Module Five: The Sacraments sample essay

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Trace the development of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist from the early church with special reference to how it is understood and celebrated in the Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Assignment: 3. Trace the development of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist from the early church with special reference to how it is understood and celebrated in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. We all have experience of ‘celebration’. When I think of a celebration what comes to mind are the external factors, the cake, candles, and the food. Sometimes we forget the real meaning of celebration, the story behind the festivity. The celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist is where we find our story.

This essay will outline the development of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist from the Early Church, paying particular focus on how the Eucharist is celebrated in the church since the Second Vatican Council. Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church celebrate something, and that something is to do with God’s love and grace, experienced and related to one’s own story. (CCRS notes). Vatican II’s desire was to restore the sacraments back to the centre of Church life. The earliest celebration of the Eucharist were home Masses (Acts 2:46 says ‘they broke bread at home’) even with small numbers these early Christians were establishing the traditions for the future. There is clear evidence of Christ in the Eucharist. There is clear evidence of his unconditional love. What makes the bread sacred is not magic but the reality of the words. (Huebsch 1989).

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”(Corinthians 11:23-30) The bread and wine for the early Christians was much more than a meal, it was a coming together of the community of God, each time a reference is made about the bread or the wine it is a reference to the people of God. For Huebsch the early Christians like us today are accepting the whole community of God when receiving communion, all his people with their strengths and weakness. An important development for the celebration of the Eucharist was the movement from the ‘home Mass’ of the very early Church to the Eucharist of the larger public buildings. The large basilicas allowed for processions. Sunday became a holiday, giving more time for Christians to celebrate.

Liturgies became longer and more elaborate. In these early days, the celebrant at the liturgy had considerable freedom to compose their own prayers for the Mass. Soon, however, standardisation set in, as the various communities began to adopt the prayers of their more articulate celebrants. (Kellly:1998) In the Fourth century, Constantine’s toleration of Christianity (313) led to its rapid spread throughout the Roman Empire. This led to significant changes in the celebration of the Liturgy. Latin became the standard language of the liturgy. At first, the assemblies met in basilicas later they built and dedicated churches and the clergy grew in numbers. During this era, they began to wear special clerical clothes. The sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist grew in importance, while the meal symbolism faded into the background (Kelly: 1998).

This period stressed Christ’s divinity; this led to the people feeling less worthy to approach the Lord. As a result, there was a decline in the reception of communion. Theologians in the Middle Ages debated the meaning of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. They used the term transubstantiation to describe the mystery of the bread and wine being changed into Jesus’ risen body and blood. The stress was on the sacrificial nature of the mass. There was a growing sense that the laity were spectators to a drama unfolding on the altar. This led to a feeling that the consecration was the high point of the Mass. Emphasis fell, not on receiving Jesus in communion, but on seeing and adoring the Eucharistic Lord. Since fewer laity were receiving communion, a small round wafer (called host) substituted the traditional loaf of bread. (CCRS notes). As so few were receiving Holy Communion, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) passed a law that required Catholics to receive communion at least once a year. Practices that focused on Eucharistic devotion began to appear.

These included Elevation of the Host and chalice at Mass. The priest had his back to the people, he had to hold the host and chalice up high. People would sometimes call out, “Hold it higher, priest.” Some were so keen on this practice they would run from one church to another just to be there for the moment of consecration! (O’Deasss 2013) .The Eucharistic prayer was recited silently by the priest except for the words of consecration which were voiced a little louder but not so loud as to be heard by the people because the people couldn’t hear the Eucharistic prayer, and even if they could they would not understand the Latin, many filled in the time by reciting the rosary or other devotional prayers during Mass. (O’Deasss 2013) The sixteenth century brought about the Protestant Reformation.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) met to correct some of the abuses that had crept into the Church. It also defended some Catholic beliefs attacked by the Reformers. In the area of the Eucharist, the church fathers reaffirmed the real presence of Jesus and the adequacy of the theological term, transubstantiation. They also defended the sacrificial nature of the Mass against the Reformers. Most significantly, Pope Pius V published a Roman Missal (1570) to bring uniformity to the official ritual. The Church then used this for the next four hundred years. (CCRS notes) Since the reform of 1570, a lot more was discovered about the Eucharist of the early Church and this enabled Vatican II to restore the liturgy more accurately to the traditions that had been lost.

Vatican II’s key document the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) led to the renewal of all the Sacraments. Important changes that we take for granted today include the following; celebrating the Mass in the vernacular language so we can understand more fully what it means; the Liturgy of the Word has greater importance; Guidelines instruct the homilist to develop the homily based on the readings. The Sunday readings revolve around a three-year cycle; this emphasis has helped Catholics discover the scriptures. The altar now faces the people, this invites a clearer understanding of what is going on at the Eucharist, and it also symbolically opens the Mass to fuller participation by all those present. Today’s Mass includes the Prayer of the Faithful, which links the Eucharistic worship to the whole church, the world, and the suffering in the community. Active congregational participation is an important feature of the post-Vatican II liturgy.

Before, we commonly spoke of “attending Mass.” Today, we emphasise, “celebrating the Eucharist.” The Mass is not a private affair. It is public worship in which the community, led by the priest, joins in thanking, praising, and adoring God together. The laity assumes many ministerial roles today, for example, as readers, Eucharistic ministers, choir members, greeters, and gift bearers. Vatican II wished to make the Eucharist a celebration of the entire community. Many of the reforms help us better understand the symbolism and meaning of the mass. They also help us gather together as a worshipping community. (Kelly 1998). Pope John Paul 11 mentioned this vital connection when he stated: “the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.”

The council did encourage changes in the liturgy. However, many people have misinterpreted this message and have down played the importance of the Eucharist in the Church and in our personal lives. Some members of the Church will claim that this council stated that the Eucharist is merely a symbol, thus denying the Real Presence. On the contrary, almost every Vatican II document speaks of the Real Presence, and implies that we need to increase our devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. “Really sharing in the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with him and with one another.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 1963)

This essay has traced the development and celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist from the early Christian Church and has demonstrated that the focus at this time was sharing, participating, celebrating and making a personal connection with God. It has also explained that since the establishment and development of the early Catholic Church, the real meaning of the Eucharist was lost and people no longer felt connected to the sacraments. They were observers in the church rather than taking an active role. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church attempted to involve the people and encourage them to experience Jesus’ real presence through the sacrament.

“In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith. Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” (1327 Catechism) The celebration of the Eucharist is a call, a call of the risen Christ who continues to give himself to us calling us to his banquet, through this celebration we can participate in our faith more richly. As Pope Benedict explained so passionately: “I encourage you all to discover ever more fully in the sacrament of Christ’s sacrificial love” (Paclva 2013).

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Geoffrey Chapman.1994. CCRS notes
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 1963
Good News Bible, Second edition 1994
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) 1963 O’Deasss,F: Eucharist the basic spiritually, 2013 Huebsch, B: Rethinking the sacraments, London, 1989

Pacliva, M: The Eucharist: A Bible study for Catholics, USA, 2013 Kelly, L: Sacraments Revisited, What do they mean today, 1998