2011 Papatheofanis Lecture: Ed Phillips

“With All the Company of Heaven: Eucharist and Cosmic Powers in Early Christian Worship”

Ed Phillips began the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies lecture with a modern prayer for the Lord’s Supper that is familiar to many Protestants. Worshipers speak their gratitude and proclaim their joining together with other voices on heaven and earth followed by the Sanctus. He noted the general theme that Christians do not create worship but join praise already in progress as they approach the table. He noted that, in the fourth century,  Serapion of Thmuis wrote the earliest extant example of a Eucharistic prayer that contains the Sanctus. It also included an extensive list of the hosts of heaven and God’s rule over the cosmic powers. In the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions, the concept is still the same of the saints joining the heavenly hosts, but the list is shortened. Phillips notes that there are few examples of Eucharistic prayers before the fourth century and what we do have does not have the Sanctus. The question of why it seems to occur suddenly has not been and probably will not be solved.

Phillips then posits his thesis that before the fourth century in the Christian community the Eucharist was already thought to be the submission of cosmic powers to God. The biblical powers (referencing Gene Davenport) are always the “something else” that is part of the organizing system of the world. They are created by God, and although fallen and corrupt, they are still beneficial to the world. They are a part of the transcendent part of God’s creation in so far as they fulfill their created purpose. They tend, however, to domination and self-preservation when they are intended, instead, to order and preserve. According to Phillips, the Eucharistic table was a place and a moment for early Christians to remember and enforce the cosmic significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. 1 Corinthians 10-11, in which Paul describes a fellowship meal with cosmic, political and eschatological significance, was important in this regard. The Eucharist was not a place to reiterate the powers of the world, but was, in fact, an eschatological enactment of the Church and for the Church – radical and countercultural in its engagement with the world and with evil.

Ignatius, the Didache, and Justin Martyr were among the examples Phillips referenced to show that early Christians viewed the church as playing an active role in the overthrow of principalities and powers and, in their coming together, breaking the powers of Satan. The Eucharistic prayers held in tandem both thanksgiving for the overthrow having already happened because of Christ and an active engagement of overthrowing the powers by the church “until he comes.”

According to Phillips, long before Constantine, the Eucharist was more than a meal: it was about God reordering the cosmic powers. He postulated that with Christendom the Sanctus slowly took over the place that the overthrow of cosmic powers had once held in Eucharistic prayers because of a false understanding that the powers had been redeemed. The understanding prior to this was quite different. The Eucharist was about forming the powers and thus it was necessary for the Corinthians to submit to the literal embodiment in the Eucharist,because otherwise it meant living in continued bondage to the powers of the world. These prayers are not so much about the holiness of Christians (as Phillips noted is so prevalent in services today), but instead a supremely political act. Phillips took the opportunity to encourage reflection upon current practice of the Eucharist:

We come to church with the powers clinging to our boots, but at the Eucharistic table the powers behold defeat by the death and the resurrection of Christ. Here the church makes a witness to the world resisting domination. This is so that, like Paul admonished the Corinthians to do, we do not dishonor the most vulnerable in our midst; for the table is a place of radical equality and where humans join with the angels. It is at the table we and the powers behold God’s created purpose, submit to that purpose, and are reminded of eschatological reality.

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