Monday, July 25, 2011

The Eucharist in the Apostolic Fathers Part One: St. Clement of Rome

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith.  Being the pinnacle of the faith, it has been the source of much theological investigation.  Throughout the two thousand year history of the Church, theologians have never ceased discussing and elaborating on the mysterium fidei.  It is good to return sometimes to those roots of our theology to see where the Holy Spirit has guided the Church.  Much is written on the Eucharistic theology of the New Testament, far less however is written on the Eucharistic theology of the next generation, known as the apostolic fathers.  They were building the church on the heels of those who lived, walked, and shared meals with Christ, our Lord and Savior.  Some have said that their Eucharistic theology is rather primitive and undefined, but this seems to be a reduction and an underestimation of Sts. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp, as well as the Didache.  They had, rather, an implicitly developed theology of the Eucharist.  I will spend the next few posts fleshing out this going from one Apostolic Father to the next.

St. Clement of Rome’s can be said to be the earliest.  His letter to the Corinthians can be definitely dated before the turn of the century.  He has the least defined theology.  He does not outright mention the Eucharist or even variations of the Greek eucharistia.  “Even if Clement does not use the terms that later became technical designation for the Eucharist, the reality is present in the letter as far as the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist is concerned.”[i]  Clement many times mentions the sacrifices of the Old Testament in relation to the new and final sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross. “And the Lord delivered him up for our sins, and he opened not his mouth because of his affliction.  As a sheep he was brought to the slaughter, as a lamb dumb before its shearer, so he opened not his mouth.”[ii]  The sacrificial language permeates his letter.  Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is one of the major themes of his letter.  Christ’s offering as an expiation for our sins.  The offering is continued by the bishops, “When he comes to speak of the ministry proper to the presbyter-bishops, he refers to it as the ‘offering of the gifts’: ‘Our sin will not be a light one if we expel those who worthily and blamelessly have offered the gifts of [proper to?] the episcopacy.’”[iii]  The expiatory gift offered by the bishop could be the Eucharist.  This is the closest Clement comes to speaking of the Eucharist.  His letter deals rather with specific pastoral matters in Corinth that do not deal specifically with the Eucharist.  The sacrificial aspect of the letter though is enough evidence for a Eucharistic mindset especially in reference to other Fathers, which we will see later. 

[i] Georges Blond, “Clement of Rome,” in The Eucharist of the Early Christians, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (NY: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1978), 25.
[ii] Clement of Rome, “First Epistle to the Corinthians” in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 35.
[iii] James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 10. {quote is from Clement of Rome 1 Cor 40.5}

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