An expert in early Christian writings has pointed out that it was necessary to wait for the ninth century to find a treatise on the Eucharist. Before that time, although references to the Eucharist are frequent and of major importance, it was never the object of an independent work. For the first Christians, the Eucharist was never viewed in isolation. It was always linked to the entire mystery of the faith, and indeed represented a synthesis of it. If an essential aspect of the faith is called into question, then the Eucharist will serve as the reference-point to show whether we are on the right track or not. That is why, in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons could say, “Our way of thinking accords with the Eucharist and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.” In following Irenaeus along this road, we are led to the heart of the faith.
The Goodness of Creation
Confronted with spiritual tendencies that disparaged the visible world, considering it as the result of degeneration, the great bishop of Lyons saw in the Eucharist a confirmation of the goodness of creation. How can we call that goodness into doubt since, as Irenaeus writes, “Jesus took the bread, which comes from creation, gave thanks and said: This is my body. And similarly the cup, which comes from the creation of which we are part, he declared his blood…” (AH, IV,17,5). The Eucharist does not confirm a way of thinking that shows contempt for creation. It expresses, on the contrary, the nobility of the material world.
The Resurrection of the Body
Irenaeus appealed to the Eucharist to sustain faith in the resurrection of the body. In the ancient world, Christians were mocked on account of that faith. Those who looked down on them felt that they themselves were the truly spiritual ones. With this debate, we are at the heart of faith in Christ and the Christian vision of God, but also of human beings and the life we are called to share with God.
To grasp what is really at issue in this debate, we must understand that the resurrection body is not a matter of molecules. Saint Paul, who affirms strongly the resurrection of the body, knows that everything will be transformed: “What you sow is not the body to come, but a simple seed” (1 Corinthians 15:37). There is thus a new body, a body of glory, and in this sense there is discontinuity; but we must also speak of continuity, for the plant or the wheat truly come from the seed.
Room for Difference in God
The body is the person in their personal history. Animated by faith in the Risen Christ, who at the Ascension entered for all time into God with his body of glory (human life was not a parenthesis for him), the first Christians were led to understand that the history of each person is welcomed in God: there is room for the most personal, for what is unique in every human being, for all that is compatible with love. This faith says that a life of eternity with God does not eliminate what is human. The most complete union imaginable with God is not at the cost of difference. If God calls each one by his or her name, that means that, in our life with him, we can do the same. We will meet those we have loved again. Nourished by the faith of the early Christians, Dostoyevsky could write at the end of The Brothers Karamazov: “We will rise and we will see each other again; overjoyed, we will tell each other what happened.” Refusing the resurrection of the body would mean disfiguring the God of the Gospel and his plan for human beings, for that God does not only tolerate differences but desires them, fosters them and gives them a future.
Irenaeus was convinced of all that: “How can they claim that flesh is unable to receive the gift of God consisting in eternal life, when it is nourished by the blood and the body of Christ?” (See AH IV,18,4). Through the Eucharist, the life of the risen Lord not only touches our mind; it does not only enter our ears like an idea. That food truly enters our bodies. Irenaeus emphasizes that Christians proclaim “in harmonious fashion the communion and union of flesh and Spirit. For just as the bread which comes from the earth, after having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, composed of two things, one earthly and the other heavenly, in the same way our bodies, which take part in the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection” (AH IV,18,5).
Discerning the Vocation of the Created World
Taking part in the Eucharist thus becomes a way of proclaiming that the world has a meaning. Believers discern in it the vocation of all creation which is not destined to die, but to be transformed, for the Eucharist sings the victory of life. It is indeed necessary to pass through death; that is where the transformation takes place. But a seed has been sown in the Christian, which a forerunner of Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, referring to the Eucharist, called “a medicine of immortality”. Receiving the Eucharistic body of Christ, his risen life, means being welcomed into that space where death no longer exists and where the Spirit suggests “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what has never entered the human mind, all that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Eucharist and Social Responsibility
Without being totally absent in Irenaeus’ writings, another aspect of the Eucharist will be commented on at length by the Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Celebrating the Eucharist means becoming aware of our social responsibility. If we become the Body of Christ by taking part in the Eucharist, if we are truly members of one another, then we can no longer behave as if we were not concerned by those in need. Thus among the first Christians there was born the tradition of bringing to the Eucharist an offering for the poor (this became the collection), since in Christianity all true mysticism leads to the performance of concrete acts.