Baptism, Communion, and the Act of Offering

One sentence has haunted me for more than thirty years. The sentence is a parenthetical remark added to the end of a section in one of the most ancient documents in the history of Christian worship: the third-century source known as The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. This document was among the first of multiple instructional guides on worship written for the ancient church. At the end of its section describing how to prepare people for baptism, there is a concluding sentence noting what baptismal candidates should and should not bring to the font. A mere thirty-six words in the most recent English translation, this sentence teases us with a vision of baptism and communion that turns upside down two common assumptions we in the modern church have about the sacraments.

The haunting sentence reads: “Let there be no other thing that they bring, those who are to be baptized, except each a loaf for the Eucharist, because it is appropriate for those who participate to offer something at that time.”

In the early church the passage would have been unexceptional; it would have haunted no one. Baptized members of the church typically brought the food used in communion; it wasn’t already there, just waiting for them. This practice lasted for centuries before dying out in the Middle Ages. By the second millennium of Christianity, the idea of having the people regularly provide the food for the Eucharist would have seemed strange to congregations, as it probably still does. But there is something to be learned from that thirty-six-word sentence and its ancient practice.

The first is the organic connection between baptism and communion. It is easy for us to think of the two sacraments in isolation, existing in different silos of liturgical practice and consciousness. But it wasn’t that way in the ancient church. Baptism was one’s initiation into the church, the body of Christ, and it led to participation in communion, the sacrament involving the body of Christ. Baptism literally led to communion as the newly baptized were taken from the baptistery into the middle of the community to participate in the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Water culminated in bread and wine. Indeed, in a way, communion was the repeating part of baptism.

And participating in communion was not a passive experience in which one merely received a bit of food. That is the second thing to be learned from ancient practice: communion was not only something worshipers received, but it was also what they were and what they offered. There were no passive consumers here in the ancient church. As baptism had made them part of a priestly people, communion was where worshipers as a priestly people offered to God themselves, their praise and worship, and their bread. Our modern liturgies still speak of this dimension of the sacrament, usually as a statement within the consecratory prayer (though it too easily glides by without much notice). One of the prayers found in The Worship Sourcebook, for example, says, “And here we offer and present to you our very selves to be a living sacrifice” (2nd ed., Faith Alive, 2013).

One way to reclaim the ancient perspective is to reattach communion to all membership rites, including baptism, confirmation, reaffirmation, and even transfers. Let every entrance into a worshiping community, regardless of how one is joining, lead to that community’s table. And let those people bring their bread as they make their commitments to Christ. As the ancient document said, “it is appropriate” for them to do so.

(The sentence referenced from The Apostolic Tradition comes from Paul F. Bradshaw, The Apostolic Tradition Reconstructed: A Text for Students, Joint Liturgical Studies #91 (Norwich, UK: Alcuin Club and The Group for Renewal of Worship, 2021), 23.)

Dr. Lester Ruth is the Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School. He is passionate about studying the history of worship to enrich the worship life of current congregations, regardless of style. He believes that careful reflection on the worship of other Christians—whether past or present, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox—can serve to enrich the church today.

Reformed Worship 142 © December 2021, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.