Saint Paul and the Holy Eucharist, by Father Cuthbert Lattey


It is in the main to the First Epistle to the Corinthians that we must turn for what the Apostle has to tell us on this great subject; but in a paper like the present, which must be confined to a brief outline of the leading features, it is necessary to enter a preliminary protest as to the nature of the evidence. Saint Paul never wrote an epistle without a definite purpose, and he never set forth doctrine in an epistle without a practical reason. Like the rest of the Apostles, it was upon his oral teaching that he mainly relied. He delivered his full teaching to his converts in person; afterwards he did not write except to meet a real need. In the case of the Corinthians he wrote because things had gone wrong. Even then he confines himself to what is barely necessary for his purpose: he supplies the dogmatic motive for greater reverence, he gives one or two practical directions, and so he breaks off: “anything else I shall arrange when I come.” What would we not give for more? But Divine Providence designed to show us that, like the Corinthians, we must look primarily to the Living Voice for our guidance.


To begin, then, with what may be called the question of ritual. Our first difficulty concerns the relation of the Eucharist to the taking of ordinary food. Our Lord had instituted the Blessed Sacrament at the end of supper. We gather from the Acts that the first Christians in Jerusalem attended the temple services with their fellow-Jews, and only in the evening sat down to a common meal, perhaps divided into “house-churches,” and only after their usual supper partook of the Holy Eucharist. After that time, apart from the present passage, there does not appear to be any clear case of a connection of the Blessed Eucharist with an ordinary meal. Naturally, therefore, we examine the passage before us closely to see what is the precise connection between the two which it implies. Now Saint Paul appears to object to the ordinary meal preceding the Holy Eucharist. His words are these (I translate literally from the Greek): “When you meet together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s Supper; for at the eating each taketh his own supper first, and one is hungry, while another is overdrinking himself. Have you not then homes for eating and drinking? Or do you despise the Church of God, and put those who lack to shame?” From the fact that Saint Paul blames those who take their own supper first, and asks them whether they cannot eat and drink at home, it seems right to conclude that he wished to exclude all ordinary eating and drinking altogether. And this is confirmed by what he says at the end: “If any one is hungry, let him eat at home, lest it be unto judgment that you come together.” It may be, then, that the custom of first taking an ordinary meal was still in use at Jerusalem, but that Saint Paul had thought it unwise to allow it among the Gentile churches, and was now repressing its introduction, perhaps, from the Mother Church. In any case he may have had much to do with the severance of the Eucharist and the ordinary meal. Nevertheless we may notice that the conjunction of the Holy Eucharist with the evening repast, the food of the soul after the food of the body, may have served to bring out its sacramental function of nutrition.

To come now to speak of the more immediate ritual of the Eucharist. The faithful in a large city such as Corinth seem to have been divided into house-churches, that is to say, they would meet in the larger private houses, and presumably there would be one priest for each house-church. Each larger city had its college of priests. Originally the faithful at Jerusalem probably reclined on couches both for their supper and for the Eucharist that followed, as our Lord Himself seems to have done; but if the Pauline churches never took this repast along with the Eucharist, it is possible that they stood for the latter from the first. The bread was doubtless ordinary bread; our Lord seems to have used it – though this is a big question into which we may not enter—and they would probably find it difficult to get any other. Besides, for the first six centuries or so the whole Church was using nothing else. Probably one loaf was broken for all, and there was one cup, but larger than now, and presumably with a rather larger proportion of water than is now usual, for Jews and Greeks and Romans all took much water with their wine, which appears to have been stronger than ours. Nothing seems to have been left over; reservation does not seem to be absolutely primitive. It was in the middle of a prayer, the later anaphora, that the celebrant would introduce the narrative containing the words of institution, and at the conclusion of the prayer communion would be given under both kinds, possibly followed by the kiss of peace.

If, as seems rather more likely, there was in these earliest times only one regular meeting of Christians daily, for the evening Eucharist, after the day’s work was done, then much else must certainly have taken place at this meeting, which we cannot stop to describe. Before the Eucharist there would be reading from Holy Scripture, as in the Mass to-day; and afterwards the charismata, or extraordinary spiritual gifts, would be exercised, chief among them prophecy and speaking with tongues. The latter was probably a repetition of the gift of Pentecost, symbolizing the world-wide mission of the Church. Saint Paul felt it necessary to lay down stringent rules for the exercise of these gifts. The collection of alms on the first day of the week is one of the slight indications of the new significance of that day.

The Real Presence

There was much, therefore, in the externals that might take us by surprise, even apart from the absence of vestments, large churches, and the like; but with the doctrine, of course, it is otherwise. The Real Presence is clearly presupposed. Saint Paul, as has been said, does not touch on doctrine except with a practical purpose; he is not teaching the Corinthians the Real Presence as something new, but is using it as a motive for reverence, just as in the Epistle to the Philippians his very precise formulation of Christ’s Godhead is merely part of an exhortation to humility. To be mentioned as motives, these dogmas must have been already well known to Saint Paul’s Christians. “This is My Body:” if these words did not mean what they said, they would not supply the necessary motive. “This chalice is the New Testament in My Blood.” Obviously the New Testament is not a material liquid; obviously, therefore, the meaning is, ‘In this cup is My Blood, which is to seal and ratify the New Testament, just as Moses with sacrificial blood sealed and ratified the Old.” Saint Paul himself goes on to press home the motive which he has used, declaring that whoso shall eat the Bread or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the Body and Blood of the Lord. And a little earlier he had said, “The chalice of blessing which we bless, is it not (literally) communion of the Blood of Christ?” that is, communion with Him and also with each other, union with Him and with each other, through the drinking of His Blood. And so of His Body; “the Bread which we break, is it not communion of (or union in) the Body of Christ? Though many we are one bread, one body; for we all partake of the one Bread.” Here once more it is implied that we indeed partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, and it is precisely because the Bread is His Body that It is everywhere and in all receivers one and the same.

The Sacrifice

And his words are scarcely less clear about the sacrifice offered in the Eucharist than about the Real Presence. It seems very likely that the right reading in his version of the consecration of the bread—at all events a reading with which we must reckon—is simply, “This is My Body, in your behalf;” that is perhaps the nearest approach that we can make in English to the very short Greek form. As a matter of fact, this latter very likely supposes a longer form as familiar to his Christians; but let us leave this possibility out of account. How is Christ’s Body “in your behalf?” To understand this, we had better proceed at once to consider the consecration of the chalice: “This chalice is the New Testament (or covenant) in My Blood.” In these words all commentators find an allusion to Exodus 14:7-8, where Moses divides the blood of the victims into two parts, sprinkling half on the altar and half on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you.” Our Lord consciously alludes to this scene and to these words: He Himself is the Victim Whose Blood is the Blood of the New Covenant. He died but once, yet the life-giving stream of His sacrificial Blood never ceases to flow. It is His very death, as Saint Paul tells us, which is proclaimed or set forth. It is the sacrifice of Calvary, therefore, which is represented in an unbloody manner. And it is in this sense, then, that the Lord’s Body is “in our behalf.” The Holy Eucharist is the constant renewal of the great propitiatory sacrifice.

A little earlier in the Epistle, Saint Paul had already made it clear that he regarded the Eucharist as a sacrifice, by comparing it both with the sacrifices of the Old Law and of heathendom. Thus he says: “You cannot drink the chalice of the Lord and the chalice of devils; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of devils.” He is warning the Christians against idolatry, and there is no possible doubt that in speaking of “the chalice of devils” and “the table of devils” he is referring to the pagan sacrifice; hence from the close parallel which he draws between the Holy Eucharist and these, we conclude that he regards the Holy Eucharist as a sacrifice too. And this conclusion is put beyond doubt when we realize that this phrase, “the table of the Lord,” and the earlier sentence, “(What they sacrifice) they sacrifice to demons and not to God,” are taken from the first chapter of the prophet Malachy, verses seven and twelve. Between these two verses stands the great prophecy of the sacrifice of the Gentiles, already a standard text even in the second century. Almighty God no more takes pleasure in the offering of the Jews: “From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same My name is great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense and a pure oblation shall be offered to My name, for My name shall be great among the Gentiles.” It is inconceivable that Saint Paul had not this prophecy in his mind when he was quoting words just before and just after it, and was likening the Holy Eucharist to the sacrifices of Jew and pagan; it strongly confirms the conclusion drawn from the rest of his language on the subject.

The Place of the Eucharist in Saint Paul’s Thought

Finally we may consider what place the Holy Eucharist held in Saint Paul’s whole thought. The dominating idea of Saint Paul is our corporate union with Christ in His mystical Body: He is the Head; we, who compose the Church, are the members. From the waters of Baptism the Christian rises in glory like Christ from the tomb; the old man, the man of sin, the flesh has all been crucified, and now he shares the glory of the risen Lord, glorious limb of a glorious Head. From Him he receives his life, that Christ-life which raises his soul to a higher plane, and is called sanctifying grace. Now it is the nutrition of this Christ-life that is the function of the Holy Eucharist. “What is the bread? ” asks Saint John Chrysostom, that greatest of Saint Paul’s interpreters. “The Body of Christ. And what do they become who receive It? The Body of Christ.” That is Saint Paul’s true thought, and it has been well suggested that it was the Holy Eucharist itself that suggested to him—under Divine Providence—the doctrine of the mystical Body. The Holy Eucharist, therefore, in so far as It is the offering of Calvary renewed, tells us of Christ’s crucifixion, and of all it means to us, and of our own necessary crucifixion in and with Him, pending the time when our flesh too shall be glorified: and in so far as it is spiritual nutrition, it sustains the life of the risen Christ within us, of Him Whose members we are. Such is the place which the Holy Eucharist occupies in Pauline theology; it sums up all that is most sublime alike in the teaching and in the practice of the Apostle. And as through this Blessed Sacrament we learn daily better the full significance of the cross, and become more closely one with Christ in this grace and glory, we echo with ever great truth that supreme cry of the great Apostle, ” ‘Tis no longer I that live, ’tis Christ liveth in me.”