It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Lord’s Supper (LS) for Christian community, theology and practice. This is especially so among the early church fathers. In the words of John Chrysostom, the “table is the sinews of our soul, the bond of our mind, the foundation of our confidence, our hope, our salvation, our light our life” (Homily 24 on First Corinthians 8).Among the church fathers the LS was one the primary marker of discipleship in the life of a Christian. Why was it so significant for the early church to eat this meal together? According to them, it was their salvation!
So, what did it mean for them to participate in this ritual? One of the major focuses of the LS among the fathers was unity. This is articulated by Jesus in John 17—a prayer for believers to have the same unity as the father and son. Hilary of Poitiers writes, “If the Word has indeed become flesh, and we indeed receive the Word as flesh in the Lord’s supper, how are we not to believe that he dwells in us by his nature . . . All of us are one in this manner because the Father in Christ and Christ is in us” (From the Holy Eucharist to the Holy Trinity). In this same vein, Chrysostom refers to the supper as Jesus being united with his church, “For neither was it enough for Him to be made man, to be smitten and slaughtered, but He also commingles Himself with us, and not by faith only, but also in very deed makes us His body” (Homily 82 on Matthew). Jesus actually makes his church his body through the LS and commingles himself with her. This comingling is part of the mystery of the LS, for “we become one Body, and members of His flesh and of His bones” (Homily 46 on the Gospel of John 3; Homily 24 on First Corinthians 7). Without a doubt the early fathers saw the LS as not only a mystical union of the believers with one another, but also an unparalleled union with Christ himself. Ecclesiologically speaking, then, one of the primary functions or purposes of the supper was unity.
In addition to unity, it is clear that the supper celebrates the climax of salvation history. In many of the prayers included in the supper there are summary retellings of the whole of salvation history in a few short paragraphs (cf. especially Apostolic Constitution 12). The climax of this history is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Chrysostom is very clear the institution of the supper refers to the passion of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin (Homily 82on Matthew; cf. Mt 26:28). He notes that this would have sounded very confusing to Jewish ears (Homily 47 on John 2; cf. Jn 6.63). In his homily on John 6 Chrysostom is explicit, “This blood is the salvation of our souls, by this the soul is washed, by this is beautiful, by this is inflamed . . . this blood was poured forth, and made heaven accessible.” It is the climax of salvation rooted in the history of Israel. The most explicit connection with Israel is the fact that the meal originated in the Passover. Chyrsostom sees the LS as a meal with Jewish roots, yet drawn out and surpassing Jewish customs. According to Chrysostom, “He transferred the service to that which is far more awful and glorious, changing the very sacrifice itself, and instead of the slaughter of irrational creatures, commanding to offer up Himself” (Homily 24 on First Corinthians 3). Not only does the supper serve as the ritual for unity among the fathers but also the celebration and even participation in the climax of salvation history.