By now, you know that when you attend Mass on Sunday you are participating as a member of the Body of Christ, which consists of all Christians – past, present, and future. We know that when we participate in the Eucharist, we are doing so in union with our fellow Catholics all over the world. We also stand and kneel at the foot of the same cross with all those in Purgatory and Heaven. However, when you attend Mass, how often do you consider your connection to the earliest members of the Church and understand that you are practicing something that has been exercised for thousands of years?
St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 AD – 165 AD) is a saint to know because he provides us with a valuable witness of early Christian practices, which give us confidence in the accuracy of our current practices. In the early Christian Church, there were many trials due to a misunderstanding of what Christianity actually entailed. There were whispers and rumors of illegal and immoral practices. Christians were accused of atheism because they did not worship the Roman gods. Mostly notably, those in positions of political power feared these new Christians were plotting against them in order to overthrow them. As a result, the early Christians endured persecution and martyrdom at devastating levels.
In an effort to clear up any misunderstandings about what Christianity actually was, St. Justin Martyr wrote two apologies. The first apology was addressed to Antoninus Pius, his sons, and the Roman Senate and the second was addressed only to the Roman Senate. Remember, in this sense, an apology is not an “I’m sorry” but an apologia – a formal defense of an opinion, position, or action. By removing some of the mystery surrounding Christian beliefs and practices, St. Justin hoped to alleviate some of the distrust prevalent amongst the Roman leadership against the Christians, whom they persecuted out of fear. Surely, as you and I go about our day-to-day lives, we do not encounter the same distrust and animosity in the community that those in the first and second centuries faced. So, why are St. Justin’s apologies of any consequence to us today? The answer is that St. Justin’s apologies, of both our beliefs and practices, illustrate that we believe and practice the same things our earliest ancestors believed and that they have been passed down without deviation for over 2,000 years. In other words, as the secular world has endured many changes and evolutions, the Catholic Church has remained steadfast in her teachings and traditions. The Church today is exactly the same Church Jesus established; one which has been protected through the centuries. If you are inspired to read them, the apologies of St. Justin are not long and are available for free on NewAdvent.org. However, I will summarize a few key points here.
St. Justin Martyr refutes the claim of atheism, which at the time, was a serious charge. Justin very boldly starts his defense by agreeing that Christians are, in fact, atheists when dealing with the Roman gods, but then he quickly follows with the Christian definition of the “most true God” who is, “the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from all impurity” (First Apology, Chap. VI). Recall that the Roman gods were imperfect and suffered from various vices and flaws, each according to his or her own personality. That makes this belief in a perfect God quite radical. Justin says that for them to profess faith in any other god would be a lie and therefore impossible if they are to live eternal life with God (First Apology, Chap VIII). We know that our early ancestors were willing to face death for this belief in the one true God.
St. Justin then goes on to spend a great deal of time addressing Jesus as the resurrected Son of God and His teachings, which were not well understood by non-Christians. He credits the demons with being a large part of the problem in the misunderstandings of the Christian religion saying, “For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say” (First Apology Chap XIV). Of course, we are no strangers to the confusion the demons around us continue to stir up to this day, making this statement very relatable even 2,000 years later. Justin provides an overview of the teachings of Jesus — His commands, His call for the repentance of sinners, the call to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart, and the call to love others as He has loved us. As I mentioned earlier, one of the many reasons for the Christian persecutions was due to the fear that they were plotting to overthrow the Roman government. St. Justin addresses this in Chapter XVII of his First Apology, explaining that Jesus taught His followers “civil obedience” by telling them “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
While I have left much of St. Justin’s words out here, it is important to move on to some of his descriptions of Christian practices. Chapter LXI of the First Apology is dedicated to the practice of Christian Baptism:
Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and the Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water.
He explains that this is necessary because sin has been passed down through parents for generations. By participating in Baptism, we become re-born and conform ourselves to Jesus Christ.
In the final chapters of his First Apology, St. Justin addresses the reception of Sacraments, the Eucharist, and the Mass. If you read nothing else, consider reading Chapters LXV, LXVI, and LXVII to gain a complete understanding of how little has changed in over 2,000 years. He explains that Christians gather together on Sundays to pray together, worship together, and participate in the Eucharist together. He says, “Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss” (Chap LXV). This should evoke the sign of peace we give to one another at every Mass.
There is then brought to the president (presbyter or priest) of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he, taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands” (Chap. LXV).
Do these words from the second century sound familiar to you?
In terms of our Catholic faith and understanding of the Eucharist, Chapter LXVI may be the most important chapter, as St. Justin explains that the Eucharist is, in fact, the flesh and blood of Jesus and not just a symbol:
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh, by transmutation, are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
I cannot emphasize enough that the earliest Christians believed in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist and that they were, quite literally, partaking of His flesh and blood. The idea that the Eucharist is merely a symbol was a corruption of Jesus’ original teaching, which was introduced much later by man. How might St. Justin’s words about the Eucharist affect your understanding of it all these generations later?
The next time you attend Mass, consider your connection to those who laid the path for you. What we take for granted today is something for which those before us were willing to lay down their lives. Consider, is your faith so strong that you’d be willing to lay down your very life to defend it? Ask God to give you the strength and conviction to defend your Faith in the example of St. Justin Martyr. While at Mass, thank St. Justin Martyr and those like him for what they sacrificed for you to be there. After all, they are all right there worshipping with you at the foot of the same cross.