St. Justin Martyr on Continuity, The Real Presence, and Liturgy

When someone asks you where the Mass came from, you should first say, “Jesus!” But, in terms of development, and belief among the faithful, we also know that the earliest Christians (from the first, and second centuries!) believed in the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. From St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology (c. 153-155), we read:

Chapter 66. Of the Eucharist

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

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Chapter 67. Weekly worship of the Christians

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits [i.e., the “Liturgy of the Word”]; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things [i.e., the homily]. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended [i.e., “Prayers of the Faithful”], bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen [i.e., the Eucharistic Prayer, Consecration, and Amen]; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons [i.e., Communion]. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit [i.e., the Sunday collection]; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

What strikes me as so remarkable is the way that St. Justin’s descriptions are consistent with the format for today’s Mass. There is a tremendous continuity here, for a Faith as diverse and as old as it is. The principal elements were not “made up” or “manufactured” sometime after the Edict of Milan. There was no Great Apostasy. The Church is faithful to the true teachings of Jesus, even the ones to which many found difficult (and departed).(John 6:66).

From the earliest times of the Church, Christians met together on Sunday, broke open the word and studied it together, were led in a Eucharistic celebration by the presider (i.e., priest or bishop), and those who were baptized believers in the Real Presence received the Eucharist, from which “our blood and flesh… are nourished.” In addition, collections were taken up to assist the poor, widows and orphans.

I’m a team leader for our Parish’s RCIA program. Over the next few months, as I begin to unpack the materials on this topic, I will share some of these wonderful treasures with you also.

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