St Justin Martyr (100 AD-165 AD) is one of the earliest witnesses and defenders of the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. What did he say about it and how have the writings of this second-century Christian influenced the Church throughout history?
St John Henry Newman, after his conversion to Catholicism from the Church of England, wrote these words: 'To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant' (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine). What Newman was getting at here was that the deeper one goes into history, especially the history of the Church, the more one finds Catholicism reflected back. This is particularly so when it comes to examining the early liturgies and beliefs of the Church. This reality is what gives such immense credibility to the Church’s claim that 'the one Church of Christ . . . subsists in the Catholic Church' (Lumen Gentium, §8).
St Justin Martyr is but one example of why this is the case. Born roughly 60-70 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, he is one of the closest writers to the apostles that we have, along with people such as Ignatius of Antioch (another must-read early Christian figure), who was said to have been a disciple of the apostle John.
For the moment, let’s focus on just one thing: the Eucharist.
Justin wrote two famous apologetic tracts defending Christianity from the claims made against it. The First Apology was addressed to Emperor Titus and Justin covers a wide range of topics. He defends Christianity against the charge of atheism (something Christians were accused of because of their refusal to sacrifice to the ancient gods), arguing the reasonableness of believing in the resurrection of Christ and how he fulfilled the words of the prophets in the Old Testament.
Towards the end, Justin begins describing the form of Christian worship. Listen to this:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we said before, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgiving, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each . . . (§67).
What we have here, as early as the second century, is the same basic structure to the liturgy as we have today. It is in raw and early form, but more than recognisable: reading the Scripture, homily, prayer, Eucharist, and then holy communion.
What’s even more striking is what he says about the Eucharist:
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (§66).
This echoes St Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to Smyrnaeans, in which he rebukes those who 'confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ' (§7).
What St Justin Martyr reveals to us here is that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is old – very old. From the earliest Christian writers we see that this belief was the understanding of the apostles and it was what they handed on and it is what the Church continues to pass on today.
St Justin Martyr, pray for us that we may not only believe in Christ's Eucharistic presence but also hand on this belief to our children faithfully.
Fiona Basile10 June 2021
Melbourne Catholic10 June 2021