On Holy Thursday we commemorate the first Mass, the first miracle of the Eucharist. None of us having been there, how do we know it occurred? Faith of course, but faith buttressed by the knowledge that our Faith is supported by historical facts. We know when Christ lived. At each Mass we remember that He suffered under Pontius Pilate which allows us to date the Crucifixion and the Last Supper to plus or minus a few years. We know when Caiaphas was High Priest. Judaea, the province in which Christ lived, was not some make-believe land but a province of the Roman Empire and we know much about it at the time of Christ. Above all, we have the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul, documents written while those who saw and heard Christ still lived.
This of course was only the start of the historical record of Catholicism, the Universal Church. Each generation produced new writers who give us precious facts of the journey through history of the Faith of Christ. One of the most important of the early writers about the Church is Saint Justin Martyr.
Justin Martyr was born in Flavia Neapolis, ancient Shechem, modern day Nablus, in Judaea circa 100 AD. He was brought up a pagan. Having enough money to pursue the study of philosophy, he encountered the teachings of Christ, after a long and methodical search for the true philosophy, and became a convert. Having found the true philosophy, he traveled around the Roman Empire, spreading it, garbed in his philosopher’s gown. Eventually he settled in Rome. He wrote eight treatises defending Christianity. His best known work is his First Apology which he addressed to the Roman Emperor Antonius Pius, one of the best of the emperors, who reigned from 138-161 AD. This Apology was a plea for the Emperor to stop persecuting the Christians. In this Apology he gives us many details as to how Catholics worshiped in Rome during the middle of the Second Century. His description of the Eucharist is a treasure for all Catholics as we attend Holy Thursday Mass today.
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to so be it. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. 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. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
Here the Real Presence is asserted matter of factly as what all Christians believe. As Catholics in the Twenty-First Century we are part of a long process of the keeping of the truth handed to the Apostles by Christ on that Thursday night so long ago. As Saint Justin Martyr witnessed to that truth in his day, we witness to it in ours. As his title indicates, Saint Justin died a martyr for the Faith. We have a contemporaneous account of his heroic death.
“The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods. Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety. The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy. Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Saviour. And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols. The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws. The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”
Our personal witness to the truth of Christ will probably not involve the final sacrifice required of Saint Justin Martyr and his companions, but we will need faith and courage nonetheless. Not bad things to pray for today.