Social Eucharist in the Middle Ages

In The People’s Work, a social history of Christian Worship, Frank Senn summarizes the developments of the medieval period with regard to the Eucharist. He begins by challenging the assumption that medieval society was held together by “the church.” He notes that the church was often divided and conflicted, and that there were also political conflicts between ecclesiastical and political leadership. It was not the church that provided the “social glue of the Middle Ages,” but the specific rite of the church – the Eucharist.

The social vision of the medieval world was grounded in a communion ecclesiology in which “the sacramental body forms the ecclesial body, which is kept in union with the historical body of Christ, the head of the ecclesial body, by receiving his body and blood in the sacrament.” This communion ecclesiology is reflected in patristic sermons and treatments of the sacrament from both east and west. Senn states, “The unanimous conviction of the ancient church is that the ecclesial body of Christ is formed, maintained, nourished, and kept in union with Christ by the sacramental body of Christ.” Thomas Aquinas could cite John of Damascus to express the ecumenical consensus that “it is called communion because through it we communicate with Christ, both by partaking of his flesh and divinity and be communicating with and being united to one another through it.” Even the hierarchy of the church was brought into connection with the Eucharistic center: “the church hierarchy existed to serve the communion of the church; ordained ministry was never regarded as something in and of itself. The ordained minister existed to serve the sacraments.” The Eucharistic assembly was not limited to the living. Saints living and dead were united in the meal and the rite, in the ritual act of oblation and thanks. Senn quotes John Bossy: “The devotion, theology, liturgy, architecture, finances, social structure and institutions of late medieval Christianity are inconceivable without the assumption that the friends and relations of the souls in purgatory had an absolute obligation to procure their release, above all by having masses said for them.” At the center of medieval society was a rite of exchange. An oblation was offered to God with thanks.

But the original Eucharistic conception gradually deteriorated. The ninth-century debates between Paschasius and Ratramnus focused attention on the question of the metaphysical status of the elements, and disturbed the unity of thing and sign. This unity was even further damaged by the Berengarian controversy in the eleventh century. With this went developments in Eucharistic practice that detached the Eucharistic elements from the communal event of the meal: “A whole set of regulations were devised to control the manufacture, use, reservation, and disposal of the Eucharistic elements. Baking hosts became a ritualized procedure carried out in religious houses, accompanied by the singing of psalms. The hosts were baked in a vessel coated with wax, rather than in oil and fat, which might fry them. To keep crumbs from falling on the floor during the administration of communion, housling cloths were held under the chins of communicants, who now knelt to receive the host. Consecrated hosts not received by communicants had to be consumed by the priests or servers or stored in a place of reservation to be used later in the communion of the sick. The most usual container for reserving hosts in the Middle Ages were metal boxes called pyxes, which were locked and could be suspended over the altar and operated by a set of pulleys. The hosts in the pyxes had to be changed every eighth day to prevent molding.” Less attention was given to the wine, but that, Senn says, is became by the 12th century few lay Christians were receiving wine.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Canon of the Mass including acts of thanksgiving. The final doxology of the Canon begins Gratias agimus tibi. Yet, this note of thanks was overwhelmed by repeated emphasis on the unworthiness of the recipient: “Requests for forgiveness and expressions of unworthiness pervade the texts of the medieval mass. This is seen in the prayers of preparation at the beginning of the mass: Confiteor (the confession of sins) at the foot of the altar, followed by Aufer a nobis (take away from us our iniquities) as the priest went up to the altar, even after the prayer for forgiveness (Indulgentium, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum). There were more prayers for forgiveness in the Canon (Nobis quoque peccatoribus) and before receiving communion (Domine Jesu Christe . . . libera me . . . ab omnibus iniquitatibus meis, et universis malis). Expressions of unworthiness are uttered by the priest in the offertory prayers (Suscipe, sancte Pater and In spiritu humilitatis) and before receiving communion (Domine, non sum dignus). While it is true that the people did not recite these prayers, there was still an understanding that the priest was offering mass on behalf of the whole Christian assembly. And more than merely reciting affective prayers seeking forgiveness or expressing unworthiness in the presence of the Holy, all the faithful who had attained an age of discretion were required by a canon of the Fourth Lateran Council to make a confession of sins to the priest before receiving communion.”

Increasingly, too, the focus of the rite was not on the gifts of God for the people of God, or on the thanksgiving offered in return, but on the elevation of the host, which displayed the isolated miracle of God-become-bread. Senn says that the strongly realistic conception of the real presence and the power of the priest to confect the sacrament “produced a fused focus in the desire of the people to witness the elevation of the host more than to eat and drink together. The awesomeness of the miracle of transubstantiation produced in the people a sense of unworthiness to receive the host, yet the great benefits of the sacrament made the sacrament an object of desire that could be met by gazing at it in the elevation.”

Toward the end of the medieval period, the communal dimensions of the sacrament were further undermined by the rise of private, and frequent, communion. According to Senn, the early 15th century witnessed the rise “of ‘an asocial mysticism of frequent communion’ fostered by the introspective program of the devotio moderna, which departed significantly from the medieval laity’s norm of ‘annual communion’ at Easter.” Some chose to take communion more frequently, but this was at the expense of the Mass’s communal scope: “the whole community was not working out reconciliation together” and “people received communion after the Mass or even before the Mass from the reserved sacrament rather than at the point in the Mass itself where the sacrament should be administered.” This practice “dissolved the sequential links within the liturgical order (the Lord’s prayer with its embolism and the kiss of peace leading to the administration of Holy Communion)” and also “obliterated the administration of Holy Communion as the object of the Eucharistic celebration.”

Once elements of the Mass were detached from the communal element of the celebration, they could be manipulated for other uses. At Corpus Christi celebrations, the host was paraded through the streets, and “in its retinue came the contingent segments of urban society . . . each in their own order: nobility, mayor and magistrates, town council, guilds and fraternities (jockeying for position as close to the host as possible), with prelates, clergy, and religious scattered throughout.” The whole governmental structure of urban life was sanctified by the presence of the consecrated host. In France, the kings “in their struggle to centralize authority in themselves at the expense of the regional nobility, superimposed the symbols of royal authority on the process in the coronation city of Reims and took for their own trappings of office the canopy that covered the host, since it was a symbol of majesty.” The king’s body was a focal point of sacredness; it was the “mystical body” of the king.

The early Reformers attempted to carry on the Eucharistic social vision of the middle ages, and restored the centrality of gift and thanksgiving. Luther emphasized that the sacrament was “the gift of communion, which the people were exhorted to receive more frequently.” In short, “the reformers did not set out to disconnect the Eucharistic body from the social body.” Luther wanted his people to “go joyfully to the sacrament of the altar and lay down his woe in the midst of the community and seek help from the entire company of the spiritual body – just as a citizen whose property has suffered damage or misfortune at the hands of his enemies makes complaint to his town council and fellow citizens and asks for help.” Protestants saw a connection between the sacrament and charity as well, seeing “social ethics [as] the continuation of community worship.” Senn notes, Public worship and public ministry are two aspects of the Gottesdienst, the service of God. In other words, ‘the service of God’ was understood by Luther and his colleagues as both God’s service to us in Word and Sacrament and our service to God in worship and in love toward our neighbor.”

Despite their efforts, the Reformers were not able to “establish social bonds through Eucharistic communion as powerfully as had been done by the late medieval practices of the elevation of the host.” Without transubstantiation, the link between the sacramental body and ecclesial body was weakened. More importantly, Protestantism developed and expanded the individualistic piety of the late Middle Ages. Luther included the “Pax Domini” in his 1523 Formula Missaie et communionis, but in 1526, he had dropped it. Calvin never ritualized reconciliation with the kiss of peace as had been done in the middle ages (though this was lost through the use of pax boards already in the middle ages). “Only the Anabaptists revived the ancient kiss of peace, but they removed it from its relationship to Holy Communion and placed it at the beginning of the service.” Senn also summarizes the architectural changes that gave permanent expression to Protestant liturgies. In Reformed churches, seats “clustered around the pulpit” and English Protestants invented the church pew, complete with closing doors. “Pews limited the interaction of people and privatized the experience of public worship.”

The social promise of the Protestant Eucharist was stillborn, and still awaits resurrection.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.