It is important to recall the actions and sayings which took place during our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist on Good Thursday, as this became the basis for every Eucharist. During the Good Thursday Eucharist, our Lord fulfilled three important actions which are considered the general skeleton for the Eucharist. These three actions are composite and interwoven in each other to form one action, which is the “Sacrifice of Thanksgiving” (Eucharist):
First Action (Rite):
Christ practiced the traditional rite which was known at that time in performing the “Love Meal” (Agape). This consisted of breaking the bread, then supper, then bless- ing the cup (thanksgiving), followed by praise and dismissal.
Second Action (Sacramental):
After the blessing on the bread, breaking and distributing it, Christ declared its trans- formation to His Body. Likewise, after the giving of thanks of the cup He declared the transformation of the wine mixed in the cup into His Blood.
Third Action (Explanatory):
Christ explained to His disciples the New Mystery (Sacrament) instituted in the bro- ken bread, transformed into His Body and the Mystery of the mixed cup transformed into His Blood. This was not a mere speech over or after the supper, but a talk that explains the essence of the Sacrament which the Lord imparted in the bread and the cup. The detailed explanation appears in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 6 and chapters 13 -17.
How did the Apostles develop the structure of the Liturgy, as we know it today?
The above-mentioned actions and explanatory words became in the disciples’ minds an indivisible part of celebrating the Eucharist. They used to gather, “for breaking the bread” during the forty days after the Lord’s Resurrection. They used special prayers pleading for the Lord’s coming among them and transforming the bread and cup, as He did during the Good Thursday, through His power. It is most probable that the Lord re- sponded several times and appeared to them during those moments, i.e. at the breaking of the bread, similar to what happened with the two disciples of Emmaus. We can trace nowadays’ structure of the Eucharist Liturgy to the time of the early church after the descending of the Holy Spirit on the Pentecost Day. This practice is recorded in the book of Acts of the Apostles in chapter 2, verse 42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers”, i.e. the structure of the Liturgy consists of four main elements: 1. Apostles’ Doctrine (Teaching), 2. Apostles’ Fellowship, 3. Breaking of Bread, and 4. Prayers. These four elements constitute the Liturgy as celebrated from the time of the Apostles until now:
1. Doctrines or Teachings of the Apostles
This is what we call now the Liturgy of the Catechumens (in Arabic: al- maw’oozin). This part of the Divine Liturgy includes: a) Readings from the Pauline Epistles, b) the Catholic Epistles, c) the Acts of the Apostles and its ex- tension, the Synexarion, d) Psalms and e) Gospels. The homily or sermon fol- lows after the reading of the gospel.
In the early Church, as they came from far areas they used to bring with them their own food and eat together in a fellowship which is the Agape Meal. How- ever, St. Paul noticed disorderly behavior at the Eucharist Liturgy such as rich people bringing expensive food and showing-off in front of the poor ones (1 Cor. 11: 20-22). This lead to deferring the Agape Meal till after the Holy Communion.
3. Breaking of the Bread (Institution of the Holy Communion)
This is the distribution of Christ’s Body, i.e. the Holy Communion.
These are the prayers which lead to the Holy Communion. They include also the preparation prayers and praises extending from the Vespers until the time of the Holy Communion.
Written by Fr. Shenouda D. Botros of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Ottawa