The Eucharist in Context: From the Patristic Era to Modernity
The celebration of the Eucharist emerged as a distinctive feature of early Christian worship and in many contemporary denominations it remains a significant aspect of the faith. Largely believed to have been instituted by Christ, and then perpetuated among his followers, the Christian meal of communion, while unique in its orientation, was also a reflection of the cultural and religious context of the ancient world. These included the dominant Hellenistic culture throughout the Mediterranean, as well as the ancient Jewish heritage from which Christianity was formed. In addition to Christian revelation, these two cultural influences shaped the early Christian understanding behind the purpose of the communal meal. For instance, banquets throughout the Hellenistic world were considered an important part of social life, thereby making the form of Christian worship a staple of the culture. Likewise, in Judaism banquets were important not only as part of religious festivals, but for symbolically portraying their eschatological hope in God’s messianic reign as well.
For early Christians, therefore, the Eucharistic meal held a two-fold significance, not only did it resemble a social gathering of exclusive members, it also pointed towards the Messianic reign anticipated in the Hebrew tradition and inaugurated by Christ. Yet, even as Christianity spread throughout the ancient world and adopted certain aspects of the contemporary culture, it was necessary for the Church to distinguish the uniqueness of Christian worship. Therefore, the early Church fathers, using both the ancient Jewish and Hellenistic culture as their framework, developed and interpreted their theologies of the Eucharist in light of Christian revelation. Understanding these theologies will also help to better realize the relationship between Patristic and contemporary Catholic theories of the Eucharist.
The dominant tradition out of which Christianity emerged was Judaism. Early Christians who believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel interpreted his life, death, and resurrection not only through the words and actions of Jesus himself, but in light of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Likewise, the institution of the Eucharist, regarded and perpetuated among Christians as a sacred meal, was subjected to these forms of interpretation also. Therefore, we will look at two significant aspects of Jewish culture that influenced the understanding of the Eucharist. First, as previously mentioned, we will discuss the messianic overtones of the gathering meal in the context of the Jewish tradition. In this case, banquets throughout the Old Testament, such as Passover, were often meant to reveal God’s abundant life-giving generosity and to point towards a future communal gathering of the people of God. The Eucharist therefore, was interpreted in this light especially since early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah who restored communion between God and humankind. Second, we will look at how the element of sacrifice was also an important aspect of the Jewish tradition, and how it helped the early church understand the reality made present in the Eucharist and the purpose it accomplished. Sacrifice in the Old Testament typically involved the slaughtering of animals in the Temple where atonement was made for the forgiveness of sins. This was especially important for early Christians who viewed Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the definitive sacrifice for all humanity and profoundly shaped emerging theologies of the Eucharist.
The Messianic Banquet
The Eucharistic meal as a continuation and elevation of the Jewish meals celebrating God’s promise, emerged as a significant interpretative lens through which early Christians viewed its efficacy and importance. The Messianic meals of the Old Testament pointed to a time of unity, peace, and reconciliation among the people of God. One such meal was the annual Passover celebration. Regarded by Christians as a prototype of the Eucharist, the Passover festival commemorated the liberation of ancient Israel from Egyptian slavery, united the covenant people both past and present, and served as a “great renewal celebration when the Israelite community attempts once again to become what it was meant to be.” Early Jewish Christians incorporated these various themes of Passover into their first interpretations of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, therefore, was viewed as the definitive meal in which all Jewish meals found their fulfillment. It was essentially “understood as an earthly type of a heavenly reality,” which served to unify the Church and perpetuate the new covenant made through Jesus Christ.
One early Church father who stressed the importance of the Eucharist in regards to Church unity was Ignatius of Antioch in the second century. Writing in response to the heresy of Docetism which challenged orthodox views of the Incarnation, Ignatius’ theology was largely a response to their doctrinal differences and separate Eucharistic services. For Ignatius, the celebration of the Eucharist was only valid under “episcopal supervision,” which “brought about a union of believers with Him [Jesus Christ].” This strong emphasis on the Church’s unity which the Eucharist makes manifest was intricately linked with Ignatius’ belief in the Incarnation and the corporal reality of the body and blood made present in the form of bread and wine. Out of this belief emerged the idea prominent in the Eastern Church which stressed the belief that the individual participant through the consumption of the sacrament of the Eucharist was united to Christ more fully and substantially. This belief in the elevation of humanity through the reality of Christ’s incarnation, now offered to all believers through the Church’s sacramental elements, was articulated well in Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration 37 in which he explains that “[W]hen the body which God made immortal enters ours, it transforms it entirely and makes it like itself.” In the same work he explains that “the reason why God…joined himself with our perishable nature was to divinize humanity, by union with his deity.”
The Realist Theory
The reality of Christ’s incarnation, and how it relates to the sacrament of the Eucharist emerged as the realist theory which became the dominant view of the Eucharist in Western Christendom prior to the Reformation. The realist theory emphasized the fact that at the consecration the elements of bread and wine are truly transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the Fourth Century advocated this belief in the real presence of Christ with an appeal to Jewish Scripture. Hearkening back to the story of creation as told in the Book of Genesis, Ambrose in his De Mysteriis stressed that in a similar way to which the origin of creation was dependent upon the creative word of Christ, so too is the transformation of the Eucharistic elements. The emphasis on the reality of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, therefore, was integral to its unifying and redemptive purpose. The necessity of these two aspects originated from the communal understanding of the ancient Jewish meals, shedding a unique light upon early Christian understandings of the Eucharist. The Messianic meals of the Old Testament pointed to eventual union with God and one another, which the Church fathers later incorporated into their theologies of the Eucharist by stressing its communal, transformative, and realistic aspect.
The second Jewish custom which influenced the understanding of the Eucharistic meal was the sacrificial rite. As mentioned previously, the Old Testament’s presentation of ancient animal sacrifices was a means through which the Jewish people gave thanks to God and offered a holocaust in atonement for their sins. In the Book of Exodus, it also served as a means through which the Israelites ratified their covenant with God at Mount Sinai after which Moses took the blood of the young bulls and sprinkled it on the altar and the people. The early Christians who were immersed in this Jewish context, naturally viewed the death of Jesus in light of these ritualistic sacrifices. His death, Christians believed, not only brought about the forgiveness of sins, but it also served to ratify the new and everlasting covenant. The Eucharistic meal, therefore, was thought to be an extension of this sacrifice where members of the church could both share in the divine mercy and become children of the new covenant in Christ’s blood.
The Eucharist as a form of sacrifice would be emphasized more prominently throughout the centuries, beginning with the early Church fathers. For example, Irenaeus in his Against Heresies IV refers to the Hebrew prophet Malachi’s prediction of a coming “pure sacrifice” (1:10-11) which he believes is not only fulfilled through Christ’s death on the cross but is also manifested during each celebration of the Eucharist. Irenaeus explains that “We offer him what is his own [bread and wine], and thereby proclaim the harmonious fellowship and union of flesh and spirit.” Like the Messianic banquet, the act of sacrifice in the Jewish tradition was meant to reconcile God and humanity.
East vs. West
The concept of the Eucharist as sacrifice would eventually split into two variations, one favored by the Eastern Church and the other by the Western Church. The first, regarded more favorably in the East, was the belief in the “Eucharistic celebration as a means of sacramental representation of the mystery of the historical redemptive work of Jesus Christ.” This means that each Eucharist mystically makes present the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The second, which became more prominent in the West, was the belief that each Eucharist was separate from the historical sacrifice of Christ and acted as a means through which the Church offers herself in union with Christ. For the West, this meant that Christ, as High Priest in heaven, is continually offering sacrifice on our behalf to the Father thereby lending itself to the belief that “each individual Mass has a value in itself,” and corresponds to “the typical Western Way of thinking which is focused on the individual and concrete event…” These differing perspectives on the nature of the sacrifice would then influence how these two regional Churches emphasized the effect of the Eucharist. For the East, which focused more explicitly on the divinization of humanity, the focus relied on the true reality of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament as a means towards which humanity could be permitted once more to share in the divine life. For the West on the other hand, although the realist theory of the Eucharist also prevailed, the emphasis was centered more on unity and the means through which “believers [were] integrated more deeply into the body of Christ, which is the Church.”
The concept of sacrifice would also be expanded upon further by Augustine of Hippo in the West. In contrast to Irenaeus who said that Christ “commanded his disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of his own creation,” Augustine claimed that “The true sacrifice is the sacrifice of a contrite heart. The true sacrifice is mercy.” Augustine thus turned the concept of sacrifice inward and justified his stance with reference to the Psalms which rejects the empty outward sacrifices of the Israelites in the Old Testament. As is evident, therefore, the concept of sacrifice in relation to the Eucharist has deep Jewish roots given that it memorializes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as a means through which sins are forgiven and church unity is made present. Although the origin of the Eucharist emerged primarily within a Jewish context, as Christianity spread beyond the confines of Judaism the Eucharistic meal needed to be interpreted in light of Hellenistic culture as well.
As Christianity made inroads with the wider and dominant Hellenistic culture, the understanding of the Eucharist had to adapt to a different cultural setting. Without compromising its essential Jewish roots, the early Church was able to translate the significance of the Eucharistic meal to a people unfamiliar with the concept of Jewish rituals. Though at the most basic level the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire had some rituals in common with their Jewish counterparts, such as sacrificing to the gods, each ultimately had very different reasons for doing so. In contrast to Judaism which stressed a moral dimension in their sacrificial rites, sacrifices in the wider Hellenistic culture were often simply a means to appease the gods and petition for certain favors, such as victory in war, and a successful crop. In light of this therefore, Christians had to explore other measures through which the Eucharist could be integrated into the Hellenized world. Thus, we will focus on two significant influences that impacted the understanding of the Eucharist outside of its Jewish context. First, we will discuss the centrality of communal meals in the social settings of Hellenistic culture, especially as a means through which organizations could gather exclusively. Second, we will look at the impact of Greek philosophy and how certain Church fathers utilized specific schools of thought as a means to describe both the reality of the Eucharist and its sacramental effects on the church and her individual members.
Meals and Social Life
One of the important aspects of social life within the Hellenistic world was the centrality of the communal meal. It was in this context that the Eucharist not only expanded, but to a certain extent emerged as well. Like Judaism, meals were significant throughout the ancient world. Although the theology of the Eucharist is primarily derived from a Jewish context, the concept of a gathering meal for members who belonged to a communal organization was fairly common throughout the Mediterranean region. This reality was not exclusive to religion, but was a “medium through which a great variety of social formations created and maintained their identity.” Therefore, the Eucharistic meal which Christians practiced as their form of worship would not have been a foreign introduction to the Hellenistic world. In many ways, because Judaism was considered a member of this broader tapestry of ancient Mediterranean cultures, it could be argued that the Christian communal meal was easily transferable to many of these surrounding cultures, since it was not an unfamiliar practice even outside of religious cults. This would explain the strong emphasis Christians placed on a person’s baptism before they could receive the Eucharist. Such meals in the ancient world would only be available to those who were initiated members.
Therefore, the uniqueness of the Christian worship was not so much the form in which it came, but in the reality that was being celebrated. The hostility to Christian gatherings in Hellenistic culture was not so much a rejection of their exclusiveness, but emerged as a response to what people claimed took place during these rituals. Belief in the physical consumption of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ led to many accusations of cannibalism throughout the pagan culture. While the theology of the Eucharist was perhaps easier to interpret in light of Jewish tradition, it was not as easily understood in Hellenistic culture. Therefore, Christians adopted Hellenistic ways of thinking as a means through which to describe not only the Eucharist but the Christian faith as well.
One of the ways in which the Church fathers attempted to evangelize the Hellenized world was through the use of Greek philosophy in order to bolster the claims made by the Christian faith. This involved a number of Christian beliefs including that of divine reason, Logos, which Christians claimed was fully harnessed in Christ’s incarnation. One significant Church father who used Greek philosophy to explain the reality of the Eucharist was Augustine. In a way radically different from the realist theory, Augustine used Neoplatonism to describe the reality which the Eucharistic elements signify. Platonism, which was a respected philosophy throughout the ancient world, thought that an “image does not exercise more than the function of pointing to the proper spiritual reality.” Augustine believed that in a similar way this was how the Eucharist operated. He did not overtly emphasize the true and present reality of the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine, but instead pointed to their spiritual reality which was meant to “afford…a deepening of one’s being in Christ.” Although Augustine was a firm proponent of this understanding of the Eucharist, the realist theory won over predominantly in the Western Church. His idea of understanding the Eucharist would be revisited and embraced again following the Protestant Reformation, which rejected the sacrifice of the mass, but looked to Augustine to understand its underlying spiritual reality.
Therefore, due to the social norms and significance of ‘the meal’ in the ancient world, the introduction of the Eucharist transitioned easily into the wider Hellenistic culture as Christianity expanded beyond its original Jewish context. Explaining the reality of what the Eucharist meant on the other hand, required the Church fathers to adopt contemporary ways of thinking as a means to reach the wider culture, such as Augustine’s adoption of Neoplatonism as illustrated above.
From the Patristic Era to Modernity
The themes of the Eucharist formulated by the Church fathers were perpetuated and expanded upon throughout Christian history. In Roman Catholicism, many of the beliefs formed above, which developed both in the context of historical circumstances and in light of Christian revelation, were preserved and reformulated in ways which corresponded with changing understandings of reality. Such examples include Thomas Aquinas’ theory of transubstantiation, which applied the contemporary reemergence of Aristotelian philosophy to the transformation of the Eucharistic elements as changing at the level of substance. This formula was eventually adopted by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, in response to the Protestant Reformation which called into question, among other issues, the nature of the Eucharist as sacrifice and the belief in Christ’s real presence. However, as the world in which Christianity dominated became less influenced by Aristotelian philosophy there began to be a need for Christians, especially Catholics, to formulate other means through which believers could comprehend the tangible reality of their encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.
Until the Second Vatican Council, the doctrine of the Eucharist as put forth in the Council of Trent remained the dominant way in which Catholics referred to both the change of the Eucharistic elements and its intended purpose. Over the centuries, especially in response to Protestant criticism, the Church tended to overemphasize the sacrificial reality of the Eucharist to the detriment of its other equally valid aspects, often leading to “an understanding of the mass in very narrow terms.” Catholic theologians, therefore, began to see a need to reinvigorate the theology of the Eucharist. In the early twentieth century this need became more pronounced especially with the rise of modern physics which fundamentally altered the Aristotelian concept of substance. No longer, then, could the term transubstantiation accurately reflect the change that occurs in the consecration of the Eucharist. This development, as Schillebeeckx notes, ultimately “heralded the change from an approach to the Eucharist by way of natural philosophy to the anthropological approach.” Without discarding the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Catholic theologians attempted to redefine its meaning in modern terms of thought.
Schillebeeckx also notes that despite the Council of Trent’s use of transubstantiation to explain the reality of the Eucharist, new ways of interpretation are permissible considering that “Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is…not tied to Aristotelian categories of thought.” This anthropological method approaches the understanding of the Eucharist in what is considered a “bottom up” study of theology. Instead of focusing exclusively on the nature of the elements themselves and how they affect the individual believer and the Church, it begins with the human person and formulates how human perception, methods of communicating, and ways of forming relationships are integral to Christ’s encounter with us in the Eucharist. A number of terms have been introduced to replace the prominence held by transubstantiation in the Catholic lexicon. Though not without its critics, each offers a way of understanding the effectiveness of the Eucharist anew, without contradicting established Catholic dogma. These include the terms “trans-finalisation,” and “trans-signification.” Both focus not so much on the Eucharist’s material reality but on what it effects and signifies.
Aidan Nichols in his book, The Holy Eucharist explains that trans-finalisation is derived from biblical theology which stresses “God’s declaration of his change of purpose in regard to the elements.” Therefore bread and wine, originally meant for the purposes of nourishing the body physically, become by the words of consecration the means through which the body is nourished spiritually. While perhaps emphasizing different aspects, this theory is similar to Ambrose of Milan’s explanation that the Eucharistic elements are transformed by the word of God. As discussed earlier, Ambrose identifies Christ as the definitive creator of all reality who by his word speaks the earth into existence and transforms the elements of bread and wine. In a similar way, trans-finalisation refers to the action on the part of God who changes the elements by his word and intention. It is through these means that we encounter Christ in the Eucharist.
The second terminology used, and which has developed more extensively than the former, is the idea of trans-signification. This circles back to the fundamental understanding of the Eucharist as a sacramental sign, which brings about what it signifies. Whereas trans-finalisation was based on biblical theology, trans-signification is derived from the study of phenomenology which, according to Nichols, “is an account of being as meaning.” This discipline is focused, not so much on the nature of reality but on the “significance of being for a human participator.” A primary area of study in this field is the importance of symbolism in human interaction. The meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist, therefore, is mediated through the symbol which we encounter. Catholic theologians in this area, however, have been careful not to stray into thinking that the symbol of the Eucharist is only a representation of something not actually present. One of the means through which Schillebeeckx explains this idea of “symbol” is in the understanding of the human body “based on a view of man which is not dualistic.” The body and soul are not distinct from one another, instead the soul is made present through its animation of the body. Thus, the body in a real sense becomes the visible “symbol” of the soul. In a similar way, this logic is applied to the Eucharistic elements, the instruments through which Christ “continues [his] incarnation by choosing certain things…as extensions of his humanity.” While different in some respects, this idea possesses a unique combination of both Augustine’s emphasis of the Eucharist as symbolic and Ignatius of Antioch’s emphasis on the link between the Eucharist and the incarnation.
The change of the elements’ significance then, is not in relation to the physical realm but to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Since symbols are human constructs, Jesus Christ communes with us through the realm of our perception. John H. McKenna refers to this as an interpersonal encounter in his book, Become What You Receive and lists three factors which are essential: degrees of presence, bodily presence, and symbolic actions. The first two are dependent upon the level of a persons’ response towards another and the forms of expression one engages in when encountering and developing a relationship. If a person fails at either of these things, there is no chance for a full encounter, especially with Christ in the Eucharist. Ones disposition towards the sacrament, therefore, is essential to gaining the fullness of grace it bestows. This does not mean, however, that Christ’s presence only depends on a person’s level of engagement with the sacrament, but instead that the complete benefits of a full encounter with Christ are not obtained if both recipients are not mutually engaged. The last is symbol, as discussed above, which in this understanding not only “makes present what [it] expresses,” but also derives its meaning from “the giver [Christ] who first and foremost determines the reality of the symbol.” In this way we can see how contemporary ways of understanding reality have led theologians to alter their ways of thinking about the nature of the Eucharist, while maintaining the Christian truth of the real presence and unifying power of the Eucharistic meal.
The early Church fathers developed their theologies of the Eucharist within the context and language of cultural and historical circumstances. The institution of the Eucharist itself was the product of its time, in which meals were a significant aspect of religious and social life. The Jewish and Hellenistic cultures impacted the way in which the Church fathers interpreted the Eucharist for both those outside and inside the Christian community. The elements such as its sacrificial nature, the reality of Christ’s real presence, and its fulfillment of the messianic banquet, were all in keeping with the Christian understanding that Christ reconciled humanity with God, and now in his exalted state extends this salvation sacramentally under the forms of bread and wine. In keeping with this tradition, contemporary theologians have once again taken up the task of trying to describe, with some success, the reality of the Eucharist for an age far removed from the ancient world.
 John H. McKenna, Become What You Receive: A Systematic Study of the Eucharist, (Chicago; Hillenbrand Books, 2012), 182-184.
 Carl A. Volz, Faith and Practice in the Early Church: Foundations for Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), 113.
 Daniel L. Hoffman, “Ignatius and Early Anti-Docetic Realism in the Eucharist,” Fides et Historia 30 (1998): 82, accessed September 17, 2016. Retrieved from: http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/docview/229966308?accountid=14068.
 Gregory of Nyssa, “Catechetical Oration 37,” in Documents in Early Christian History, ed. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975) 194.
 Gregory of Nyssa, “Catechetical Oration 37,” 196.
 Edward J. Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the West, ed., Robert J. Daly (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 17.
 McKenna, Become What You Receive, 196.
 Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies 17.5-18.6,” in Documents in Early Christian Thought, ed. Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 187.
 Edward J. Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the West, 4
 Ibid., 21
 Ibid., 5.
 Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies IV,” 183.
 Dennis King Keenan, “The Sacrifice of the Eucharist,” Heythrop Journal 44 (2003): 190, accessed September 19, 2016. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2265
 Andrew McGowan, “Rethinking Eucharistic Origins,” Pacifica 23 (2010): 179, accessed September 19, 2016. Retrieved from: http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/docview/613345132?accountid=14068.
 Edward J. Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the West, 25.
 David N. Power, The Sacrifice We Offer: The Tridentine Dogma and Its Reinterpretation, (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 152.
 E. Schillebeeckx, The Eucharist (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 94.
 Schillebeeckx, The Eucharist, 102.
 Aidan Nichols, The Holy Eucharist: From the New Testament to Pope John Paul II, (Dublin: Veritas, 1991), 112.
 Nichols, The Holy Eucharist, 113.
 Schillebeeckx, The Eucharist, 99.
 Nichols, The Holy Eucharist, 113.
 McKenna, Become What You Receive, 182-184.
 Ibid., 183-184.
Gregory of Nyssa, “Catechetical Oration 37,” in Documents in Early Christian History, edited by Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, 194-196. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Hoffman, Daniel L. “Ignatius and Early Anti-Docetic Realism in the Eucharist.” Fides et Historia 30 (1998): 74-88. Accessed September 17, 2016. Retrieved from: http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/docview/229966308?accountid=14068.
Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies 17.5-18.6,” in Documents in Early Christian Thought, edited by Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer, 183-187. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Keenan, Dennis King. “The sacrifice of the Eucharist.” Heythrop Journal 44 (2003): 182-204. Accessed September 19, 2016. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2265
Kilmartin, Edward J. The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology. Edited by Robert J. Daly. Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1998.
McGowan, Andrew. “Rethinking Eucharistic Origins.” Pacifica:Journal of the Melbourne College of Divinity 23 (2010): 173-191. Accessed September 19, 2016. Retrieved from: http://jerome.stjohns.edu:81/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/docview/613345132?accountid=14068.
McKenna, John H. Become What You Receive. Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2012.
Nichols, Aidan. The Holy Eucharist: From the New Testament to Pope John Paul II. Dublin: Vertias, 1991.
Power, David N. The Sacrifice We Offer: The Tridentine Dogma and Its Reinterpretation. New York: Crossroad, 1987.
Schillebeeckx, E. The Eucharist. New York: Sheed and Work, 1968.
Volz, Carl A. Faith and Practice in the Early Church. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983.
In the MA program in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, we encourage our students to undertake graduate level research that allows them to connect their coursework to an exploration in which they pursue a topic in greater depth, enhancing their research skills in the process. For our course in ancient Christian theology and history, “The First Six Centuries,” the graduate students are asked to relate their study of the early church to contemporary issues in Christian theology. This is a challenging exercise, as the social and cultural contexts during which a first-century Jewish sect was transformed into a new religion are very different from our own. Where are the continuities in Christian theology across the centuries? How has theology developed and changed? The essays by Lisa Filipek and Kaitlin Stasinski are excellent examples of how to make the past present through theological reasoning. -- Dr. Christopher Denny