The Roman Catholic church teaches that in the celebration of the Eucharist, the consecrated wafer and wine are miraculously changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus in a process they call transubstantiation.
The Roman church would have the world believe she is not an innovator but, rather, continues to observe the religious practices of the primitive church, modified only as a more clear understanding of God's sacred Scriptures and holy Tradition are attained. Or something like that. Is that really the way things are?
The centerpiece of the Catholic Mass is the Eucharistic sacrifice, a bloodless re-presentation of Christ's atonement on the cross. Or something like that. The Catholic priest, or "alter Christus," commands the Son of God to come down from Heaven and assume the physical characteristics of a cracker and a cup of wine, that He might be consumed by the priest and the faithful. Other studies offered by Christian scholars and myself have fully addressed the Jewish rejection of human sacrifice, cannibalism and the consumption of blood, all of which practices fly in the face of God's clear proscriptions. It is not my intention here to resurrect those arguments. Instead, I hope to examine how the early Christian commemoration of the Lord's Supper was corrupted into today's present Catholic practice.
Ever since Eusebius wrote the first major history of the Christian church, people have tended to idealize the primitive church as a monolithic structure with a uniform pattern of worship. Recent research has shown that was far from the case. Converts to Christianity were drawn from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Lacking a strong central governing body, the various congregations developed individual worship practices and emphasized different areas of theology. It wasn't until the 2nd Century that we begin to see the incipient development of uniformity.
In the Book of Acts and in Paul's writing to the Corinthian church, we can get some idea of how the earliest followers of Christ celebrated the Lord's Supper, but neither source provides much detail. Fortunately, there are other written records which help us to flesh out the bare bones of the biblical record. One of them, the Didache, was rediscovered in 1873. The Didache is a manual for church order and Christian living, probably written in Syria around 60 AD. In it, we have the earliest look, outside the New Testament, of the Eucharist celebration.
The Didache, which recommends praying the Lord's Prayer thrice daily, provides a clear picture of how early Christians would gather on the Lord's Day to "break bread and give thanks," an activity in which only baptized believers were to participate.
The first activity of the day involved confessing their sins and reconciling themselves with their neighbors in preparation for making a pure sacrifice to the Lord. The actual service, which followed orthodox Jewish forms for prayer before and after meals, began with thanksgiving over the cup and the loaf. When offering the cup, the worship leader would give thanks for the "holy vine of David," likely a refererence to the Messianic community (Psalm 80:8), following up with a doxology, "To you be glory forever."
After the doxology, the worship leader would give thanks over the broken loaf, thanking God "for the life and knowledge You have revealed through Jesus, Your Child," concluding with another doxology. That was followed by a community meal which, though not detailed in the Didache, likely was a precursor of the pot luck suppers we see in some modern churches.
Notice this early guidebook for Christian worship, sort of an early day Novus Ordo, makes no mention of either the body or the blood of Christ? The emphasis is on the gathering of the church body (1 Corinthians 10.17). The worship service as practiced by the first Christians was a "praise-celebration" of the congregation of God's people, an event where prayers and thanksgiving, interwoven with doxologies, were offered to God. Rome claims the mythical apostolic succession to validate her high priest, the pope, and has developed all sorts of rules and practices to control who gets to officiate at her "Eucharistic sacrifice," but the Didache provides no specifics concerning what sort of church leader was to preside over the earliest Eucharistic celebration. Yet it does give clear instructions concerning prophets, whom it calls the church's high priests, and how they were to be welcomed and validated.
One of the men Rome honors as an early church father, Justin Martyr, provided details of weekly Christian worship some decades later in his "First Apology," written to the Roman Emperor about 155AD.
How did that simple worship evolve into the carefully choreographed practice of a Roman Catholic Mass? In looking at possible reasons, I think it worth taking another look at the practices of the cult of Mithras, which Christianity replaced as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Justin Martyr accused the devotees of Mithraism of copying the Christian Eucharistic practice:
By this time, Justin Martyr, at least, was writing that the bread and wine of the "Eucharistic sacrifice" were the actual body and blood of Christ. It only took a few years after the Apostles had died off for the infant church to corrupt a simple and non-mystical ceremony of thanksgiving and praise into a pagan festival of human sacrifice, ritual cannibalism and magic.
During Justin's lifetime and for a millennium after, that wonderful and "infallible" Teaching Authority of the Roman church debated the issue of transubstantiation. It was settled, at least for those in submission to the Roman high priest, in 1215, when Pope Innocent III declared transubstantiation to be a dogma of the church.
The worship of Mithras was older by nearly two millennia than Christianity. Does it seem reasonable that the priests of Mithras copied Christian sacrificial practice? Or is it more likely that some in the infant church had begun to assimilate doctrine and practice from the official state religion of Rome.
Mithraism, the soldier's cult, the official religion of Rome in Justin's time, celebrated a ritual meal, and archaeological evidence indicates this sacrificial community meal occupied a central position in Mithran worship. In this "divine" meal, worshipers ate the flesh of a sacrificed bull and drank its blood. When no bull was available, bread or fish were used as substitutes for the meat and wine took the place of blood. Mithran initiates believed that, by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the bull, they would be born again and would have eternal life.
Justin Martyr, along with other early church fathers, complained that the cult of Mithras had copied and caricatured the rites of the Christian church. Like so many of the writings of these men – writings the RCC sometimes seems to value above Scripture – Justin seems not to have had his facts straight.
Though the Worship of Mithras can be traced back nearly 4000 years, it was not until the sometime in the 2nd century that the cult became powerful in Rome. It is unlikely it in any way colored the writings of the New Testament.
Some would disagree with with Dr. Nash, pointing out that, in the Mithran practice, the highest of seven levels of attainment for the faithful was that of "pater" (father) and that the senior father was a kind of pope, or senior bishop, whose permanent residence was in Rome.
As Christianity gathered momentum and eventually became the Roman Empire's state religion, Mithraism was shoved to one side and fell out of fashion. However, there was much in the pagan practice that the new state religion adapted for its own use, arguing that they were doing these things to make it easier for them to draw converts from the cult to the bosom of the increasingly Roman church.
The Mithraic clergy's duty was to maintain the perpetual holy fire on the altar, invoke the planet of the day, offer the sacrifices for the disciples, and preside at initiations. The Mithraic priests were known as Patres Sacrorum, or Fathers of the Sacred Mysteries. Today, the Catholic parish priest is to keep always a vigil flame burning before the tabernacle or other place where the consecrated host is kept, offers sacrifices for the disciples and presides at initiations (baptisms, confirmations, holy orders). Of course, everyone knows Catholic priests answer to the title of "Father."
Early in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine, who had been a Mithraic sun worshipper most of his life, claimed to have converted to Christianity and proceeded to make it the state religion. He kept all the old traditions in order to quell the fighting and bickering between people as to which should be the state religion by attaching Christian names to the familiar rituals of paganism, most particularly Mithraism. He also renamed the old Roman gods with the names of well-known Christians, keeping the domain over which that god supposedly ruled. For example the Roman god of healing became St. Jude. It appears likely that many of the priests of the pagan religion were transformed into "Christian" priests in the new Roman Catholic Church.
At first the Catholic church sought to abolish the superstitions associated with pagan customs but missionaries soon learned that the pagans would not abandon their customs. The customs which could not be destroyed were given a 'Christian' name and interpretation. What Christianity couldn't eliminate, it sought to 'consecrate'. Crackling fires, lighted candles, dwellings adorned with evergreens, feasts and giving of gifts are a few of the pagan elements which the catholic church could not abolish. Pagan deities were supplanted by (renamed to) deceased Christian saints or enshrined in the days of the week and in the months of the year.
The bishops of the Christian church apparently liked the mitres worn by Mithraic "fathers" and to this day these "princes of the Catholic church" continue to wear the mitre when they dress up for solemn occasions.
The Mithraic "pope," or Holy Father, wore a red cap and garment. His "accessories" included a ring and a shepherd's staff. I reckon the Bishop of Rome liked his style, and made the title "Holy Father" his own, as he did the label "Pontifex Maximus," along with the ring, staff, little red skullcap and the long garment.
Christian priests, like Mithraic priests, became 'Father', despite Jesus' specific proscription of the acceptance of such a title. That Jesus had been repudiating, not the Mithraists with whom he was unfamiliar, but the Sanhedrin, whose President was styled Father, is hardly relevant.
It had long been the practice of Mithraic worshipers, on entering the temple, to dip their fingers in holy water. And since in some districts there were those who at one time belonged to both religions, they introduced this custom into the majority of the Christian churches in the vicinity of Rome.
The Catholic spin doctors, of course, pooh-pooh the idea that the RCC continues to practice any pagan rites:
Did the Roman church look at pagan customs and make them her own? I say, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is a duck. In much of its practice, the RCC looks more like a temple of Mithras than the church described in the Didache.
Ye Must Be Born Again