Martyrdom and the Mass: a fascinating connection

The January 2013 issue of the journal Worship includes an article by Maxwell Johnson that offers some fascinating thinking about the eucharistic prayer that we hear recited Sunday after Sunday at Mass and how a crucial piece of it got there in the first place.

‘Words of Consecration’

The eucharistic prayer is at the heart of the Mass, “the center and summit of the entire celebration” (as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal puts it).  One important part of it is the institution narrative. Addressing God the Father, the priest recites briefly the story of the Last Supper. It goes this way, for example, in Eucharistic Prayer II:

At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion, he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body which will be given up for you.’

In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice and, once more giving thanks, hegave it to his disciples, saying: ‘Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new andeternal covenant, which will bepoured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in memory of me.’

This has long played a crucial and — it was long understood — essential role in the eucharistic prayer. Catholics (for several centuries) have understood it to be the moment in which the sacrament was “confected,” when the body and blood of Jesus truly became present, and without which no sacrament happened. Those words of Jesus as recited by the priest are still often called “the words of consecration.”

So it’s a little amazing that it was almost certainly absent from the eucharistic prayers used in the first three centuries of the life of the Church. There is now nearly a consensus among the liturgical historians about this. Generations of Christians celebrated the Eucharist without ever mentioning those words of Jesus or recounting the story of his leading the the Last Supper.

Indeed, even today the Eucharist is celebrated without the “words of consecration” by the faithful of the Assyrian Church of the East, which uses a eucharistic prayer that dates from the early days of the Church and so does not include an institution narrative. The Catholic Church formally acknowledges the validity of this Eucharist and permits Catholics of the Chaldean rite to participate in it. (What a strong reminder that we must be very cautious about what we take to be “orthodox” Catholic faith and what we reject as not.)

‘The Cessation of Martyrdom’

All of this is the context, not the point, of Maxwell Johnson’s article in January’s Worship. Johnson (a professor of liturgical studies at Notre Dame) tries to identify one possible reason that the institution narrative came to be included in the eucharistic prayer when it did. He suggests that what brought this development about might well have been the end of the period of severe persecutions of the early Church — the end of the age of martyrdom.

During those early centuries, Johnson explains, the Church’s eucharistic prayers focused a great deal on the nourishment, life, and even immortality that the eucharist provides to Christians. When martyrdom was common, Christians did not need to be reminded that their faith meant sacrifice, even of their very lives. It was all too clear. But by the mid-third century, as the persecutions stopped and Christianity became widely accepted in society, to be a Christian was not so dangerous or demanding; on the contrary, it came to be more an expectation, a matter of course. And, as in our own day (in the western world, anyway), bishops and priests might well have judged that Christians needed to be challenged to take their faith more seriously and live it more fully.

Johnson suggests that this factor may have played an important role in how and why the institution narrative — with Jesus speaking of his followers partaking of his body to be given up and his blood to be shed — worked its way into the eucharistic prayer. He writes:

The sacrifical connotations and implications of adding the narrative of institution to the eucharistic prayer may well be directly related also to the cessation of martyrdom, by emphasizing the very cost of discipleship implied by sharing the cup of Christ in the Eucharist, that is, both the public liturgy [martyrdom] and reception in holy communion of the body and blood of Christ sacrificed!

Making the argument more compelling, Johnson points out that scholars already recognize the end of the age of martyrdom as having had a similar effect on the Church’s practice and theology of baptism. For the first several centuries, baptism was understood primarily as a spiritual re-birth, as a singular moment of becoming a child of God. The primary scriptural passages associated with the sacrament during that time were the accounts of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan (with the words of the Father coming from heaven, “This is my beloved son”), along with John 3:5. It was only later, in the fourth century, that Romans 6, featuring Paul’s theology of baptism as a dying and rising with Christ, became a key reference for understanding the meaning of the sacrament, probably because the faithful needed reminding that being a Christian was (supposed to be) serious business.

Johnson’s article is titled “Martyrs and the Mass: The Interpolation of the Narrative of Institution into the Anaphora.” It provides more supporting argumentation than I note here. It also offers some fascinating background information about the place that devotion to the martyrs played in the early Church that alone makes the article well worth the time.

For ongoing nourishment in liturgical history and theology, there’s no better place to go than the journal Worship.

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