The importance of the Eucharist

In reading back through some internet downloads on church history this week I again picked up file I had of “The Shape of the Liturgy” By Dom Gregory Dix (downloaded from holytrinitymission.org). I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the first few chapters of this book and most notably his modernised historic rendering (making up phrases here) of the Eucharist.

His description reminds us of the luxury we have in being able to celebrate in freedom but also I think the weakness that comes with this freedom leading us to take these blessings for granted.

Excerpt from “The Shape of the Liturgy” Dom Gregory Dix 

Suppose you were a grocer in Brondesbury, a tradesman in a small way of business, as so many of the early Roman Christians were. Week by week at half-past four or five o’clock on Sunday morning (an ordinary working-day in pagan Rome) before most people were stirring, you would set out through the silent streets, with something in your pocket looking very like what we should call a bun or a scone. At the end of your walk you would slip in through the mews at the back of one of the big houses near Hyde Park, owned by a wealthy Christian woman. There in her big drawing-room, looking just as it did every day, you would find the ‘church’ assembling — socially a very mixed gathering indeed. A man would look at you keenly as you went in, the deacon ‘observing those who come in’ (Didascalidy ii. 57), but he knows you and smiles and says something. Inside you mostly know one another well, you exchange greetings and nod and smile; (people who are jointly risking at the least penal servitude for life by what they are doing generally make certain that they know their associates). At the other end of the drawing-room sitting in the best arm-chair is an elderly man, a gentleman by his clothes but nothing out of the ordinary — the bishop of London. On either side of him is standing another man, perhaps talking quietly to him. On chairs in a semicircle facing down the room, looking very obviously like what they are — a committee — sit the presbyters. In front of them is a small drawing-room table.

The eucharist is about to begin. The bishop stands and greets the church. At once there is silence and order, and the church replies. Then each man turns and grasps his neighbour strongly and warmly by both hands. (I am trying to represent the ancient by a modern convention. The kiss was anciently a much commoner salutation than it is with us in England, but it implied more affection than does merely ‘shaking hands’ with us.) The two men by the bishop spread a white table-cloth on the table, and then stand in front of it, one holding a silver salver and the other a two-handled silver loving-cup. One by one you all file up and put your little scones on the salver and pour a little wine into the loving-cup. Then some of the scones are piled together before the bishop on the cloth, and he adds another for himself, while water is poured into the wine in the cup and it is set before him. In silence he and the presbyters stand with their hands outstretched over the offerings, and then follow the dialogue and the chanted prayer lasting perhaps five minutes or rather less. You all answer ‘Amen’ and there follows a pause as the bishop breaks one of the scones and eats a piece. He stands a moment in prayer and then takes three sips from the cup, while the two men beside him break the other scones into pieces. To each of those around him he gives a small piece and three sips from the cup. Then with the broken bread piled on the salver he comes forward and stands before the table with one of the deacons in a lounge suit standing beside him with the cup. One by one you file up again to receive in your hands ‘The Bread of Heaven in Christ Jesus,’ and pass on to take three sips from the cup held by the deacon, ‘In God the Father Almighty and in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the holy church,’ to which you answer ‘Amen’; then you all file back again to where you were standing before. There is a moment’s pause when all have finished, and then most of you go up to the bishop again with a little silver box like a snuff-box into which he places some fragments of the Bread. You stow it in an inside pocket, reflecting perhaps that Tarcisius was lynched six months ago for being caught with one of those little boxes upon him. There is another pause while the vessels are cleansed, and then someone says loudly ‘That’s all. Good morning, everybody.’ And in twos and threes you slip out again through the back door or the area door and go home — twenty minutes after you came in. That is all there is to it, externally. It would be absolutely meaningless to an outsider, and quite unimpressive.

But perhaps it did not all end quite so easily. You might very well never walk back up Maida Vale again. Perhaps the bishop stopped to speak to someone on the front-door steps as he went out, and was recognised by a casual passer-by who set up a great shout of ‘Christian! Christian!’ And before anyone quite realised what was happening a small jostling crowd had collected from nowhere and someone had thrown a brick through one of the windows; doors and windows were opening all down the street and there was a hubbub of jeers and yells, till a policeman arrived majestically, demanding ‘Wot’s all this ‘ere?’ ‘It’s those — Christians again!’ shouts someone, and the policeman gets out his notebook and looks severely at the bishop standing with the two deacons just behind him at the foot of the steps. ‘Wot’s all this about?’ And then in response to the accusing shouts of the elbowing crowd there comes the deadly challenge from the policeman, ‘Is that right that you’re a Christian?’ And the bishop admits he is a Christian. ‘There’s another of them,’ says someone, pointing at one of the deacons. ‘There’s a whole gang of them in there.’ The deacons briefly admit their faith, and the policeman looks doubtfully at the house. It’s said that they always come quietly, but one never knows. He blows his whistle, more police arrive, the house is entered, and soon afterwards twenty-two people, including the bishop and his deacons and the little grocer from Brondesbury, are marched off to the station.

The proceedings are by summary jurisdiction, as in the case of a raid on a night-club with us. They are all charged together ‘with being Christians,’ i.e. members of an unlawful association. Each is asked in turn whether he pleads guilty or not guilty. If he answers ‘guilty,’ his case is virtually decided. The magistrate is perfectly well aware of the Christian rule of never denying their religion. Someone’s courage fails at the critical moment and he falters ‘Not guilty.’ Then there is a simple further test to be applied. At the side of the court-room is hung a picture of the king. Just go and kneel in front of that picture and say “Lord have mercy upon me,” will you?’ says the magistrate. (The offering of the conventional pinch of incense or few drops of wine before the statue of the deified emperor, which was the routine test for Christianity, involved no more religious conviction than such a ceremony as I have invented here.) Some of the accused go through the prescribed test with white faces and faltering lips. One goes to the picture to do so and his conscience suddenly gets the better of his fear; he knocks the picture off the wall in a revulsion of nervous anger. He is hustled back to the dock and the picture is hung up again. The magistrate, a reasonable man, again asks each of those who have pleaded guilty whether they will even now go through the little ceremony. They all refuse. There is no more to be done, no possible doubt as to the law on the matter: non licet esse christianos; Christians may not exist.’ The legal penalty is death, and there is no ground of appeal. As a rule there is no delay. Unless they were reserved for the arena, sentences on Christians were usually carried out on the same day. So in our modern analogy fifteen Christians were hanged that afternoon at Wandsworth. On other occasions the policy of the administration might have caused private instructions to be issued to the magistrates that the law against Christianity is not to be too strictly enforced for the present; a sentence of the ‘cat’, penal servitude for life and transportation would have been substituted for the death-penalty. Whether this was really much more merciful may be doubted. The imperial lead-mines in Sardinia, for instance, which were the usual convict-station for Roman Christians in such a case, must have been even more like Devil’s Island than Botany Bay. Most of the prisoners died within two or three years.

We shall not begin to understand what the eucharist meant to Christians until we have estimated this background of real danger and intense hatred in a setting of absolutely normal daily life. It is true that organised and official persecution by the state was by no means continuous, that there were long periods when the central government was otherwise occupied, and wide regions where the local authorities were inclined to turn a blind eye to the existence of Christians, provided these did not thrust themselves upon their notice. But there were other periods and equally wide regions where official persecution raged with violence for years together. For two hundred years, from Nero to Valerian (roughly a.d. 65-260), Christian worship was in itself a capital crime. For another fifty after that, the law against Christian assembly relaxed; but to be a Christian was, by an illogicality, still brought under the capital charge of laesa maiestas. There is the opinion of Ulpian the jurist and the actual contemporary court-record of martyrdoms to prove that even in this period of peace in the latter half of the third century martyrdom was still only a matter of whether you happened to be accused. No one ever knew even in a period when the government was quiescent when persecution might not break out in the form of mob-violence, or what trivial cause might bring upon a man the inescapable official challenge ‘Art thou a Christian?’ Callistus trying to recover a commercial debt from Jewish debtors finds them making this charge against him in the prefect’s court to avoid payment; and within an hour or two he has been scourged and sentenced for life to the deadly Sardinian mines (Hippolytus, Philosophumendi ix. II). Marinus, the soldier accused of Christianity by a comrade envious of his promotion to centurion, is dead three hours after the accusation has been lodged (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., VII. xv. 1). Both these typical stories are reported by contemporaries from periods which rank more or less as times of toleration. We can and should distinguish between the intermittent hostility of the government and the unorganized and unpredictable malignity of the mob or of private informers. But when all has been said that is true in mitigation of the severity of ancient persecutions, for two hundred and fifty years from Nero to Constantine to be a Christian was in itself a capital crime, always liable to the severest penalty, even when the law was not enforced. It remains a demonstrable historical fact from contemporary records that during this period thousands of men and women were killed, tens of thousands more suffered grievously in their fortunes and persons, and hundreds of thousands had to put up with the opposition of their families and the suspicion and ostracism of their neighbours for half-a-lifetime and more. And the storm center throughout the whole period was undoubtedly the eucharist.

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