseph P. Mullin Jr.
This article is reprinted from the 14 January 2021 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, with the kind permission of the editor, Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ.
The Eucharist many Christians experience today has its roots in historical and cultural practices no longer shared by contemporary society.
Described in texts of the Early Christian period, the Eucharist was similar to meal customs of the Greco-Roman world, comprising certain set elements while allowing the presider and the assembly considerable flexibility.
Several sources from the time — the Didache, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian — describe the various sections of the ceremony.
To be sure, the words of ceremony matter.
But ceremonial words are sterile absent a sensory and cultural context.
Moreover, these accounts provide simply the formulae of a procedure and at best only approximate the entire sensory celebration that the Early Christians experienced.
What was a "house church" and what was it like to meet there during periods of persecution?
How was the Eucharist a meal?
Was there music or singing?
In short, what comprised the elemental experience of celebrating the Eucharist in the Early Christian period?
While recognizing that the Eucharist was not fully codified and that its celebration was very much influenced by local custom, we may consider some broad possibilities of how the early (100-300 AD) Eucharist might have been experienced and reflect on how such customs may inform our current liturgical practice.
Greco-Roman Meal Customs
Modern scholars believe that while Jewish and early Christian communities were "exclusivist" and elected to separate from the pagan practices surrounding them, they were nevertheless sharers in the broader Greco-Roman culture; interplay existed between them.1
Much of the theological basis of the Eucharist derives from Jewish custom and/or from an Early Christian understanding of "The Last Supper."
Each offers complementary and possibly linked antecedents to what we have come to describe as the Thanksgiving Meal, or Love Feast (Agape).
Indeed, the earliest accounts of the Christian meal do not necessarily differentiate between the "Agape" meal and a sacramental Eucharist.
In most cases these were synonymous activities and only later came to be separated.2
Nonetheless, especially during and immediately after the first century AD, many of the table customs reflected the broader Greco-Roman culture to include nearly identical meal practices associated with common or familial gatherings.3
The earliest sources indicate that the early Christians met in homes to share in the common meal.
These homes, also known as "house churches," were prevalent in the first two centuries of the early Church and afforded protection and secrecy as well as space for small communities.
Some of these locations were free-standing houses (domæ) or apartments (insulæ), or in some cases, places associated with baths or above bathhouses that afforded sufficient and accessible space.
A shift occurred in the late 200s and early 300s as small or even moderate houses were not large enough to accommodate the growing numbers of Christians.4
In the Greco-Roman world, many people congregated in organized groups, sodalities, or societies of tradesmen, workers, and others of various affinities.
The early Christians were not unusual in seeking to establish similar groups for meeting and socializing.
Unlike other religions or cults, however, whose communities met in public spaces or temples, the Christian communities' separation in many ways contrasted with the civic life of the Roman world, which viewed religion as a communal and social act, not a private affair.5 6
While exceptions largely based on class existed, Greco-Roman society — including the early Christians — ate meals in a house triclinium, a room twice as long as wide, named from the three reclining couches (triclinia) where guests gathered.
Only slaves or children in a polite Roman household ate sitting, and this usually on stools.
Men and woman ate together, at times side by side.7
The triclinia were sloped so that the guests could reach for the food arranged along a central table.
Hosts and guests reclined or stood along hierarchical arrangements with the most preferred position being the lectus medius, across from the central table.
People ate with their hands, much as it is still done in most of the Near East today.8
Greco-Roman meal customs were not entirely rigid in form; variation in foods and local traditions informed regional practices.
Nonetheless, common themes existed and an ordered structure which many scholars believe applied to the early Christian common Eucharist: a) meal, and b) celebration.
The Eucharist was indeed a meal.
Early Christian writings as well as the New Testament refer to the common gathering as a deipnon or cena.
The celebration initially was a substantial, late afternoon or evening supper.
Depending on where they lived, along the coast or further inland, the economically advantaged had access to a wide variety of foods; the common person consumed only bread, wine, and the occasional piece of fish or meat.
Bread was usually unleavened as baking bread with fermentation took not only yeast, but time: luxuries the common person did not possess.
Wine was rustic, abundant, and, as water was often not potable, routinely drunk to quench thirst, to provide nutrition, and as part of meal customs.
Wine was stored in amphoræ and frequently mixed with water in a krater, or mixing bowl, before being consumed.
Falanghina, Greco di Tufo, or Aglianco (wines produced to this day in Campania) are closely related to the Falernian wine prized by the Romans.
Some early Christian writings suggest that other foods such as fish, milk, cheese, and vegetables may also have been part of the general Eucharist meal, underscoring that the Early Christians blessed both their common gathering and all the associated foods.
The Didache, Chapter 10, for example, offers prayers following the meal with the words, "after you have eaten your fill."9 10
Some suggest that Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:22) to eat in their own homes first was not so much about the paucity of the Eucharistic meal as much as it was advising those who had eaten better and substantial fare not to highlight this disparity when joining the common meal.
As the Eucharist grew into something ritualized and partially distinct from the common meal itself, these more substantial foods became largely part of the common meal alone.
It was the bread and cup that were critical and significant.
For many today, simple bread and wine are secondary to the meal, but for the average inhabitant of the Roman world, they were elemental — and central.
For the Early Christians, they assumed added sacramental significance.11
The deipnon common meal was followed by the symposion.
The symposion was more than a "drinking party."
The participants not only drank wine in celebration, but in ritual: wine was both a beverage and the element of libation, a "pouring out" in religious practice in honor of the gods.
The early Eucharist very much contained the symposion as part of its ritual.
Singing, in various forms, was part of the gathering.
One source describes "after the meal … the children shall sing psalms, along with the virgins."12
Tertullian writes that after the meal, "each is invited to sing publicly to God."13
These evening hymns may have resembled the Oxyrhynchus hymn14 or even the Phos Hilaron which is still sung today at the Orthodox evening Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified.
Various Christian sources combine both the deipnon and the symposion while others have the symposion preceding the deipnon.
Regardless of the ordering, in the earliest Christian Eucharist, the symposion section of the meal was the place of song, readings, and discourse and likely the place where the ritual cup of wine was offered and shared.15
Initially indistinguishable from the agape or common meal, into the 200s, the Eucharist became more ritualized, separated from the weekly (or more frequent) gatherings of the community.
As the Christian communities grew, the intimacy of small house churches gave way to larger venues and with it, a change in the structure and form of the gatherings.
While some groups maintained the evening meal and within it a Eucharistic celebration, other communities, such as those in Rome, abandoned the deipnon entirely.
Justin writes of a morning ritual: "we all make assembly together on Sunday morning"; apparently separate from or perhaps not even associated with an earlier evening meal, where the community distributes only the Eucharistic bread and wine on a Sunday morning.16
By the middle of the third century a full Eucharistic rite was being celebrated — in the morning — in North Africa.
Evening meals persisted in some places, but many communities adopted a separate Eucharistic celebration in the mornings where no meal was provided but consecrated bread only was distributed.17
By the fourth century and after the Edict of Milan, house churches and the common meal had given way to vast basilicas and a public cult.
The Eucharist retained its original elements but in modified ways, adapted the intimate Greco-Roman meal customs to new forms of liturgical expression.
These forms largely aped the Imperial Court, to include innovations such as incense, ceremonial fans, and processions.
The Eucharist was, by the mid-third century, "a residual memory of its former domestic setting" and increasingly no longer seen as food to be consumed but as an object of devotion.18
Catholics view the Eucharist in a variety of ways.
Underscoring the Real Presence, some may come to the Blessed Sacrament in prayer and adoration.
Some may also see the gathering of the People of God in celebration on Sunday as a continuation of the Early Church assembly.
As Church structures become increasingly difficult to sustain financially and as parishes contract in size and scope, parishoners may find again an intimacy within smaller communities.
With fewer priests available to celebrate the Eucharist and parish church settings reduced, perhaps there will be a renewal of and a partial return to house churches, where the Eucharist is not celebrated by a priest, but distributed by a deacon in a Communion service.
In the early Church, for example, householders who hosted the Eucharist may have been expected to preside at the meal, suggesting those chosen from any of three potential groups might have led the gathering: appointed officials; those possessing "charismatic" authority; and those of status capable of being patrons or hosts.
Some scholars note that "women as well as men may have undertaken all these roles, at least in the first century and probably later."19
Already in many parts of the world — to include the United States — local communities, where a priest is absent or infrequent, are maintaining their faith in ways similar to the early house churches.
As the community prayer adapts to these situations, our liturgical Eucharist may as well.
We may envision a new role for deacons, male and female, where service to these communities may more closely resemble those found in the early Church.
As Pope John Paul II encouraged, "… tradition to be embodied in different cultural and historical situations and conditions …
Tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful …"20
- "The Origin of the Weekly Gathering in the Early Church," in The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries, by Valeriy A. Alikin, Brill, LEIDEN; BOSTON, 2010, pp. 17-78. JSTOR. Accessed 18 May 2020.
- Bradshaw, Paul F. (2002). The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Bradshaw, Paul F., and Johnson, Maxwell E. (2012). The Eucharistic Liturgies. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
- Carcopino, Jerome (1979). Daily Life in Ancient Rome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Didache. New Advent Catholic Website.
- Fox, Robin Lane. (1987). Pagans and Christians. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
- John Paul II, "Orientale Lumen." The Holy See 02 May 1995, Vatican.va.
- Justin, First Apologia. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.
- McGowan, Andrew B. (2014). Ancient Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press.
- Quasten, Johannes (1984). Patrology. Allen, TX: Christian Classics
- Tertullian, Apologia. New Advent Catholic Website.
- Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 22-23.
- Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Press, 2014), 34.
- Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Eucharistic Liturgies (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 24.
- McGowan, Worship, 48-52.
- Valeriy A. Alikin, "The Origin of the Weekly Gathering in the Early Church," in The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries, 17-78. LEIDEN; BOSTON: Brill, 2010. Accessed June 27, 2020. JSTOR.
- Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 89.
- McGowan, Worship, 21.
- Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 265-269.
- Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1984), 32.
- Didache. New Advent Catholic Website.
- McGowan, Worship, 35; 41-43.
- McGowan, Worship, 36; 116.
- Tertullian, Apologia. New Advent Catholic Website. 39; 18.
- Quasten, Patrology, 159.
- Bradshaw and Johnson, Liturgies, 17.
- Justin, First Apologia. New Advent Catholic Website. Chapter 67.
- Bradshaw and Johnson, Liturgies, 17; 30.
- Bradshaw and Johnson, Liturgies, 63-67.
- McGowan, Worship, 40-41.
- John Paul II, "Orientale Lumen." The Holy See (02 May 1995, Vatican.va.
Article written 14 January 2021
Mr. Mullin earned a BA in Philosophy and Classics at Saint Louis University and later studied Organizational Theory at Templeton College, Oxford.
He served 27 years with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), became a member of the Senior Intelligence Service (General Rank Officers), and was awarded the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. He currently resides in Savannah, GA and is completing his MA in Theology at Saint Leo University in preparation for ordination as a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Savannah.
Copyright © 2021 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner.