Corpus Christi is a feast honoring the Eucharist. We all know that we find the institution of the Eucharist in the accounts of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark and Luke; but do we realize that the Eucharist was already being celebrated on a daily basis from the earliest days of the Church?
Read Acts 6:1-6. Because of imprecision in terms in the earliest Church, we often don’t realize its Eucharistic content. Most people don’t realize that in the beginning, the word ‘deacon’ which is Greek for ‘servant’ (diakonos) could also apply to a priest or bishop. Most people also don’t realize that there wasn’t a special word for the Eucharist. Even our own word, ‘Eucharist’ is taken directly from the Greek meaning simply, ‘thanksgiving’. It was also often referred to as the ‘breaking of the bread’ and in this passage it is referred to as the ‘daily service’ (which is why, when we pray the Our Father, we say, ‘daily bread’ instead of ‘substantial bread’ or ‘supernatural bread’ which would be much closer to the original Greek).
What is happening in this passage? The Greek-speaking widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of ‘bread’. From what we have already said, we can easily figure out that what is happening is that the Apostles (who are for the most part more comfortable using Hebrew/Aramaic than Greek) are celebrating daily Mass for the Hebrew-speaking widows, but not for the Greek-speaking widows. I think we can understand that the Greek-speaking widows feel left out and would like to have daily Mass too. But the Apostles realize that, while they could spend more time celebrating Mass by visiting the communities of Greek-speaking widows, they have something more important to do that they shouldn’t leave out. Their most important ministry is witnessing to the truth of the Resurrection. They were all witnesses to Jesus having risen from the dead – having seem him alive and touched him after the Resurrection. That ministry ended with the Apostles – we no longer have witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection living among us. Since that ministry has ended, now the most important ministries for bishops and priests include preaching and the sacraments.
To solve this dilemma, they decide to ordain the first priests. Since their ministry will be primarily to celebrate Mass for those the Apostles can’t get to, especially in the Greek-speaking community (we notice that the seven men chosen all have Greek names, indicating they are probably more comfortable speaking Greek than Hebrew). More evidence that this is something much more important than the distribution of ordinary bread lies in the qualifications that these men need to have: ‘of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’. To hand out bread, you would certainly want honest men, but these qualifications, while they go way beyond what is needed for handing out ordinary bread, seem to fit what you would want for men who are going to be ordained priests to celebrate the Eucharist on a daily basis. And one more puzzling thing is that none of these men is depicted in Acts doing acts of charity on behalf of the community. Instead, the only two who are mentioned, Stephen and Philip, go out immediately and start to evangelize – a priestly mission.
Also, we know that in the time of the early Church, the preferred Jewish practice was to give money to the poor for food, not to give them bread.
Finally, it is good to notice something else special about this passage that is not specifically Eucharistic. Who are these widows? Reading Acts, we notice that the widows in the early Church would often live together to work and pray. Often, they promised not to remarry, to devote their lives to the community and the community supported them. In other words, they made promises or vows that they would live in a more spiritual way and serve the Christian community. What we have, in fact, is the beginning of the first religious communities. These were the first consecrated women. More evidence for this comes from outside the Gospel – the word we commonly use today for some of the women that live this way, ‘nun’. This word comes from the Vulgar Latin word ‘nonna’ which means ‘grandmother’. It even became the word in Medieval Latin for nuns and in its masculine form, for monks. That is because, from the times of the Apostles, there were already communities of consecrated women, for the most part older women, ‘the grandmas’, ‘nonnae’, ‘nuns’; who devoted their lives to prayer and serving the community – the beginning of religious life in the Church.
So, as we celebrate the feast of the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, we can remember how important the Eucharist was from the first days of the Church, from the time of the Apostles. Even then, in the first Christian community in Jerusalem, it was the habit to have daily Mass, in order to receive the ‘daily bread’ and it was so central to the life of the community that people complained if they were forced to miss out – which brought about the ordinations of the first priests.
To give credit where credit is due, most of these ideas are from Fr. Jean Galot in Chapter VIII B. 1. of his book Theology of the Priesthood – but St. John Chrysostom was the first to read this passage and suspect that these seven men were not deacons.
This article was written by Fr. James Swanson, LC.