The history of theological reflection and the writings on the Eucharist has been made by the Fathers of the Church in such an extensive way and described in so much details that any brief summary is very superficial. The Fathers of the Church were theologians of the ancient Church, who in many cases were liturgists too, spoke about Eucharist primarily in their sermons and catechises. Their contribution to Eucharistic theology can be put together as following:
The fundamental contribution to Eucharistic theology in the first centuries resulted from the comparison of the biblical statements about Eucharist with Platonic thought. It means that forms of thought and methods of expression that we tend to think of as “popular philosophy” was used to clarify what was already believed. This popular philosophical view of things included a conviction of the existence of a transcendent, spiritual world, the home of the Divine and the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful; a sober view of our world of experience, with mutability and its often deceptive appearance; and the presumption that there is communication between the two worlds.
In the Patristic period biblical typology was used to explain the theology of Sacraments. In other words they tried to place the sacraments in the context of the history of salvation. The celebration of the sacraments then presupposed a whole biblical formation as a preparation for the participation in Liturgy. The three principal “types” of the sacrament of Eucharist found in the OT were: 1) the offering of bread and wine by Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20); 2) the feeding of the people of God with manna (Exo 16) and 3) the eschatological meal traditions ( Ps 23: 4ff; Is 25:6; Exo 24:9-12).
Clement of Alexandria (+215) speaks of Melchizedek, who offered bread and wine, the consecrated food as a figure (typos) of the Eucharist. Melchizedek ‘brought out bread and wine’ (Genesis 14.18). His offering of bread and wine, moreover, was recognized as a priestly act; that is to say, Melchizedek did this precisely ‘because he was’ a priest (as is clear in the Septuagint’s en de (because he was) and the Vulgate’s erat enim for he was). Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine, of course, was a type and prefiguration of what transpired that night when God’s priestly Son took the loaf of bread and the cup of wine into his holy and venerable hands and identified them as his Body and Blood. This is how the Christian Church has always interpreted the act of that first priest, Melchizedek, ‘who gave the wine and bread, the sanctified food, as a type of the Eucharist (eis typon Eucharistias)’ (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 4.25). Melchizedek was the ‘type of Christ, and he offered the same gifts that prefigured the Mystery’ (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 36.3). ‘Who had the bread and wine?’ asked Ambrose of Milan. ‘Not Abraham,’ he answered, ‘but Melchizedek. Therefore he is the author of the Sacraments’ (De Sacramentis 4.10). The living memory of Melchizedek thus abides deeply in the worship of the Christian Church. According to Cyprian “In Melchizedek the priest, we see the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord prefigured according to the witness of Scripture, and Melchizedek, king of Salem, offered bread and wine… Our Lord Jesus Christ … offered to the Father the same offering as Melchizedek, that is, bread and wine, has taken place in the past. And is this figure that the Lord Fulfilled and accomplished when he offered the bread and chalice of wine mingled with water. He who is the fulfilment accomplished the reality of the figurative image” (FEF 581).
Paul has already employed the typology of miracle of the manna in I Cor 10:1-5; Ambrose gives explanation that the Manna is the Angelic food yet those who ate it died. Whereas the food that descended from heaven, communicates to those who partake of it the substance of eternal life. As the light is greater than the shadow the truth than the figure, thus the body of Christ is greater than the manna.
Cyprian sees a figure of the Eucharist in the banquet of wisdom in Proverbs 9:5ff (also Psalm 23 “The Lord feeds me, I want for nothing. He has led me to a place of refreshment…”).
Thus these typology of the Eucharist also bring to our notice the sacrificial character of Eucharist; the nourishment aspect of the Eucharist and the eschatological implication of the Eucharist.
To describe the Eucharist the early Fathers of the Church used three approaches (expressions/languages). They are 1) Spiritualistic; 2) Symbolical; 3) Realistic.
Spiritualistic language describes the Eucharist as a spiritual food. See in I Cor 10:3-8. St. Ambrose says: “in that Sacrament is Christ, because it is the body of Christ. Therefore, it is not bodily food, but spiritual…..”(De Mysteries 5:55). St. Augustine “the body of Christ will be life to each one, if what is visibly received in the sacrament is spiritually eaten and drunk in very truth” (Sermon 131, n. I; cf. also FEF 1524).
A symbolic mode of expression of the Eucharist is seen in Tertullian. For eg., “the Lord called bread his body in order that you may understand him to have given the figure of his body to the bread….” (FEF 343). Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose spoke of the symbolic mode expression.
Many times we find the teachings on Eucharist in a realistic language in the writings of Fathers. For them the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. They emphasised this realistic language to fight against docetism and gnosticism. Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons saw the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as a proof against docetic idea that rejected the reality of Christ’s humanity. Ignatius says “They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they do not acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, which the Fathers raised up by his goodness”. St. Augustine too described the real presence of Christ in strong terms: “the bread which you see on the altar, once it is sanctified by the word of god, is the body of Christ. And that chalice, or rather what the chalice contains, once it is sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ” (cf. FEF 1519, 1520).
How the consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? The fathers of the Church did not treat it elaborately. However they made use of variety of expressions such as “Conversion” (Cyril of Jerusalem); “Transelementation” (Gregory of Nyssa); “Translation” (John Chrysostome); Transposition (Cyril of Alexandria); “Transformation” (John Damascene). The important point they wanted to highlight was that the bread and wine after consecration was in actuality the body and blood of Christ. This change is possible by God’s power. According to St. Ambrose if the word of God is powerful enough to bring into existence what did not exist, it is obviously powerful enough to change what already exist into something else.
In the Patristic period these three modes of expressions were not opposing the understanding of the Eucharist, but complementary ways of speaking about the same reality. They also insisted that the Eucharist was always a communitarian experience. Consequently they emphasised the unity of the community in order to celebrate the Eucharist (cf. FEF 56).