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Catholic Culture Resources

The Eucharistic Presence in the Early Church

by James Monti


This article gives evidence for devotion to the Eucharistic Presence in the earliest times.

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The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, June 1997

The following article is adapted from a chapter in the book In the Presence of Our Lord: The History, Theology, and Psychology of Eucharistic Devotion, by Father Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., and James Monti (Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750; $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping; 1997).

". . . the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh" (Jn 6:51). From the beginning, the Church has taken Christ, her Divine Spouse, at His word when in the course of the Last Supper He took first bread, then wine, into His sacred hands and said, ". . . this is my body . . . this is my blood . . ." (Mt 26:26, 28); thus the Church has always spoken of and treated the Eucharist as the real Body and Blood of Christ. Of course, the outward manifestations of this belief in the Real Presence have not remained static but rather have developed over the centuries in keeping with an ever-deepening understanding of this mystery forged in the hearts of generation upon generation of believers and brought to fruition in the teachings of the Church's pastors and the lives of her saints.

In view of the overwhelming depth and breadth of the mystery that Holy Communion is nothing less than a communion with the Risen Christ himself, a communion in which the recipient partakes of his Divine Master's very Body and Blood, it should not come as a surprise that the practice of adoring this sacrament outside the immediate context of the eucharistic liturgy would take time to appear; the riches of God's gift of the Eucharist are too vast to be fully plumbed in the span of one generation.

Yet the doctrines and observances from which extra-liturgical adoration is derived have been part of the deposit of faith since the apostolic era. The Church has always believed that the eucharistic presence of the Redeemer begins not at the moment of Communion but rather earlier, at the altar, brought about by the words and actions of Christ repeated by His ordained ministers. Coupled to this has been the belief that those unable to be present during the Mass itself were not to be deprived of receiving this sacrament but rather that Christ remained present in the consecrated Eucharistic Species even after the conclusion of the liturgy, making it possible to bring the sacrament to those who were ill or in prison. The testimony from the early centuries of the Church in regard to both these points is incontestable. Hence, the recognition of the eucharistic presence of Christ on the altar during the liturgy and the directing of adoration toward that presence is strikingly attested in the writings of St. John Chrysostom (347-407):

This body even when lying in the manger the Magi reverenced. Heathen and foreign men left their country and their home, and went [on] a long journey, and came and worshiped Him with fear and much trembling. Let us then, the citizens of heaven, imitate these foreigners. For they approached with great awe when they saw Him in the manger and in the cell, and saw Him in no way such as thou dost see Him now. For thou dost see Him not in a manger but on an altar, not with a woman holding Him but with a priest standing before Him, and the Spirit descending upon the offerings with great bounty. . . . For as in the palaces of kings what is most splendid of all is not the walls, or the golden roof, but the body of the king sitting on the throne, so also in heaven there is the body of the King; but this thou mayest now behold on earth. For I show to thee not angels, nor archangels, nor the heaven, nor the heaven of heavens, hut Him who is the Lord of these himself.[1]

Likewise, in another homily he states: "Not in vain do we at the holy mysteries make mention of the departed, and draw near on their behalf, beseeching the Lamb who is lying on the altar, who took away the sin of the world."[2]

Christ's eucharistic presence on the altar is also mentioned by St. Optatus of Mileve (d. 400) in the course of rebuking the Donatist heretics for their vandalism of Catholic churches: "What has Jesus Christ done to you that you should destroy the altars on which He rests at certain times? Why do you break the sacred tables where Jesus Christ makes His abode?"[3]

In an often quoted passage from his commentary on Psalm 98, St. Augustine (354-430) is most emphatic that we are to adore the Eucharist prior to receiving It: "No one eats this flesh unless he has first adored . . . not only do we not sin by adoring, but we would sin by not adoring."[4]

The significance of this citation is heightened by the subsequent words in the same passage, which speak of the adoration taking the form of an outward gesture of bowing or prostrating oneself before the Eucharist; thus, St. Augustine provides us with one of our two earliest extant testimonies of an outward act of reverence to the sacrament: "Therefore when you bow and prostrate yourself even down to the earth in whatever way you please, it is not as if you are venerating the earth, but the former Holy [One] whose footstool [i.e., flesh] you adore."[5]

Belief in the Real Presence necessarily engendered a deep reverence toward the Eucharist in the early Church, a reverence that recognized the abiding presence of Christ in even the smallest particles of the Eucharistic Species, as can be seen in a comment of Origen (184-254): "You who are wont to be present at the divine mysteries, understand here, when you receive the Body of the Lord, you are to preserve it with all care and veneration, lest the smallest particle of it should fall."[6]

A similar vigilance regarding the smallest fragments of the Eucharist is enjoined in the instructions of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) for the newly baptized:

. . . partake of it [the Eucharist], giving heed lest thou lose any part of it; for whatever thou shouldest lose would be evidently a loss to thee as from one of thine own members. For tell me, if any one gave thee grains of gold, wouldest thou not hold them with all care, taking heed lest thou shouldest lose any of them and suffer loss? Wilt thou not much more carefully be on thy guard lest a crumb fall from thee of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?[7]

As one further illustration of the early Church's profound veneration of every portion of the Eucharistic Species, we offer the instructions in this regard of the fifth-century Syrian Orthodox Bishop Rabulas:

Let any crumb of the holy Body which falls to the ground be carefully searched for, and if it be found, let the place, supposing it to be earth, be scraped and the dust therefrom be mixed with water and given to the faithful as a draught of blessing. If it should not be found, let the place still be scraped as before. Similarly if anything of the Blood be spilt, supposing the spot to be of stone, let [hot] coals be laid upon it.[8]

But what of the practice of bringing the Eucharist to those unable to come to Mass? Such reception of Holy Communion outside the eucharistic liturgy was already an established practice by the second century, as can be seen in the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr (100-165), wherein he speaks of the deacons at the bishop's Mass taking some of the Eucharist in order to bring the sacrament to those who are absent from the assembly.[9] This documentary evidence is augmented by archaeological findings; from the Vatican catacombs there are surviving examples of the area, a small box used by the early Church for carrying the reserved Blessed Sacrament, made of gold and thought to date from the second or third century.[10]

With the administration of Holy Communion outside of Mass necessitating the reservation of the Eucharist from an early date, it may seem difficult, in view of the early Church's firm belief in the Real Presence, to understand why the concept of prayer to the reserved Sacrament did not emerge in short order. But for such a devotion to develop it would first be necessary for the reserved Eucharist to be moved to a location in places of worship where It could become the focus of public and private prayer. Yet in the first centuries of Church history, the concept of placing the reserved Eucharist in a prominent and conspicuous place in the church would not have had the opportunity to arise for several reasons.

To begin with, the periodic persecutions under the pagan Roman emperors prevented the universal establishment of permanent places of worship until the fourth century; such persecutions would have also increased the danger of sacrileges against the reserved Blessed Sacrament. Moreover, in view of the early Church's practice of dismissing the catechumens from the eucharistic liturgy before the offertory began, thereby reserving the sight of the consecration and Holy Communion exclusively for the eyes of the baptized, it would not have seemed appropriate to leave the Eucharist exposed to the eyes of the unbaptized by reserving it permanently in a readily visible location in the place of worship. This custom of dismissing the catechumens as well as other manifestations of the "secrecy" with which the early Church surrounded the eucharistic liturgy amply demonstrates that the lack of any special devotions to the reserved Eucharist was not due to a more casual, less reverential view of the sacrament, but rather can be explained at least in part by an atmosphere of profound awe that would have reserved the sight of the Eucharistic Species to baptized believers.

". . . where I am, there shall my servant be . . ." (Jn 12:26). The eventual development of prayer before the reserved Blessed Sacrament owed its origins not only to the Church's faith regarding the nature of the Eucharist itself but also to a concept of prayer rooted in the Old Testament that came to flourish in Christian spirituality by the fourth century: compositio loci — that is, composition of place, the "placing" of oneself in the presence of God.

Of course, the soul is always and everywhere in the presence of God; yet by meditation, especially upon the mysteries of Our Lord's life, the soul can direct and focus its attention upon this Divine Presence, and this is what is meant by compositio loci.

In the Old Testament, God chose to manifest His presence in particular places such as on Mount Sinai and in the Sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant. The people of Israel responded to the latter manifestation of God's presence by converging yearly upon the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, seeing the Temple as the house where God dwelt among men.

But under the New Covenant, God came to dwell among His people in a far more extraordinary way — "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . ." (Jn 1:14). The Incarnate Son of God came to live, die and rise from the dead in a particular time and place — early first-century Palestine. Subsequent generations of Christians were not to have the consolation of seeing with their bodily eyes the face of their Redeemer, yet they knew and believed Christ's promise that He would not leave them orphans (Jn 14:18), that He would come to them (ibid.) and remain with His Church always, even to the end of the world (Mt 28:20).

How, then, were the Christians of later ages to come to a deep recognition of this abiding presence? In their desire to draw near their Savior, they set out from their homes and journeyed in growing numbers to the land that He had trodden — to "walk in the footsteps of the Master," as Origen explained.[11]

Origen's testimony certainly suggests that compositio loci existed in the hearts of the faithful long before 300, but it was in the fourth century that the concept truly came to the fore. Our earliest glimpse of the itinerary of those who came to the Holy Land for this purpose is afforded by an individual known to history as the "Burgundian pilgrim," who visited Jerusalem in 333. The desire to see every landmark associated with the particulars of Our Lord's passion is manifest in the sights he lists: a palm tree from which the children took branches to greet Christ on Palm Sunday; the spot in the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas betrayed his Master; the house of Caiaphas where Christ was tried by the Sanhedrin; the praetorium of Pilate; the pillar where the Romans scourged Our Lord; the Mount of Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre.[12] Later in the same century, St. Paulinus of Nola (353-431) was to articulate the motivations of those who came to the Holy City:

No other sentiment draws men to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from our very own experience "we have gone into His tabernacle and adored in the very places where His feet have stood" (Ps 132:7). . . . Theirs is a truly spiritual desire to see the places where Christ suffered, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. . . . The manger of His birth, the river of His baptism, the garden of His betrayal, the palace of His condemnation, the column of His scourging, the thorns of His crowning, the wood of His crucifixion, the stone of His burial: all these things recall God's former presence on earth and demonstrate the ancient basis of our modern beliefs.[13]

Implicit in the above observation is the desire to pray, to adore, in places that readily bring to mind the presence of God. And it is this exercise of prayer in the particular places where the events of Christ's life could be most readily and vividly recalled that characterizes page after page of the remarkable fourth-century diary of the pilgrim Egeria, a woman of Spain who came to Jerusalem around the year 380.

She tells of the Christians of this city celebrating Holy Week as a journey in the footsteps of Christ, with the times and places of their liturgical services from Palm Sunday to Easter closely following the Passion narratives of the four Gospels. Thus, on the first day of Holy Week, following a reading of one of the Gospel accounts of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the clergy and people of the city participated in what is our earliest known example of the "procession of palms":

At this the bishop and all the people rise from their places, and start off on foot down from the summit of the Mount of Olives. All the people go before him with psalms and antiphons, all the time repeating, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." The babies and the ones too young to walk are carried on their parents' shoulders. Everyone is carrying branches, either palm or olive, and they accompany the bishop in the very way the people did when once they went down with the Lord. They go on foot all down the mount to the city, and all through the city to the Anastasis, but they have to go pretty gently on account of the older women and men among them who might get tired.[14]

Jerusalem was indeed an ideal setting for those who came to the city to enter more deeply into the presence of their Redeemer. Yet many others were unable to make such an arduous journey to the Holy Land, and those who did could do so only once or a few times in the course of their lives. Hence, the longing to place oneself in the presence of the Lord would need to be satisfied in more accessible ways.

The churches of the faithful were the loci of public liturgical prayer; yet it was not long before they became preferred places for private prayer as well, where Christians could withdraw for a time from the distracting activities of their daily lives and mentally prostrate themselves at the feet of their God.

The identification of the altar as a symbol of Christ and, more importantly, the awareness that it was upon the altar that Christ became truly present during the eucharistic liturgy, would have made the altar the focus of attention for those who came for silent prayer, especially in the quiet of the night. An early example of this is provided by St. Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), who relates how on one occasion, when gravely ill, his sister Gorgonia during the night "betook herself to the Physician of all" and "fell before the altar with faith . . . calling on Him who is honored thereon with a great cry and with every kind of entreaty, and pleading with Him. . . . Placing her head on the altar with another great cry and with a wealth of tears, like one who of old bedewed the feet of Christ, and declaring that she would not let go until she was made well, she then applied to her whole body this medicine which she had, even such a portion of the antitypes of the honorable body and blood as she treasured in her hand, and mingled with this act her tears." [15]

The significance of this passage is enhanced by the somewhat cryptic reference to Gorgonia, in her desperate plea for healing, touching to herself the Eucharistic Species, as one might touch a relic; it does appear to imply, albeit vaguely, an effort to invoke the intervention of Christ in the reserved Sacrament. The meaning of the text is not sufficiently clear for us to identify it as our earliest extant testimony of prayer to the reserved Eucharist.

Nonetheless, with Gorgonia going into the church at night as if she could especially place herself at the feet of Christ there, we certainly find in this episode at the very least the concept of compositio loci in the form of private prayer before the altar that in the centuries to come was to fuse with the Church's belief in the Real Presence, and lead to the birth and development of extraliturgical eucharistic adoration. •


1 In I Corinthians, Homily 24, No. 5, quoted in Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, 1909, Vol. I, p. 107.

2 In I Corinthians, Homily 41, No. 4, quoted in ibid.

3 St. Optatus of Mileve, Contra Parmenianum Donatistam, Bk. VI, Ch. I, quoted in Most Rev. W. Walsh, Eucharistica; or a Series of Pieces, Original and Translated, of the Most Holy and Adorable Sacrament of the Eucharist, 1854, p. 53. Original Latin text in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Vol. XXVI: S. Optati Milevitani Libri VII, ed. Carolus Ziwsa, 1893, p. 143.

4 Enarratio in Ps. 98, Ch. 9, as quoted in Father Everett Diederich, S.J., "Eucharistic Worship Outside Mass," in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. Rev. Peter Fink, S.J., 1990, p. 459. For Latin text, see citation in following note.

5 Translated into English from the Latin text in Patrologia Latina, Vol. 37, col. 1264. Strangely, this verse is simply omitted from the English translation of this work of Augustine made for the series, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Volume VIII: Saint Augustine: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. A Cleveland Coxe, rpt. 1974, p. 485). In a passage quoted by Father Groeschel earlier in the book (pp. 41-42), St. Cyril of Jerusalem mentions bowing before the Precious Blood (the Eucharist under the species of wine) prior to receiving It, a reference that predates that of St. Augustine by a few years.

6 Origen, Hom. 13 in Exodus, No. 3, in Walsh, p. 45. Original text in Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 12, col. 391.

7 Catechetical Lectures, XXIII, Nos. 21-22, quoted in Stone, Vol. I, p. 106.

8 Quoted in Father Herbert Thurston, S.J., "Reservation in Its Historical Aspects," Month, Sept. 1917, Vol. 130, p. 241.

9 Apologies I, No. 65, in Lucien Deiss, C.S.Sp., Early Sources of the Liturgy, 1975, p. 24.

10 Archdale King, Eucharistic Reservation in the Western Church, 1965, p. 37.

11 In Joannem, VI, No. 24, quoted in Jonathan Sumption, Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion, 1976, p. 89. Original text in Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 14, col. 269.

12 Itinerarium Burdigalense, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina: CLXXV: Itineraria et Alia Geographia, 1965, pp. 16-17.

13 St. Paulinus of Nola (end of fourth century), Epistle 44, No. 14, in Sumption, pp. 89-90.

14 John Wilkinson, ed., Egeria's Trawls, 1971, Ch. 31, p. 133.

15 St. Gregory Nazianzus, Orations, VIII, No. 18, in Stone, Vol. I, pp. 106-107.

MR. MONTI is a writer and researcher of Catholic history and liturgy, gaining considerable experience in locating and utilizing patristic, medieval, Baroque and modern sources of liturgical and devotional literature. He is the author of The Week of Salvation: History and Traditions of Holy Week (Our Sunday Visitor, 1993).

© The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750.


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