Introduction to Medieval Christian Liturgy
II. 2 The Eucharist (Mass)



I. The Origins of the Mass

The central Christian ritual is the Eucharist (also called the Mass). Through the Eucharist, Christians ritually participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. The origins of this ritual are to be found in first Christians use of Passover rituals and stories to interpret Jesus of Nazareth's death. Passover (Hebrew: pesach, Latin: pascha) is a yearly commemoration of God's rescuing the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and his bringing them to the land he had promised them in Palestine. According to the Passover myth, on the night that the Deity planned to visit destruction on Egypt by killing the first-born male of every family unit, whether animal or human, he ordered the Hebrews to slaughter lambs and then sprinkle the lambs' blood on the lintels of their doors. Doing so would avert the avenging power of death and thereby save their sons.

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, 'Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children.' (Exodus 12: 21-24)

In Antiquity, therefore, Passover was marked by the sacrifice of lambs the day before the multiple-day feast began, lambs which were then eaten in each household during a highly ritualized meal.

Another important part of the Passover meal was unleavened bread. In fact, the only bread the Jewish people were allowed to eat during the festival was unleavened.

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. (Exodus 12: 14-15)

These two primary Passover rituals (the slaughtering of lambs and the eating of unleavened bread within the context of the Passover meals) became the principal means through which early Christians interpreted Jesus of Nazareth's death.

For Christians, Jesus became the cosmic passover lamb whose blood both rescued them from the slavery of sin and warded off the power of death. They were the people who had come through the ordeal, who had washed themselves in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 7: 14). The author of the Gospel of John expressed this interpretation by placing Jesus' crucifixion at the same time as the slaughter of the Passover lambs, the day before the festival began. In the synoptic traditions (Matthew, Mark, Luke) the authors have Jesus executed after the festival begins not before. They accomplish the same interpretation as the Johannine author not by having Jesus slaughtered at the same time as the lambs but by making Jesus' last supper with his disciples the first Passover meal.

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.' (Luke 22: 7-8)

During the meal, Jesus performed the actions that would become central to the Mass: the taking of unleavened bread and wine, the offering of a thanksgiving over them, the tearing apart of the bread, the sharing of the bread and wine.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the convenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.' (Matthew 26: 26-29)

In either case, it is clear that it is through Passover rituals and stories that Jesus' execution is to be understood. In the Johannine tradition Jesus himself becomes the paschal lamb. In the synoptic traditions the unleavened paschal bread becomes Jesus' body.

These traditions, written down late in the first century, bear witness to the earliest Christian practices concerning the Eucharist. It appears that in the context of a highly ritualized meal the group's leader would take up bread and wine, give thanks to the Deity, tear the bread apart and then share it with the others. The term Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. This ritual blessing of bread and wine was usually performed within the context of a meal called the agape. To eat food sacrificed to the gods is to celebrate communion with the gods. To eat together is to celebrate communion with one another. (Witness the continued importance of Thanksgiving dinner in North American culture.) The early Christian Eucharist in the context of the agape celebrated Christian unity with each other and with the divine by means of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

We have an invaluable glimpse of these eucharistic meals within a generation after Jesus' passion in a letter that Paul of Taursus wrote to one of his more difficult creations, the Church of Corinth. It seems that the Corinthian Christians were out of control and that even their order of worship was disordered.

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it....When you com together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new convenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11: 17-18, 20-29)

Paul goes on to interpret the failure of the Deity to protect the Corinthians from death and disease as a result of their disordered celebration of the eucharistic ritual. In general, these celebrations of the agape were secretive affairs, mysteries at which only the fully initiated Christian could attend. Early in the third century, Perpetua mentioned the agape in her account of her imprisonment before her execution. It is clear from her account that she had not been admitted to the agape before her baptism. By the second and third centuries these eucharistic rituals took place in houses that had been converted to cultic use such as the house-church in the border town of Dura Europas. As numbers grew, and perhaps in response to problems with meals for the entire community with their attendant criticisms such as those found in Paul's letter cited above, it seems likely that, occasionally at least, Christians separated out the blessing and sharing of bread and wine (the Eucharist) from the context of a full meal (agape).

By the fourth century, the Eucharist, that is to say the blessing and sharing of bread and wine through thanksgiving, was never celebrated in the context of a meal. The only vestiges of the agape appear to have been an annual celebration, at least in North Africa, of a meal before the Eucharist of Good Friday Eve.

II. The Shape of the Mass

Throughout the fourth century and beyond, the Eucharist remained the principal symbol of Christian unity. Members were admitted to it only after full initiation into the community. If any had scandalized the community through egregious public sin, they were formally excluded from the ritual (excommunicated). Whenever possible the community's principal leader, its overseer or bishop, presided over the ritual. Since Sunday was the day of the week on which Christians celebrated Jesus' resurrection, this day came to be the normal day for the celebration of the Eucharist, the ritual that embodied for the community the saving events of Jesus' death and resurrection. As the numbers of the Church swelled, and the tradition of having only one bishop in each city became the norm throughout the empire, Christians began to celebrate the Eucharist in large public buildings (basilicas) adapted to the ritual. These buildings, one per city, were called the 'church,' (in Latin ecclesia, 'the assembly'). Later, these buildings would take their name from the bishop's chair (cathedra) found within them.

We only know the general outlines of this late antique Eucharist. (Cf. The Mass in North Africa c.400.) The service was in two parts. The first included proclamations of writings held to be sacred by the community and taken from the Hebrew scriptures and Christian letters claiming apostolic authority. This part of the service culminated in a solemn proclamation from one of the gospels. At this point the presider blessed, then dismissed all members of the community who had not been fully initiated. The liturgy continued with the thanksgiving over the bread and wine. It then concluded with a solemn blessing and dismissal of those present. The most common name throughout the Middle Ages for the entire ritual, Mass, is derived from this dismissal. The Latin word missa means 'dismissed.'


Further Reading

Paul F. Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship: a Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice, (London: SPCK, 1996).

Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, with additional notes by Paul Marshall, (San Francisco, 1982).

Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, trans. Francis A. Brunner, 2 vols., (New York, 1950).

See also: Definition Page for the Eucharist.