Good Shepherd Sunday – We Are His Body

The Good Shepherd,
Stained Glass Window at St. Charles Borromeo

I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;
I know my sheep, and mine know me.
(John 10:14)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on Church Fathers and the Eucharist
Fourth Sunday of Easter
St. Justin the Martyr
April 30, 2023

This week we will look at St. Justin Martyr (100 to c.165 AD). He was a philosopher and the first Christian writer to engage educated pagans with their own thoughts and language. He had some interesting insights but most of them were better expressed by St. Augustine several centuries later and we will examine them in several weeks. He provides, however, in his “First Apology” a good description of the Eucharist in 2nd century Rome. There are more extensive quotations than usual this week, they mostly speak for themselves and reveal that what was present from the beginning still gives life to us now. All quotations are form the First Apology.

There were many religions in the ancient world. They required different things from their adherents but if a devotee gave the required offerings to the gods of the empire, they could practice any and as many religions as they wished. Our first selection depicts and entrance rite which Christianity would have shared with many religions but also a set of beliefs – a creed – with a few of them.

But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation.

As in many of these religions, adherents share a common meal.

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. 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.

Most initiation rites were literally that – initiation – a person became member of the group. Often this gave special knowledge to attain a good afterlife . The initiate may have been enlightened and his view of life dramatically altered but he or she was not fundamentally changed. Here there is clearly a change of one’s very being and the assumption that one is living a new and different life. Faith, baptism, and a moral life are all required for admission to the Eucharist. As this is for transformation of the person, Justin emphasizes that the bread and wine must be changed as well:

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.

Often the origins of religious rites were purposely obscured to be seen as timeless. Justin continues not only Eucharistic realism – the bread is now Jesus’ body, the wine is now his blood, – but also an unembarrassed embrace of history. It was handed down by Jesus at a specific time and place.

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 ye in remembrance of Me, 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.

It is unlikely that many people in the ancient world had a private religion – that is you and me God – but their emphasis would have been on family and perhaps like-minded friends. Justin shows us that Christians sought to bring all kinds of people together but realized how difficult that was. Also, he clearly shows that what we have come to call the words of institution are necessary for the Eucharist and must be said by the presiding figure.

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; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

As the society around them was at best indifferent at worst hostile, they met together on Sunday in one place to read their specific writings: the “memoirs of the Apostles”, the Gospels and Epistles, and the “prophets”: Old Testament writings. When this concluded, the president – presiding priest, most likely a Bishop– shows them how to live what has been heard. Like the Jews, there is a clear ethical dimension to Christian belief and worship. There is also a sense that they needed each other to maintain their beliefs. Justin very realistically sees the necessity of community.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, 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; 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.

The shape or form of the liturgy – Mass – is set, but the president – priest – was able to adapt it to the needs of the assembly, “according to his ability”. This caused great confusion and became standardized. If we find homilies of vastly different qualities, what would different Eucharistic prayers mean? Also note that the deacons brought the Eucharist to those unable to attend. There is a clear sense that the Eucharist was more than what happened in the walls of the church. No one should be excluded.

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; 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.

From the very beginning, the Church cared for the needs of the poor and marginalized as part of the celebration itself. As Jesus feeds us in word and Sacrament, we are called to feed others

We can easily see the pattern of the Mass that we have today and especially some things which we might think were contemporary innovations. Until recently we did not bring the Eucharist to people after Mass. Now it is commonplace and in some parishes with many older parishioners quite an impressive sight.

Also, it is hard to consider a parish vibrant which did not have an outreach to the community especially the marginalized. These are best expressed in what a parish does that fits its needs so perfectly that it is no longer seen. I attend Mass once a week in another parish and it took me a while to realize that I missed seeing the bags of food in the rear of the church. On the other hand, we had a visitor a few weeks ago whose parish had a well-designed system for bringing older parishes to and from Mass. She expected a line of cars outside St Charles. Her parish covers a considerable area and does not have parking issues. We celebrate the same Eucharist throughout the entire world, and we must take this to the streets, but every parish will do this in a different way.

There is a famous painting of Jesus knocking on a door to get inside. Pope Francis has suggested that Jesus is often inside the church trying to get out. He escapes when we receive Jesus’ body so perfectly in church that we become his body in the world.

St. Teresa of Avila put it best:

Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours!”