Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Mass of the early Christians, according to St. Justin Martyr

Sometime between A.D. 153 and 155, a man now called St. Justin Martyr, who had studied pagan philosophy before converting to Christianity, wrote a long letter addressed to the Roman Emperor and others, in defense of the persecuted Christian faith.

I, Justin, present this address and petition.... We demand that the charges against the Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve; or rather, indeed, we ourselves will punish them. But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men.

There followed an explanation of Christianity, ending with St. Justin's description of what exactly Christians do when they come together on Sundays to worship God. There are many references to Christian worship in the New Testament (the last book of which was written in the A.D. 90's), but St. Justin's letter is extremely important because it's the first detailed account. It's quoted in the Office of Readings today, which reminded me that I've always wanted to blog it. Here's the excerpt:

No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen.” The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our saviour Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.

I love that reading so much.  We have communion with the Christians who have gone before. :)

Growing up Evangelical, I was taught and believed that the early Church was very pure, kept so by constant persecution that weeded out the insincere, but then around A.D. 300 it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and everybody jumped on board, and certain doctrinal and moral corruptions began to creep in, accumulating over the centuries like barnacles on a ship's hull, until the Protestants scraped 'em off at the Reformation. But those Christians in the first few centuries after Christ, they were the real deal, willing to die for the faith.  So, judging from this early Christian document, what did the early Christians believe?

1) Bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ ("becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus").

2) This happens at the moment when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper are repeated ("by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving").

3) Not just anyone can make this happen, but only successors of the apostles ("The apostles handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do.... The Lord gave this command to them alone." The apostles were dead by St. Justin's time, so he had to mean that their appointed successors were carrying out the command.)

And that is just what Catholics believe today, and just how they worship: the priest, successor to the Apostles, prays using the words of Jesus ("This is my body.... This is my blood"), and bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

But St. Justin could have been mistaken, so what does the Bible say about all this?  It records that Jesus repeatedly emphasized that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6), even though this insistence lost him most of his followers ("How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?").  Then Jesus demonstrated what he meant at the Last Supper, which Catholics teach was the first Mass (Mark 14).  And St. Paul warned that those who receive Holy Communion unworthily are guilty of profaning Jesus' body and blood, which is such a serious crime that some have even been put to death by God for it (1 Cor 11).

Protestants believe that the bread and wine are only symbols of the Body and Blood.  Catholics agree that this is the case in Protestant churches, since they lack the priesthood, so the disagreement is whether anything more than symbolic happens at a Catholic Mass.  Protestants give their arguments for their interpretation, and Catholics give their counter-arguments.  I think that if you look at the Bible with no preconceptions, believing that God can do any incredible miracle He pleases, then the most obvious interpretation is that when Jesus and Paul said the bread and wine are His body and blood, they meant it.  But it is possible to adopt the Protestant interpretation.  I don't think the argument can be completely settled from the Bible alone.

That right there is a problem for Protestants, at least for Sola Scriptura Protestants like I was, since they believe by definition that every important question about the faith can be settled from the Bible alone.  But if this teaching of the Eucharist is true, then their faith is lacking something incredibly important.  So they have to believe that it's clear from the Bible that Jesus and Paul were using a metaphor.  And that's definitely not the case. Generations of Christians from St. Justin to the present day have believed the words literally and organized their whole worship around it.  How could they, if it's so clearly a metaphor?

St. Justin says where Christians got the belief: "The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do.... Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things." The last apostle was St. John the Evangelist, who died in the A.D. 90's.  So the teaching of the Eucharist was carefully passed on, from the apostles to their successors, till St. Justin's time in A.D. 150. Is it really likely that Christians, guarding and preserving the true Faith even at the cost of their lives, would have gone so wrong so fast on such an important point? Is it likely that the Apostles believed the Eucharist was just a symbol, and taught everyone that, but the Christians who followed, while constantly reminding each other of the Apostles' teaching, managed to twist the belief completely around in only sixty years?

Well, that turned into a big ol' apologetics post, not that that's a bad thing. :)

Raphael's Dispute at the Eucharist
As for me, all this about the Eucharist actually wasn't why I became Catholic. I had already decided to do so on other grounds, and when I read the Catholic arguments for transubstantiation it was just another confirmation of the decision. It took time for the importance of the Real Presence to grow in my heart. The Eucharist is called "the source and summit of the Christian life", and when I first read that I thought it must be just a rhetorical statement.  It isn't.

St. Justin Martyr and a group of other Christians were put on trial in A.D. 165. You can read their incredibly brave defense here. After their questioning, the trial ended like this:

The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.



JMJDave said...

Awesome post Rachel!

Warren said...

I chose Justin as my confirmation name, when I went through RCIA, because of his story, and because of my similar fascination with the early church. My discovery of its Catholicity was of course a part of my conversion. But really, another part was the sad, dilapidated, and hopelessly lost character of protestantism, my belief that it is not only incomplete, in its various forms it represents a search for an exit from a series of dead-end streets.

You have mainline protestantism, lost in liberalism, you have traditional 20th century fundamentalism, its shortcomings I need hardly detail, you have the feel-good style of evangelicalism, which lacks intellectual depth and historical integrity, and is easily shifted by every little wind that blows, you have recent phenomenons like emergent-church, that wears anything it likes, as clothing for its nakedness, even pseudo-catholicity.

Who have I left out? The protestant Charismatics make even the Evangelicals look like intellectuals.

There are many devout Christians out there among our separated brethren, but the whole structure of protestantism is tottering.

There is no harbor, no safe place, but upon this Rock, the rock upon which Jesus founded his Church.
Anything else is sinking sand.


Rachel Gray said...

It does seem that Protestantism in this country is in trouble, especially in the mainline denominations that are hemorrhaging members. But the Catholic church is hemorrhaging too. Second biggest denomination in the U.S.: former Catholics. Our problem is just masked by Hispanic immigration keeping the numbers level. There seems to be an ongoing loss of faith among all Christians in this country, caused, I suspect, by the immorality in our lives. The Catholic Church is founded on a rock, but I think the visible troubles of both Catholicism and Protestantism have less to do with wrong doctrine than with plain old sinful disobedience. "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God"-- obey first, then you'll know. We're easily deceived because we don't obey.

For myself I wasn't aware of any spiritual lack in my own church, or Protestantism in general, until I began to read up on Catholicism. But even then I didn't begin to go deeper on a spiritual level until, after months of searching, I found an awesome parish that cared enough to preach the whole Faith. So many priests wimp out and so many Catholics are disobedient-- there's lots of need for greater fidelity in all the Christian denominations.

Warren said...

We need to become Saints, is what it boils down to.



Rachel Gray said...


You first. :)

Gary Keith Chesterton said...

Well done, lass.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Growing up Evangelical, I was taught and believed that the early Church was very pure, kept so by constant persecution that weeded out the insincere, but then it became the official religion of the Roman Empire...Thanks so much for explaining that. I have never understood what Protestants believe about the early Church, and that was very illuminating for me. So interesting!

Anonymous said...

how do you learn so much of the Catholic faith - I love your blog. I don't think many life-long catholics have so much understanding and knowledge of the faith.

Rachel Gray said...

GKC, Jennifer, Anon, thank you very much! I have warm fuzzies now.

Anon, I like to read a lot, articles on the internet as well as books.


Anonymous said...

The food we eat is transformed into our flesh and blood. It takes a lot of faith in the goodness of God -His willingness to give you His perfect joy- to accept that He wants for us to have no less than His very Self. He gave Himself to us, that we may have Him. Meaning as our true Identity, otherwise we would not have Him, meaning that He would not have given Himself to us.

So it is that with this faith, as St. Justin Martyr wrote, that:

"the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus".

As St. Augustine writes:

"Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God's grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ."

St. John of the Cross writes:

"What God seeks, he being himself God by nature, is to make us gods through participation, just as fire converts all things into fire."
~Sayings of Light and Love, 107