Thursday, 21 April 2011

Liturgy Historicised

As we approach Maundy Thursday, the night of Jesus' Last Supper, I thought I'd post a few reflections on the development of the tradition.

The form of words in modern liturgies varies a little between denominations, but follows, more or less, the pattern in the Anglican Common Worship; there we find the words:

who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread and gave you thanks; he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

In the same way, after supper he took the cup and gave you thanks; he gave it to them, saying: Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

This follows very closely the earliest account of the liturgy which is found in the letter of Paul to the church at Corinth, writing about 55 AD, about twenty two years after the crucifixion:

For I received from the Lord the teaching that I passed on to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a piece of bread, gave thanks to God, broke  it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you. Do this in memory of me."  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup and said, "This cup is God's new covenant, sealed with my blood. Whenever you drink it, do so in memory of me." This means that every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1Corinthians 11:23-26)

Given the strong links between Luke's Gospel, Acts, and the Pauline ministry, it is not surprising that the version in the Gospel of Luke resembles this most strongly:

Then he took a piece of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in memory of me." In the same way, he gave them the cup after the supper, saying, "This cup is God's new covenant sealed with my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20)

The gospels, of course, come a considerable time after the letter of Paul, and the earliest, Mark (written probably some time between AD 64 and 69), has a version which differs in a significant details:

While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. "Take it," he said, "this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God, and handed it to them; and they all drank from it. Jesus said, "This is my blood which is poured out for many, my blood which seals God's covenant. I tell you, I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God." Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:22-26)

Because of the way in which the reader often reads back into a text a later liturgical tradition, the differences between this and the Pauline account are not often noticed. But in both Paul and Luke (who seems to be following this earlier tradition), there is a hiatus between the bread and the wine. The breaking of the bread occurs within the context meal, and it is "after the supper" that the wine is given.

But while the later liturgy mentions the Pauline account, it actually follows the Marcan narrative - in which the wine follows on from the bread immediately, with no reference to "after the supper" - and the communicants takes bread, then wine, one after the other. Moreover only the Paul / Lucan narrative has the "do this in memory" text.

The gospel of Matthew also follows the Marcan narrative, with the eating of the bread bread and partaking of the wine following immediately after each other:

While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of  thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. "Take and eat it," he said; "this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. "Drink it, all of you," he said; "this is my blood, which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father's Kingdom." (Matthew 26:26-29)

It is likely that the Marcan narrative, taken over by Matthew, reflects a later liturgical practice which was in use when the gospels were given; Luke uses an earlier and more primitive source. Both Mark and Matthew conflate the bread and wine into a consecutive act - this is most likely to be the actual liturgical practice feeding back into the historical narrative and distorting it. To adapt an idea from Dominic Crossan, we might call this "liturgy historicised".

We see a similar but contrasting historical development, in the Western tradition where the practice of baptism / confirmation was split apart in time.

Unfortunately history has left little clues as to early liturgical practice after the gospels. The Didache, an early 2nd century book giving guidelines for the Christian community, simply mentions "eat or drink of your Eucharist" without giving any actual forms, although it does give prayers over the wine and bread before the communicants took the bread and wine:

Celebrate the Eucharist as follows: Say over the cup: "we give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever".

Over the broken bread say: "we give you thanks, Father, for the life and the knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever. As this broken bread scattered on the mountains was gathered and became one, so too, may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. For glory and power are yours through Jesus Christ for ever".

It is not until we get to Justin Martyr, much later in 2nd century, that we have a more detailed form, which reflects the Marcan narrative rather than the Pauline one.

Indeed, the Apostles, in the records left by them which are called gospels, handed on that it was commanded to them in this manner: Jesus, having taken bread and given thanks said, ``Do this in memory of me, this is my body.'' Likewise, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, ``This is my blood'', and he gave it to them alone.

By the time we reach the Homilies of Ephraim, dating from around 338-373 AD, there is a whole panoply of ceremonial - mixing of water and wine, signing the cup,

After the disciples had eaten the new and holy Bread, and when they understood by faith they had eaten of Christ's body, Christ went on to explain and to give them the whole Sacrament. He took and mixed a cup of wine. Then He blessed it, and signed it, and made it holy, declaring that it was His own Blood, which was about to be poured out . . . Christ commanded them to drink, and He explained to them that the cup which they were drinking was His own Blood: `This is truly My Blood, which is shed for all of you. Take, all of you, drink of this, because it is a new covenant in My Blood. As you have seen me do, do you also in My memory. whenever you gather together in My name in Churches everywhere, do what I have done, in memory of Me. Eat My body, and drink My Blood.'

Where the mixing of wine and water come from is uncertain, although the pre-existent Wisdom in Proverbs 9:1-5 has the verse "Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.". Moreover the Talmud - the oral traditions of the Jews  - dating from about 200 BC to AD 200 - includes an instruction concerning wine in Shabbath 77a, which states that wine which does not carry at least 3 parts of water is not wine, and the Rabbinical tradition taught that wine, unless mixed with water, could not be blessed. So although there is no evidence for this in the early narratives, it would have been such an accepted part of Judaism at the time of Jesus as to go unmentioned; wine was simply not drunk without water.

As this is also found as commonplace in the ancient world as well - "We call a mixture wine, though the larger of the component parts is water" says Plutarch - it is very likely that it would have been part of the primitive tradition. Unlike other Jewish traditions which are mentioned in the gospels where they address a gentile audience, this would have been so much a part of the common culture as to not need that kind of explanation.

On the other hand, the term "signed it", by this stage, almost certainly had its modern form of making the sign of the cross, as we know from AD 303 that the Christians had been observed making the sign of the cross by pagan priests celebrating imperial sacrifices, for which they were blamed for the failure of the sacrifices, and the Diocletian persecution began. It is, of course,  completely anachronistic, and shows how far liturgy had developed from the original historical tradition.

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