DEVOTIONS TO THE BLESSED SACRAMENT: HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
An excerpt from Paraliturgical Devotions
of the Western Chruch And Their role
By the V. Rev. Edward W. Hughes
DEVOTIONS TO THE BLESSED SACRAMENT
Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is one of the most obvious features of preVatican II Roman Catholicism. For some it even became one of the distinguishing features of the Roman Church. Always the presence of a very obvious Tabernacle on the altar drew the attention of anyone entering a Roman Church. Anyone passing the altar would stop and genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament reserved there. A few pious worshippers could be found clustered quietly in pews nearby. The most popular response to any feast during the year, after Christmas and Easter, would be at Corpus Christi and the annual forty hours adoration.
The history of the development which produced this lies mostly in the Middle Ages, but the roots are evident much earlier. Those roots are to be found within the liturgical tradition itself, as are the fully-developed forms also. Indeed, any devotion to the Blessed Sacrament must be seen in the light of the Eucharist's context within the Liturgy, and these devotions as extensions of the liturgy, not as existing independent of it. ¹
The very beginnings of any devotion to the sacred species of the sacrament themselves as the presence of Christ appears in the mid-fourth century, in Syria. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechatical Orations instructs communicants to touch the sacrament to their eyes before receiving it. Then before receiving the chalice, one is to bend and say, ''In the way of worship and reverence, “Amen'' ² and then afterward, ''While the moisture is still on thy lips, touching it with thine hands, hallow both thine eyes and brow and the other senses.” ³ According to Gregory Dix, this is intended as an act of reverence. He finds it repeated fifty years later still in Syria, by Theodore of Mopsuestia who goes on to instruct, ''After you have received the Body (into your hands) you offer adoration ... and kiss it, and you offer prayers, as if to Christ our Lord, who is at present so near you."4 Dix feels that this eastern attitude was then imported to the west where in the 7th century the hymn ''Agnus Dei'' was introduced into the Liturgy immediately before communion as an act of adoration. 5 Thus, both in the east and the west, we have the intuition that the sacrament is due reverence as to Christ Himself, and this very early in the life of the Church.
Along with this devotion, there is apparent concern for the handling of the Eucharist and its care. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the passage quote above, cautions the communicants to take great care about crumbs because they are "more precious than gold and precious stones." 6 Quite striking is the reference in the third century treatise On the Public Games (De Spectaculis) which mentions a “Lax Christian, who after his dismissal from the Lord's sacrifice, hastened to the circus and still bearing with him as is usual, the Eucharist, the unfaithful communicant carried around the holy body of Christ amidst the vile bodies of harlots.” 7 Here, the concern is not so much that the Eucharist might be lost, but that it was being profaned by being taken into such an atmosphere. The author is concerned that the Christian is not rendering the proper respect to the “holy body of Christ” by carrying it with him to secular games, which the author does not approve of anyway. It is clear that it was the Christian’s responsibility to handle the Eucharist in his care with the proper respect due to the Body of Our Lord. This respect was due to it because of what it was in itself. It is true that it was reserved to be consumed eventually, but in the meantime the Sacrament was to be accorded proper honor and respect as the very Body of Christ.
In this matter the proper understanding must not be lost. The Church does not reserve the sacrament in order to worship it! This would be an obvious misuse of the sacrament. The sacrament was meant to be consumed. It is only from receiving it that the Christian can gain the benefits of it. 8 Christ said, ''Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.''9 He mentions no benefit from contemplating His Body and Blood. From the start, the Church reserved mainly to provide communion for those who might need it at other times than the liturgy, primarily the sick and the dying. Nevertheless, the elements remain the Body and Blood of Christ even after the Liturgy, while they are reserved. We do not believe that they are only the Body and Blood of Christ as they are being received, this is ''receptionism.'' The statement quoted from De Spectaculis makes it clear that the Church considers the consecrated elements to remain Christ's Body and Blood. To quote from Gregory Dix:
The reserved bread is for Hippolytus ''The Body of Christ'' without qualification, even when it is being nibbled by a mouse. It is ''the Holy Body'' for Optatus even when it is being profanely cast to the dogs. It is for Novatian ''The holy Body'' even when it is being carried around by the careless Christian ''Amongst the vile bodies of harlots.'' 10
As the Body and Blood of Christ, the elements retain all the properties of the Eucharist. It would be a tragic reduction to see the entire Eucharist only in terms of the elements becoming the physical body of Christ. The Eucharist involves the entering into the New Age, the Kingdom of God; it is the unity of all the Church, which is also the Body of Christ. It is a unity of time and space outside of time and space. It is the giving up of ourselves into the Body of Christ that we might be one with each other and with Him. It is the mystery of Christ's incarnation and resurrection and also of our sharing in the deification, which He made possible. The Eucharist brings together in the best sense of' “symbol,” the entirety of the Christian faith and hope and reality. In a sense it is the Church, both being the Body of Christ. The actual appropriation and fulfillment of all of this is only in receiving it but in the meantime all exist remains just as powerfully present in the elements themselves. Therefore, it would be insensitive and even blasphemous for a Christian to ignore this reality when in the presence of these elements. Their nature and potential use demands full respect and honor when they are handled or reserved. The reality of their nature and potentiality make them a powerful presence even when they are not in actual "use."
It is natural that with the development of sacramental piety there arose also distortions or abuses of the sacrament. It is interesting to note that in dealing with these the Church always kept in mind what the nature and purpose of the sacrament really is and used this as the criterion for judging all practices.
Three examples exist which are especially illustrative of this. Around the ninth century there arose the custom of sealing a portion of the Eucharist inside the altar at the time of the consecration, either with or in place of the customary relics. The practice was widespread throughout northern Europe and is specifically mentioned in the rubrics for consecrating altars, which were written then in these areas. 11 The practice was objected to by various teachers at the time and eventually died out altogether. Most interesting, however, is the reasoning behind one medieval canonist's objection. Guido de Baysie, an Italian and therefore not from an area where the custom was widely practiced, claimed that Christ had said, ''Take and eat," not "Take and bury." 12 Therefore, the usage was against the expressed purpose of the sacrament and obscured its meaning.
Another abuse, which apparently cropped up repeatedly for several centuries very early in the Church history, was that of burying the Eucharist with the bodies of the dead. This was done for various reasons, such as because the deceased had not received it before dying or to ward off demons. St. Gregory Dialogos reports that St. Benedict applied the practice on a particular dead monk who would not stay buried. The pagan and superstitious overtones of such acts are obvious, and it was condemned repeatedly by councils from the fourth to the seventh centuries. The Council of Carthage in 397 gave the reason that, ''The Lord said: Take and eat, and dead bodies can neither take nor eat." 13 Here again the practice was condemned because it was outside of the purpose and nature of the Eucharist.
Thirdly, in the Middle Ages it became generally popular to place a cross symbolically in a ''sepulchre'' on Good Friday. This was then brought out on Easter Sunday and carried in procession. Around the eleventh century, the Eucharist began to be placed in the sepulchre with the cross. This would seem a natural symbol, the sacramental Body of Christ representing Him during the memorial of His bodily death and burial. This was precisely what was objected to, however, in Zurich in 1260. It was considered ''Contrary to reason ... altogether improper and absurd that the Eucharist, which is the true and living Body of Christ, should represent the dead body of Christ.” 14 This particular objection arises from exact understanding of the sacramental body of Christ. St. John of Damascus wrote, ''The Bread and Wine are not a figure of the Body and Blood of Christ -- God forbid! But the actual deified Body of the Lord." 15 It is the risen Christ's actual presence in His Church, not the dead corpse of the crucified Jesus. That Body rose and ascended to the Father. It is the Jesus of "Now'' that comes to us not the Jesus of “then.”
Thus we see that when the western church developed its Eucharistic devotions, it did so with precise thought and consideration to what was being done and what it meant and it did not allow pious fantasy and imagination to dominate the development.
We have seen that the Church reserves the Sacrament mainly for the communion of the sick and dying. This is required by canon law, which insists that it be available for these times. 16 It has also been seen that the Church allowed faithful Christians to reserve the sacrament in their own homes for the purpose of daily communion. 17 This practice largely died out among the laity, and the sacrament was reserved almost exclusively by the clergy. It was usually kept in the locked sacristy to which the deacon held the key. 18
In the west, however, the Eucharist was also reserved for symbolic purposes. It was the custom for a bishop to send a portion of the Eucharist to other bishops who consumed it at their own liturgies. 19 This was done to show that the bishops were of one faith, and therefore were “in communion.” That is, the Eucharist that each was celebrating was in fact the same Eucharist because they shared the same faith and were in the same body of Christ. The unity of the Church has always been closely linked to the Eucharist. St. Paul writes:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because it is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf. 1Cor. 10:16-17.
This same custom of sending the Eucharist was also used in Rome between the bishop and the presbyters of the various churches in the city when there could no longer be only the bishop celebrating because of the vast numbers of faithful. The bishop sent particles of his Eucharist to those priests who received it as a token that they celebrated the same Liturgy as he. In fact this Liturgy was an extension of the bishop's.
The bishop himself also would place a bit of bread, which he had consecrated at a previous liturgy into the chalice, which he was consecrating at the time. This was to show that the Eucharists celebrated at different times were in fact the same Eucharist. 21
Both of these uses of the reserved sacrament are to show what we consider a very important aspect of the Eucharist; it is one. It is always the mystic banquet of the Kingdom with Christ Himself presiding -- outside of present time and place. It is a participation in the age to come.
The unity of the Church in Christ extends to all who participate in this mystic banquet, it extends throughout time to embrace all who have passed from this life and also those who are yet unborn. It completely transcends our temporal situation and laces us with Christ in His eternal Kingdom. All of this is pointed to by these two liturgical uses of the reserved Sacrament.
This use of the Sacrament is actually quite apart from the purpose of receiving it. It was used in a ritual way to emphasize a very important truth about the very nature of the Eucharist. It was used in a symbolic way to make clear the meaning of the actual celebration and reception of the Eucharist. It stems from the nature of the Eucharist, and its purpose is to manifest that nature. It is a revelatory and didactic use. It is part of the early Church’s Lex Orandi which serves to present the faith of the Church.
The development of the actual devotions to the Blessed Sacrament as they are known in the western Church today began in the eleventh century, but the roots are in the identical principles as the practices noted above. Like many other usages in the Church, they developed as a response to a challenge to the accepted doctrine of the Church. The Church has always avoided defining any particular belief until it is challenged by heresy.
Everything from the development of the Nicene Creed to Palamite theology has been the result of specific dangers to the belief of the Church. In this case, it was largely a reaction to the ideas of Berengarius of Tours, which were popular and widespread at the time.
Berengarius' ideas had their origin in one Ratramnus of Corbie who wrote two centuries earlier. Ratramnus, writing according to a popular sentiment of his day, had published an essay on the sacrament of the Eucharist in which he placed emphasis on the mystical nature of Christ's presence in the sacrament and denied that the bread and wine became the historical body of Christ. His writings apparently did not acquire much notice until two centuries later when Berengarius brought them to the fore.
Berengarius read and developed Ratramnus' thought. He claimed that the elements actually remain exactly what they were before the consecration without change. The change is in the minds and attitude of the faithful. After the consecration, the believers perceive the elements in the context of Christ's passion and death. 23
Both Berengarius and Ratramnus were condemned for their teaching on the Eucharist at various councils in the mid-eleventh century. Nevertheless, their ideas were widespread, especially in France where Berengarius had been teaching. It was immediately then towards the end of the eleventh century in Normandy and Norman England that the first prescribed acts of adoration to the Sacrament appear. The Abbey of Bec added the Blessed Sacrament to its Palm Sunday procession and adored it during the procession. From there the use spread to Canterbury and St. Albans in England and Rouen in France. 24 It is clear that by solemnly proceeding with the Sacrament and encouraging acts of adoration such as genuflecting directly towards the Sacrament, the clerical authorities were trying to instruct the people on the nature of the Sacrament itself. They were affirming visibly that the elements after the consecration were indeed Christ's Body and Blood, that these were what were received at communion and that it was not merely a conviction in the minds of hearts of the faithful. The didactic value of such prescribed, physical adoration was far more effective than a host of eloquent sermons. Rather than trying to convince the people by understanding they persuaded them to feel it by doing and acting. Indeed, it worked excellently and became enormously popular. Devotions to the Sacrament developed and increased throughout the Middle Ages.
It should be noted at this point that the Eucharist was not exposed or visible during these processions. The purpose was not to provide some kind of benefit from looking at the Sacrament itself. It was rather a rendering of honor to the Sacrament due to it as the presence of Christ Himself in order that it should be clear that the Church believes the Eucharist to be the very Body and Blood of Christ. The importance of viewing the Sacra1nent did not fully develop until the fourteenth century.
Similar to the older practice of using some of the reserved Sacrament to show the nature of the Eucharistic celebration the Church now used outward signs of honor to the reserved Sacrament to emphasize another aspect of the Eucharist. In so doing it was following a traditional means of teaching. When the Church wants to emphasize some aspect of its belief, it inserts it into the cultic action of the community. The insertion of Creed into the Liturgy to show fidelity to the faith of the Councils is one example 25 and another are the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany which arose to emphasize Christ's humanity. 26 Most effectively the solemn procession of Icons on the festival of Orthodoxy illustrates this principle. This was instituted against the defeated Iconoclasts to proclaim the Orthodox faith. The east had suffered much for the faith at the hands of iconoklastic heretics and now bore witness to that faith in a very visible way. In the same way, the west sought to publicly encourage proper belief in the Eucharist through visible and obvious means.
It is undoubtedly true that distortions, exaggerations and reductions have occurred in the western devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. But this has been a problem which had plagues all Christendom for centuries. No one can deny that during certain periods, devotion to icons was also carried to extremes. Such practices as chipping paint from an icon into the chalice, icons standing as baptismal and wedding sponsors, and acting as abbesses of monasteries are undoubtedly outside of normal piety, and not representative of the actual mind of the church, regardless of how widespread they might have been at one time. So in the west, when Eucharistic devotion got out of hand at certain times or in certain localities, it cannot be taken as reflecting the mind or faith of the Church. Nonetheless as we have seen, the western church took great care to see that this seldom happened.