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Some Thoughts on St. Justin Martyr

February 15, 2018

I remember when, in college, in the spirit of curiosity driven by faith, I began to ask the question "what did the earliest Christians believe and how did they worship Jesus?" This question drove me, like so many countless others I've encountered over the last decade or so, to the testimonies of those earliest believers - the followers of "the Way." I discovered Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and others. These were the believers who learned at the feet of the Apostles themselves, in particular John, the "beloved disciple."
 
I love scholarly examinations of history, but as a history major I had grown to love primary documents much more. Imagine my surprise when I discovered accounts like those of Saint Justin Martyr, a philosopher in the mid 2nd Century, who wrote prolifically about the beliefs and practices of the early Christians to several people in an attempt to correct and/or clarify their perceptions of Christ's followers. He even wrote to the Emperor Antoninus Pius himself, as Christians were coming under persecution for, among other things, the accusation that they were cannibals! Christian worship was guarded and hidden as much as possible in these times, but word had slipped out that these people were eating flesh and drinking blood at their religious gatherings. Justin sought to elaborate:

 

“This food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as  Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.(First Apology, Ch. 66, inter A.D. 148-155)

 

Justin's efforts are very early examples of what became known as "apologetics" from the Greek word "apologia" - not "apologizing" but rather explaining something, in this case the centerpiece of the earliest Christian worship. 

 

Notice how he speaks of what he and previous generations have "been taught." Saint Paul referenced this when he reminded the Thessalonian Christians to "hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15). Christ established the Church, and  he planted this teaching authority in the apostles he appointed to oversee the transmission of the faith ("bishop" = "overseer").

 

Centuries later, the successors of the apostles would oversee the formal assembly of the bible and approve its use for all believers, primarily in the context of formal, liturgical community worship. I am ever more convinced of just how essential it is to understand the centrality and primacy of the Church and what she has passed down through the teaching authority of the apostles and their successors, at the heart of which is the ancient and firm belief in the real, true and substantial presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, "body, blood, soul and divinity." When Catholics and Orthodox Christians celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we truly and literally receive into our very bodies the same flesh and blood that died for us on Calvary - we receive Jesus Christ himself.

 

I love Christ and the Church he promised would overcome even the gates of Hell - the Church that Paul describes as "the Bride of Christ" and the Church that, despite war, global conflict, and even terrible corruption within her members has stood for 2000 years. PRAISED BE JESUS CHRIST! NOW AND FOREVER...

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