Most Christian groups celebrate a ritual meal variously called Mass, Eucharist, Holy Communion, or Lord’s Supper. These ceremonies, whether undertaken with simplicity or grandeur, rarely or daily, typically look to the story of Jesus’s Last Supper as model and source. The accounts of the supper in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in in the Synoptic Gospels were remembered as models for Christian meetings that evoked the last days of Jesus’s ministry and his death, including the belief that in their act of sharing bread and wine they participated in Jesus’s body and blood.
Why did early Christians meet over a meal?
Other New Testament texts also reflect the interests and questions of the early Christians about their common meals. Stories about Jesus as teacher are set at meals, and some of the content concerns meals, including invitations and decorum; this has often been noted as a particular emphasis of Luke’s Gospel. While these are communal memories of Jesus’s own practice, they reflect concerns of later followers, who were establishing a community practice in which the meal was the primary locus of their own prayer and shared teaching, as well as of shared food and drink.
These earliest Christian meals seem to have been substantial, relative to the token eating of small amounts of bread and wine at modern communion services. Bread and wine themselves were not odd foods chosen merely in imitation of the Last Supper story, but the staples of the ancient Mediterranean diet. Even though the now-familiar theologies of the meal elements as Jesus’s body and blood were not worked out for some centuries to come, the earliest evidence suggests that despite this ordinary fare, the Christian meals and their food were experienced as sacred (1Cor 11:3).
In a number of significant gospel meals, particularly the miracle stories of expanding loaves and fish, and the resurrection narrative of a meal at Emmaus, a common ritual structure is clear: Jesus takes bread, gives thanks (or blesses), breaks the bread, and distributes it. This meal-memory seems to have been reflected in the early eucharistic meals of the Christians. “Thanksgiving” (Eucharistia) was one of the earliest terms for the gathering. The emphasis on “breaking” bread is strong in these texts and other early Christian evidence, and “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42-46) also seems to have been a recognized name for the meal gathering.
How important was the Eucharist in early Christian communities?
Providing a meal would have been an attractive feature of the Christian community, given that many city-dwellers experienced food insecurity and depended on the patronage of wealthier citizens. Meals were typically how religious, professional, or other interest groups met; in most ways the Christian meals would have looked unremarkable to outsiders. Paul calls the meal, at least if properly celebrated, a “Lord’s banquet” (or supper) (1Cor 11:20), not because this was the usual name for the gathering—it was not widely called that before the Reformation—but to emphasize Jesus as the true and selfless host and hence to reject social disparities that might be apparent in other banquets.
The substantial character of the Christian meal was a problem as well as an opportunity, judging from the scenes Paul evokes. In a socially mixed community, those with more time or more food were benefitting from the pot luck, while other members, slaves or day-laborers, were late and going hungry. Offering them the image of Jesus at the Last Supper (1Cor 11:23-25—the oldest version we know) provided a model less for ritual than for ethics, Jesus’s gift of self a model for love rather than competition or greed.
The earliest Christian gatherings probably centered on this meal—there were no services as such—while Christians also took part in events at the temple (initially) and, for some longer time, synagogues. Sometimes the gathering seems to have been called an “Agape” (Love [feast]; see Jude 12) to emphasize its character; there is no reason to think this was essentially different from the meal Paul describes. The consumption of the blessed foods as a distinct tokenized ritual seems only gradually to have been separated from an evening meal, perhaps not for a century or more; the familiar morning services arose as larger communities made a banquet less feasible, and because the understanding of sharing in the body and blood of Christ made satisfying physical appetite less relevant.
Andrew McGowan , "Eucharist", n.p. [cited 24 Oct 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/main-articles/eucharist
Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and Professor of Anglican Studies, Yale Divinity School
Andrew McGowan is Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School. His books include Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014) and Ascetic Eucharists (Clarendon, 1999).