What follows are notes on Augustine regarding the Eucharist.
Unlike systematic theologians Augustine did not lay out a set approach to the Eucharist or even an integrated theology of the Eucharist. For most of us it would not be difficult to imagine the liturgy or the precepts of the day as it resembles today's liturgy. The Eucharist was probably offered daily in Hippo. Augustine writes about churches that celebrate weekly and others that celebrate daily. He offers advice that the practice of your local church is what the individual should follow. The Eucharist was always to be celebrated in the morning except for the formalities of Holy Week. The participants would have not eaten prior to the celebration.
Church architecture for Eucharist
We do know that the congregation was likely to have separated by gender upon their arrival at the Church, with men on one side and women on the other side of the Church (City of God, 2.28). It was normal for the designated ranks of the Church to be at the front of the Church; these ranks would include the widows, consecrated virgins, monks and clergy below the order of deacon. There were no seats, just standing room. The rest of the space would then have been filled by the faithful, the penitents and then the catechumens.
When the bishop, presbyters and deacons processed into the Church they filed to the front. Seats were available for the bishop - the presidential chair or cathedra - and for the priests. The priests would sit on benches built into the side walls. The deacons would stand. "The Lord be with you" was the standard introduction by the Bishop and the people replied "And with your spirit".
Liturgy of the Word
As the lector, the reader approached the ambo he would be greeted by the congregation "Peace be with you". As there was not a formalised lectionary, as we have, the choice of readings from the Apostles and the Prophets would be chosen by the Presider. A psalm would be chanted or recited and then a selection of the Gospel would be proclaimed. The Acts of the Martyrs would be proclaimed on their feast day. The bishop would preach from his seat and generally when Augustine preached he would proclaim with one of the scriptural texts opened on his knee.
Preparation for Liturgy of the Eucharist
Following the sermon the porters would usher the catechumens from the church and would then shut and guard the doors. Only the baptised were allowed to be present. The community remained standing throughout the remainder of the service and the Presider would move to the altar. The deacon would introduce each intercessory prayer, the community prayed on the matter in silence and then the Presider would gather and offer the prayer to God. The gifts of bread and wine were often on the altar from the beginning of the service but the faithful would bring forward other gifts often directed to those who we were dependent upon the charity of the Church.
The Eucharistic Prayer looked a lot like our liturgy with the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, the calling down of the Holy Spirit, the sign of the cross over the elements of bread and wine, and the offering of the bread and wine to God. In addition there were found the commemoration of the martyrs, prayers for the dead, prayers for the local clergy and prayer for other bishops with whom they were in communion. The Great Amen was also part of the liturgy. The Our Father (Pater Noster) would seem to have been recited aloud only by the Presider and all would beat their breast as the forgiveness of sins was mentioned. The sign of peace was generally on the lips.
Communion was at the chancel rail, not altar rails but similar. The members of the congregation would and bread was placed in the hand by the presider or deacon. The cup was administered by another minister and the responses were the same as today. The community would chant psalms during this time. The penitents who were at the back of the church throughout the service were barred from being in full communion during their time of purification and so were unable to participate in communion.
We have all these understandings courtesy of an Augustinian scholar, Frans vanderMeer. From these and other writings we can talk about the key ideas of Augustine being found in three key themes: Eucharist as sacrifice, Eucharist as constituting the unity of the Church, and the sacramental quality of the Eucharist.
We also have to remember that Augustine is six hundred years before the doctrine of transubstantiation; it is doubtful that Augustine would have understood the questions and issues to which the doctrine attempted to respond.=
Sacramental Quality of the Eucharist
The reformers of the sixteenth century alleged that the Eucharistic theology of Augustine was merely symbolic.
There are many articles written, most recently by the late Fr Tarsisius van Bavel O.S.A., that indicate that Augustine believed in the Real Presence (of Christ in the Eucharist. But while this might be true it does mean placing words into the mouth of Augustine. What we can say is that John Calvin and Martin Luther use Augustine as the basis of their Eucharistic theology, and that Roman Catholic and Lutheran dialogue on the issues in recent years finds the Augustinian sources supportive of both positions and allows for joint statements to have been made on this topic very early in the ecumenical dialogues.
Augustine would certainly have responded if he had heard the arguments on Real Presence and the later issues of the sixteenth century but that period was a millennium after he was dead. Augustine tells us that signs point to higher realities. Augustine believes that signs are used by God to excite our pursuit of the truth. Signs lead away from the signs to mysterious powers which uplift the spirit. Augustine always followed the invisible realities that are honoured by natural signs. All sacramenta (signs) have Christ as their object for Augustine. Today we use a later philosophical distinctions between signs and symbols. While Augustine is seven centuries before a definition of sacraments and their numbering of seven yet he talks about the outward sign, the invisible reality and that which is combination of sign and reality, the Eucharist in which Christ is truly present. How does he do that?
Eucharist as sacrifice
In the City of God, chapter 10 we get the bulk of our understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice. The true sacrifice is offered "in every act which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship, every act, that is, which is directed to that final Good which makes possible our true felicity." (City of God 10, 6)
The whole community, the community of the baptised - the redeemed - is offered to God by Christ, the eternal High Priest. Christ had offered Himself for us all on the cross. This enables us to be the body, of which Christ is the head. Christ made this offering in the form of a servant, and it is in the form of a servant that Christ is the mediator, the priest and the sacrifice.
In the Eucharist Christ is:
(1) the mediator between God and humankind receiving the sacrifice of the Church (2) the servant who prefers to be the sacrifice rather than receive it (3) the priest who is both the offerer and the offering
In the Eucharist we are joined to one another to make our offering and thus we become one in the Body of Christ.
Today we use the term "communio" to describe this theology and it is a communio of the local church and communion with the saints and with all those who have died. The Eucharist is thus the place where we bring the dead for redemption and thus, for Augustine, we have funeral Masses and we have Masses for the deceased.
Eucharist as Unity of the Church
"Many grains, one loaf."
Augustine preaches to those who have been brought into the Church at Easter in Sermons 227, 229, 229A and 272. He likens each person to a grain of wheat. In any loaf there are many grains. These grains were threshed by the work of many oxen when the gospel was preached to them.
The grains were stored in barns when as catechumens they were held back from participation in the Eucharist. The grains were ground by fasting and the exorcisms such as we would know in the Scrutinies. They were moistened by the waters of baptism and thus shaped into the one loaf. They were baked in the fire of the Holy Spirit into the Lord's loaf of bread. The wine similarly represents the oneness of heart and soul as the many grapes are pressed into the one cup.
"Body of Christ."
Augustine tells the new members that they are now on the table and in the cup along with all the faithful as he quotes from 1 Corinthains 12:27 "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it." When they hear the words "Body of Christ", "Blood of Christ", they say "Amen" because they give their assent to who they are.
Augustine tells them "to be what you see and receive what you are" Sermon 272 and to live as the body of Christ so that their Amen will be true. The Eucharist is the sign of unity, the bond of our very community. It is the place in which we see the other and encounter the Christ, in which we see ourselves and agree to allow Christ to be our head and we to be His Body. AN2339