The Fathers on the Holy Eucharist / Dr. Philipose Mar Theophilos

The Fathers on the Holy Eucharist

Fr. K. Philipose

In recent years there has been a growing interest to learn what the early Fathers of the Church have said and taught not only on the fundamentals of Christian faith but also on the discipline and the morals of the Church. I have reproduced below the teachings of certain important Fathers of the second century who are universally accepted by the whole Christendom, to show how correctly we follow the tradition of the Fathers, in our conception of the Holy Eucharist. The quotations are from:

1. The Didache, or the teachings of the Twelve Apostles. The Didache is the most important Christian document of the sub-apostolic period and the oldest source of Ecclesiastical law. It was discovered only in 1883. Its authorship is unknown but is dated between A. D. 70 and 90 though some scholars would give a date as late as 120 or 150.

2. St. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch from A. D. 69 (according to Eusebius) till the beginning of the second century. He is also one of the most outstanding figures and one of the strongest characters of the early Church. This second Bishop of Antioch was also called Theophorus (carried by God) and the legend tells that Ignatius was the child whom Jesus took in His arms and offered to his disciples as an example of humility. He was sentenced during Trajan’s reign (A. D. 98-117) to be devoured by wild beasts and suffered martyrdom at Rome, probably in A. D 107. He has written seven letters.

3. Justin Martyr was the most important of the Greek apologists of the second century and one of the noblest personalities of early Christian literature. He was born in Palestine to pagan parents. He studied philosophy and since it did not give him any satisfaction and happiness. He tried other things and finally became, a Christian. He devoted his entire life to the defence of Christian faith. He started a school in Rome and taught there. He was martyred at Rome probably in A. D. 165.

4. Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons in France and is by far the most important Theologian of the second century. He was born in Asia Minor about 150 A. D. and had listened to the sermons of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna. He became the Bishop of Lyons about 177. Irenaeus was a peace maker between the Eastern and the Western Church in the controversy on the date of Easter. His writings were mostly directed against the Gnostics.

5. Tertullian was a native of Carthage and was born about 155 A. D. Both of his parents were pagans. He was an expert in law and gained reputation for himself as an advocate. After his conversion about 193, he settled in Carthage and used all his knowledge and capacities on the side of the Christian faith. According to Jerome, he became a priest, though he never refers to his clerical status. Between the years, 195-220 A. D. he carried on his literary activity which was prodigious. His writings had a lasting influence on Christian Theology. Though he became a Montanist about 207, his theological writings are not much affected by it. The year of his death is unknown. It must have been after 220 A. D.
When reading these quotations the following emphases may be noted.

1. The Eucharist is verily the Body and Blood of our Lord.
2. The Eucharist is a sacrifice.
3. It is to be celebrated by the Bishop or priest and all the faithful present are participants of this rite.
4. It is the heavenly food for our souls and therefore to be taken in worthily, after confessing our sins.

The Didache

“And on the Lord’s Day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your offences, so that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who has a quarrel with his neighbour join you until he is reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For it was said by the Lord: ‘In every place and time let there be offered to me a clean sacrifice, because I am the great king,’ and also my name is wonderful among the Gentiles.” Ch. 14.

“In regard to the Eucharist, you shall offer the Eucharist thus, First in connection with the cup, “We give Thee thanks, Our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy Son, which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus Thy Son; to Thee be glory for ever. And in connection with the breaking of bread, ‘We give Thee Thanks, Our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou hast revealed to us through Jesus Thy Son; to Thee be glory for ever.’ As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountain tops and after being harvested was made one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom, for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. But let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except those baptized in the name of the Lord, for it was in reference to this that the Lord said: ‘Do not give that which is holy to dogs.’ ”

St. Ignatius of Antioch

“ Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one flesh, the son of man and Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the Bishop and the priests, and break one Bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Epistle to Ephesians, Ch. 20.
“I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David, and Abraham, and I desire the drink, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” Epistle to Romans, Ch. VII.

“ The Eucharist is the Flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His loving-kindness raised from the dead. Epistle to Smyrnaeans, Ch. 7:1.

Justin Martyr

There are two descriptions of the Eucharistic service in Justin’s Apology. In the first (Ch. 63) he pictures the Eucharist liturgy of the newly baptized. In the second (Ch. 67) he gives the details of the regular Sunday service. On Sundays the Liturgy began with a reading taken from the canonical gospels, which here are called explicitly ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ or from the books of the prophets. There followed a sermon with a moral application of the readings. After this the community prayed for the Christians and for all men in the whole world. At the conclusion of the prayers all members of the community exchanged the kiss of peace. Thereupon, bread, wine, and water were brought to the President. He recited a prayer of consecration over them. The consecrated gifts were distributed by the deacons to those present, and were brought by them to those absent. Justin explicitly adds, however, that this is no common bread and no common drink but the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus. As a proof, he quotes the words of institution. The phrasing of the Eucharistic prayer was left to the celebrating President, but Justin remarks that the Eucharistic food is consecrated by a prayerf containing Christ’s own words. Therefore, it seems that not only the very words of institution, but most probably the entire account of the institution was a regular part of the prayer of consecration. For this reason, one may speak of a semirigid type of Liturgy, because there are regular elements in it, but there is also still room for the personal composition of the consecrating priest. He then quotes from Malachi:

“ I have no pleasure in you,” says the Lord; “and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same my name has been glorified among the gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering for my name is great among the gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering for my name is great among the gentiles says the Lord, but you profane it.” He then speaks of those gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify his name and that you profane it.


Irenaeus is so convinced of the real presence of the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist, that he derives the resurrection of the human body from the fact that this body has been nourished by the body and blood of Christ:

“ When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God and the Eucharist becomes the blood and body of Christ, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord and is a member of him? …… that flesh which is nourished by the cup which is his blood and receives increase from the bread which is his body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or, as a grain of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, and becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ, so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time. And how say they that the flesh passes into corruption and partakes not of life, which is nourished by the Lord’s body and blood. Either let them change their opinion, or decline to make the offerings which I have mentioned, But our opinion is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist again confirms our opinion. And we offer to him the things which are his own, showing forth accordingly our communion and union, and professing a resurrection of flesh and spirit. For as bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God is no longer common bread but a Eucharist composed of two things, both an earthly and heavenly one, so also our bodies, partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible having the hope of eternal resurrection.
From these words it appears that Iraenaeus thinks bread and wine are consecrated by an epiclesis.
Johannes Quasten, Patrology pp, 304-305.


“We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the Presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times and enjoined to ba taken by all alike. As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign (of the Cross).

The Acts of John are the earliest of all the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles which we possess. They are composed in Asia Minor between 150 and 180. This book gives an eye-witness account of the missionary travels of St. John in Asia Minor. It narrates his miracles and sermons and his death. But the important thing for our purpose is the reference of the administration of the Eucharist for the dead.

“Now on the next day, John came, accompanied by Andronicus and the brethren, to the sepulchre at dawn, it being now the third day from Drusian’s death, that we might break bread there” (Ch. 72).
In Ch. 85 in the Eucharistic prayer which the Apostle uses for this funeral service we read:

“And having thus said, John took bread and bare it with the sepulchre to break it.”

This is the oldest source recording the celebration of the Eucharist for the dead. It has been our most ancient practice of remembering our dear departed ones by celebrating the Eucharist. We need not be apologetic about it.

(Orthodox Seminary Souvenir, 1962)